"That looks awesome," says the girl sprawled out on the cream-colored chair, the buzz of the tattoo artist's needle fading into the background like the blades of an ascending helicopter.
Glistening just below her breasts are the words "Lace Up" encased in a black outline of the state of Ohio. Leaning over her is Machine Gun Kelly, his arms covered in interlocking designs that seem to go on for miles. He's chatting with the girl about the Blink-182 concert where they met not 24 hours ago. She spotted Kelly sitting in the front row, and the two had a brief conversation before going their separate ways.
He never expected to see her again until he walked into Ohio City Tattoo, a nondescript parlor on Lorain Avenue that you won't track down unless you're looking very hard for it. That's where he found her, getting his motto etched under her tits.
She's hardly the only one. The Cleveland rapper's Facebook page and Twitter feed are bursting with fans posting pictures of their own Lace Up tattoos. The phrase calls for everybody to just be themselves, and it's become the mantra for what Kelly calls his "cult following," the group responsible for his meteoric rise over the past year. The 2010 release of his mixtape Lace Up (you were expecting something else?) strapped a jetpack to Kelly that's shot him in the general direction of international stardom. This summer he inked his first label deal, with Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy, an imprint of industry giant Interscope Records.
Kelly follows the well-worn script of the troubled young rapper being handed nothing and turning it into quite a lot. Born Colson Baker, he endured an adolescence on Cleveland's East Side that played like ghetto Monopoly: Here, the Chance cards read Get your ass out of Dad's house and You got jumped on the RTA. But the kid who came of age in Shaker Heights High School? There's very little left of him now.
"I think God had a plan for Lace Up," Kelly says. "I was making music to save myself, and it ended up saving everybody else."
The needle begins to whir again as Machine Gun Kelly takes his turn in the chair, his bare chest exposing what must be hundreds of tattoos all huddled together on a sinewy frame. A spider's abdomen encircles his right nipple. Pac-Man chases a yellow dot across his collarbone. The name "Casie" — the two-year-old daughter he had with his onetime girlfriend — runs along his rib cage in black ink, the lettering rendered in swooping cursive.
Today, Kelly will add the words "Locals Only" just below his ribs. It will be done up — like almost all of his bodywork — by Alfonso "Cev" Ceven, the owner of Ohio City Tattoo. Like the "216" that runs down his right arm, the latest ink is yet another glimpse into the complicated web that is Machine Gun Kelly's life and the city he was unceremoniously dropped into — the one he, unlike other icons before him, refuses to leave behind.
But it took Kelly a while to morph into the honest, loyal, filthy-mouthed storyteller he is today. Onstage or off, in person or on Twitter, he struggles to string together more than two sentences without muttering a "fuck" here then a "motherfucker" there. His descriptions of his sexual exploits — whether beamed out online or scrawled into a reporter's notebook — should come with their own TV-MA rating.
In spite of all that, he is well spoken, he's prolific, and he's as worldly as a man of 21 could likely be. Born in Houston, he took on the life of a nomad, following his father on a series of odd jobs and missionary adventures in places like Germany, Egypt, and Chicago. When Kelly was nine, his mother ran off with a college professor she'd been screwing for some time. So he lived solely with his dad, whom he remembers as a son of a bitch whose temper overflowed if young Colson so much as held his pen the wrong way. The two often got into verbal altercations that escalated into violence.
"He grew up without a father," Kelly says of his dad, his tone turning conciliatory. "His father got shot in the head in front of him. That would fuck me up for life too.
"That's why I grew up with this giant 'fuck authority' type mentality. He gave me a choice when I was a kid: He was like, 'You can grow up and either get a car or you can grow up and get a tattoo.' And I was like, 'I'm going to grow up and get a tattoo.'"
In 2004, when Kelly was 14, another of Dad's new jobs delivered the splintered family from Colorado to Cleveland. He arrived with little more than music for encouragement, his emerging style of rap an amalgam of the artists who clearly influenced him: His lightning-strike delivery harked back to early DMX, his witty punch lines and emphasis on specific words echoed Ludacris, and the openness with which he rhymed about his already sordid past conjured Tupac.
After failing his freshman year in Colorado, Kelly's Cleveland schooling began in classes filled with kids a year younger than he was. As a sophomore roaming the halls of Shaker Heights High, Kelly could have been mistaken for a modern-day monk. His blond hair, buzzed to almost nonexistence these days, back then unraveled to his shoulders. Headphones hugged his ears tightly and a fuck you expression had settled permanently across his face.
He was an awkward, antisocial white kid trying to rap in a predominantly black school, and he became an easy target for fights, robberies, and whatever else fellow classmates threw his way.
"I remember in math class one time, this kid came up and just balled my shit up, threw it all on the fucking floor," Kelly says. "That was a huge memory for me, when this kid threw all my raps on the floor.
"And it's the same kid now — he's always at our parties," he adds with some measure of satisfaction. "He'll always beg me for stuff."
As Kelly stumbled from his sophomore into his junior year, he worked harder at getting his name out on the music scene than he did in any of his classes. He would play small shows at the Grog Shop and Peabody's, and he would rap 60 bars for anyone who would listen, in hopes they would buy a ticket.
Those who took the bait were treated to raucous affairs, complete with Kelly crowd-surfing, mounting speakers and ledges, and dancing about as if he were succumbing to a seizure. If it was Colson Baker who first took the stage, it was Machine Gun Kelly who strode off it.
"I was hungry, man," he says. "I was so fucking hungry." At around the same time, he took a job at an airbrush shop at Tower City, where he would pass out his music to customers and begin to build word of mouth.
Back at school, he spent his senior year laboring through a series of freshman-level classes — in addition to honors physics, of all things.
"I think he's always had a chip on his shoulder, being a white kid. He feels he has to doubly prove himself every single time — not just that he can be a rapper, but that he can be a white kid that raps," says physics teacher James Schmidt, whose first encounter with Kelly almost led to blows: When Kelly was a sophomore, Schmidt confiscated his iPod, and the irate student tried to follow him out into the hallway to retrieve it.
Kelly forgot about the altercation until Schmidt jogged his memory two years later.
"I retold him the story, and he was like 'Oh my God, I totally remember that. I am so sorry, I feel so terrible that I was such a punk,'" Schmidt remembers hearing.
Kelly, too, remembers holding Schmidt in high regard.
"I was only a hard worker for him because he was the only teacher that was down and would encourage me, and didn't judge me because of my tattoos or my lifestyle," he says. "He was a father figure to me when I went to high school."
By spring, Kelly earned a diploma few thought he would ever grasp.
"It was really exciting for me, because me and my dad didn't think I was going to make it to graduate high school. If you see my high school picture, you will see how happy I was — it's the goofiest picture ever."
But within days of graduation, Kelly got into a brawl with his drunken father, who at one point tried to choke him. Eighteen and directionless, Kelly took to the streets.
After a week on his own, he turned to Brandon "Slim" Allen, a producer he'd met a few weeks earlier in a house on East 120th and Union that he'd been using as a recording studio.
"He calls me and is like 'Yo, are you trying to move in with me?'" Allen remembers hearing. He answered yes, figuring the two would find a place when the time was right.
"Next morning he showed up at my mom's house with a U-Haul truck," Allen says.
Soon after, Kelly had found an apartment on East 128th, in a decent part of East Cleveland, and he got a job making burritos at Chipotle — a job he promptly lost shortly after moving in. Kelly and Allen found themselves starving for food and money, their only meal the 20 chicken wings Allen would bring home from his job at Speedy's corner store each night at 12:30.
From there, the dominoes began to fall swiftly: Kelly and Allen were evicted, and Kelly's girlfriend got pregnant. Panicked and desperate, he tried his hand at selling weed in East Cleveland, but got out after being robbed a month later.
But if Kelly's day-to-day existence was in shambles, his music was finding fuel amid the misery.
"This cat is probably one of the most loyal people I've ever met," Cev says without looking up, his focus on the blood-red ink he is burrowing into Kelly's stomach. He has become the rapper's go-to guy for body art, although Kelly could have his pick of many others.
"He's got famous people offering him free tattoos, flying him out. He'll still call me and run it by me and ask me how I feel about it. I'm like, if it's not this guy or that guy, I'm not really into it. And he was like 'OK, I respect that' and won't do it. For a young guy to hold loyalty in such a high regard, to me, it said a lot about his character and let me know I could go above and beyond for him as an individual."
Cev has finished the word "Locals" in red ink, with part of each letter dripping down Kelly's stomach as if a psychopath had carved it into his own skin. For a moment, Kelly stands up to admire it in the mirror.
As Cev goes to work on "Only," Kelly doesn't so much as flinch. His body lay motionless, his face solemn, as he wanders off into talk about the women who rescued him.
Machine Gun Kelly was standing on a chair when he first encountered Ashleigh VeVerka in 2008. She worked for the Ohio Hip-Hop Awards, and Kelly was trying his damnedest to get noticed by somebody — anybody — at the group's new-music seminar in Cleveland.
Ashleigh was drawn to his energy and his passion, but mostly to his insanity. He was looking for management, and she was looking for something other than the usual too-cool-for-school rapper. An accounting major in college at the time, she decided that day to take a chance on managing Kelly instead. They were a perfect fit.
"His passion for his art and the way that he believes in himself really works," she says. "It is like none other, and that was the first time I got to see that this kid is crazy — but crazy in a good way."
"I saw a white lady with blond hair and said, 'You must be someone important!'" Kelly says with a laugh. "She ended up having faith."
As Kelly revealed to Ashleigh his state of disarray, she took the story home to her mother. Heartbroken and moved, Bridget VeVerka moved out of the Mayfield Heights apartment she shared with her three children and bought a house in town that would shelter them and her daughter's new friends.
Kelly, Allen, and Allen's brother all were welcomed into the fold by VeVerka, a white suburban mom caring for the unlikeliest assortment of boarders their Mayfield neighborhood had ever seen.
Bridget, 51, had experienced hardships of her own, raising three children mostly by herself. Bringing in three more seemed to rejuvenate her spirit.
"I don't know ... being a mom, it broke my heart," says Bridget, who endearingly refers to Kelly as Colson or simply K. "I wanted him to feel family and just the whole unconditional love and support that every kid should have, so I was able to provide for him."
"She's my mom, man," Kelly says of Bridget VeVerka. "She deserves it all. She 100 percent saved my life."
Kelly's new mom quickly grew to marvel at his work ethic. The VeVerkas' basement became a studio — the place where he would cut his formative first mixtape, 2010's 100 Words and Running. It was an introduction for most to Kelly's exhaustingly fast style of rapping, and it boasted a hit single — "What It Seems" — that was produced by Allen. After years of frequenting Cleveland studios that they couldn't afford, recording songs with the sound quality of an 8-track, Kelly and Allen now had their sanctuary. They also had a new name for themselves: the EST (short for "Established") crew, which includes among its ranks Ashleigh and Allen's brother.
After the release of 100 Words and Running, Kelly came down with a serious throat problem — so severe that a doctor at one point asked him to choose between rapping and keeping his voice. He came to Bridget, terrified of what the future would hold if he couldn't rap again. All she could do was laugh.
"I knew it was going to happen — I've always known," she says, sloughing off the notion that Kelly's career would be sidetracked. "He literally would buy studio time before he would buy himself something to eat. It was just a matter of time."
Sure enough, rap won out, Kelly's throat trouble eventually subsided, and the Lace Up mixtape — released later in 2010 — set Machine Gun Kelly's star ablaze. His work caught the eye of Diddy, who invited the EST crew to Vegas to celebrate the new year. In March of this year, Diddy took in one of Kelly's shows at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. One month later, Kelly sold out the House of Blues in Cleveland, the crowd pushing to get closer to the stage, shrieking back every filthy lyric of his songs.
Finally, on August 3, Kelly and his crew were flown to New York to sign a two-album contract with Bad Boy/Interscope, as Diddy and label chairman Jimmy Iovine looked on.
Kelly likes to say that he tailored his record deal around his fans, and that he signed with Diddy because of the freedom he was given to make a project that felt right to him. His debut album, cut mostly in the basement at VeVerka's house, is finished and set for release in early 2012. It too will be called Lace Up.
In his music, Kelly constantly refers to himself as a "rager" — it even wormed its way into the title of his latest mixtape, Rage Pack, which dropped just last week. But the term has earned him controversy from another rapper who got his start in Cleveland. Kid Cudi took a veiled shot at Kelly on Tumblr for his usage of "rager" — a word Cudi believes he coined. Kelly responded by calling out Cudi for bailing on C-Town.
"I blew up in the city. He blew up in Brooklyn. That's what makes me upset," Kelly says. "My other thing is like, you are older than me, you are more successful than me. You are supposed to be looking at me and big-upping me. I've been a rager since I came out of my mother's vagina."
It was one August afternoon in Cev's tattoo parlor that Kelly brewed his most volatile move yet. Fresh from inking his label deal and briefly off the touring circuit, he found himself bored and craving face time with his fans. So he tweeted to his 98,000 followers that he wanted to host a flash mob — the newest of dirty words among Northeast Ohio law enforcement over the summer of 2011.
On the afternoon of August 20, thousands of fans swarmed to SouthPark mall in Strongsville. Dressed all in black, their faces covered with phony mustaches and beards, the EST crew sneaked in through JCPenney — the only entrance not already blocked by police, who had gotten wind of Kelly's plans.
With megaphone in hand, the rapper mounted a table near the food court as fans began to shriek with delight. But as quickly as he stepped up, he was yanked down by police. The roar of the crowd gave way to chants of "M-G-K!" Kelly was held down by police, then led, handcuffed and shirtless, out of the mall as a wave of fans ran after him.
Machine Gun Kelly had left the building. But more assuredly, he had arrived.
Kelly had just finished up a 2009 show in Cleveland when he rushed to the hospital just in time. His then-girlfriend gave birth to a girl that they named Casie. Overwhelmed with emotion, Kelly broke down and cried.
Two years later, he is no longer as close with the mother as he once was, but Kelly recently purchased a home for her and Casie. "I got them a crib before I got myself a crib," he says. "That's something I'm really proud of."
It was a token of manhood from a man who had no playbook to learn from, a proud father with no real father of his own.
"I think about that shit all the time," Kelly says in a sober voice, when asked about reconnecting with his dad, who has since jumped town again — this time to Africa. "But he is so hard to talk to."
In his song "The Return," from the Lace Up mixtape, the torment he bears is nothing short of searing:
You saw your son as a dropout,
stuck around when I ran
Saw your son as a felon
now see your son as a man.
See your son be a father,
to a beautiful child
Or just see your son, Dad,
see me smile.
The song is Bridget VeVerka's favorite — and the one that first stirred her to tears.
As for Kelly's birth mother? That relationship may be beyond repair. He last saw her in 2009 when she showed up unannounced at one of his performances at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. After an uncomfortable exchange of pleasantries, they went their separate ways, a mother and son nothing more than strangers passing on the street.
Afterward, Kelly's friends began to remark on how much he resembled the lady who stopped by, and he too didn't miss the connection.
"It kind of hurt, because I'm sitting here [with] this person that looks like me ... you just want to be close to them," he says. "I want to be on the road and be able to call back home to somebody, but I can't. While on the road, good shit happens and everyone always calls their families, and I don't have anyone. It kind of sucks, man."
And so Kelly continues to grow up in his own, often unbounded way. A typical day can be like a scene out of Entourage: heading to lunch (his favorite haunts around town include Famous G's, Speedy's, Hannini's, and Sushi Rock), buying shot after shot at bar after bar (though his wealth has yet to match his fame), then heading back to the hotel to finish a bottle of Patron. He drinks before he goes onstage, then he drinks some more while he's on it. He might piss in the fountain in the hotel lobby, and he'll almost surely have sex with a fan — and to be clear, Kelly only fucks fans. Then he wakes up and does it all over again.
"I'm always concerned," says Ashleigh VeVerka, her tone slipping into manager mode, but with the endearing echo of her mother's words.
"Not only is he raging and partying and all of that, but that's after all of his work is done. I feel that I remind him, like, 'You're human, you really go twice as hard as everyone around you, and you do it twice as much.' But he goes hard, and he's not slowing down anytime soon."
"Most kids think you've got to leave here to be successful, and I always say, 'Well, look what MGK did,'" Cev says. "He has people coming here. You don't have to leave in order to be successful. You just have to be true to who you are."
These days, Cleveland's hip-hop scene is flourishing, boasting established artists like Kid Cudi and Chip Tha Ripper, while a handful of up and comers wait their turn. But none of them has had this much buzz so early. None of them had this much talent, or this much of a bond with fans.
Lying in the chair at Ohio City Tattoo, Machine Gun Kelly looks tired. His eyes are baggy and his face is worn after two straight days of drinking. He wants to rest, but he can't — the fans won't let him. Besides, he has a reputation to live up to.
"It's just about what you can tolerate and what you can fight off," he says wearily. "And what demons you don't want to haunt you."