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Tattoo artists put the guns down for multiple sclerosis

In living color: “Black Ink Crew” regular Tiffany Winter hosted an art exhibition in Bedford-Stuyvesant on March 14.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Cast members from a reality show about an out-of-control tattoo parlor put down the tattoo guns this weekend to hawk more traditional art in Bedford-Stuyvesant and help raise money to fight multiple sclerosis.

The usually raucous cast of VH1’s “Black Ink Crew” mellowed out for a fund-raiser to benefit people who suffer from multiple sclerosis at the Bishop art gallery on Friday. One of the show’s occasional cast members, Tiffany Winter, suffers from the autoimmune disease and organized the event.

“To be able to bring people out for a good cause is really empowering,” said Tiffany Winter, the manager of Manhattan’s Black Ink Tattoo Studio, where the show is set, and sister of the ink shop’s owner Caesar.

Sassy, another character on the show, hosted the exhibit titled “The Indigo Factory” on March 14 at the gallery on Bedford Avenue between Myrtle and Willoughby avenues. Money raised during the event went to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, a national organization that helps fund research and provides programs to help people living with the illness.

Around 150 people came out to the show, according to an organizer. The bash featured visual artists Ronald Draper, Miya Bailey, and Corey Davis, and music from XRS, Nello Luchi, and Justina Valentine, along with others, and raised $300 for the cause. “Blank Ink Crew” members Puma and Walter also stopped by.

In addition to raising funds, Winter wanted to share the story of her struggle with the disease.

“It’s really a message of hope when someone who’s living with the disease is out here in the community,” said Liz Samurovich, a spokeswoman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Doctors diagnosed Winter with the illness in 2008, but she started feeling the symptoms two years before, when she suddenly lost vision in her left eye. She soon started having problems with sensation in her hands and legs, and finally had trouble controlling her bladder. All the while, doctors had trouble figuring out what was wrong.

“I thought I was going crazy,” said Winter. “I’m 20 years old and I can’t hold my bladder — it was embarrassing.”

After finally getting diagnosed, Winter was put on medication and started supplementing her diet with vitamins. Her hands and feet still tingle all the time, but it is much better than it was, she said. The hardest thing now is that people usually have no idea what her condition entails.

“It’s an invisible disability,” Winter said. “You look fine, so people have no idea what you’re going through.”

Flare-ups of multiple sclerosis can be brought on or exacerbated by stress, which Winter says is tough at work in the tattoo parlor.

“The most stressful thing is dealing with the artists,” she said.

The antics on “Black Ink Crew” are always dramatic, and often rise to all-out fights or shouting matches. The drama recently spilled into the courtroom when a former cast member and shop receptionist sued producers and the music network’s corporate owners, saying that she and a friend who did not appear on the show were slipped date-rape drugs by show employees during filming. Lawyers for the media companies have sought to have the lawsuit thrown out.

Winter says she likes working on the show, but that it sends people a bad message.

Her work for the Multiple Sclerosis Society lets her do something she can feel good about, she said.

“I wanted to do something different,” Winter said. “I wanted to do something positive and encouraging.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.

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