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Las Vegas tattoo artist’s sudden death shocks clients

Colin DeFrate thought he had a headache.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the 53-year-old tattoo artist — whose work has appeared on Las Vegas locals and Hollywood celebrities alike — was watching football in his southwest valley home. But the pain was persistent.

So he clicked off the game Dec. 1 and retreated upstairs, where he curled up with his wife, Sita DeFrate, and tried to nap it off.

She rubbed his head, which rested on her lap, and he fell asleep. A comedy show played on the bedroom TV.

The pain grew sharper, though, and he woke back up. She tried rubbing his neck, but he took over, vigorously rubbing it himself, then his head — just above his right ear.

“Did you take Aleve?” she asked. No reply.

He tried to get out of bed, but struggled, then fell forward. He wasn’t responding, so she grabbed her phone to call an ambulance.

“Don’t call 911,” he said, his words slurred, like he was drunk, but he hadn’t been drinking.

She called 911 anyway.

Paramedics guessed it was a stroke. Colin DeFrate was conscious, but the left side of his body — including the left hand he tattooed with — was paralyzed. They loaded him into an ambulance.

It was the last time Sita DeFrate saw her husband awake. He died at Spring Valley Hospital on Dec. 6, removed from life support five days after doctors determined a massive, catastrophic aneurysm had left him brain dead.

“All the rest of his tests were perfectly healthy, perfectly good — everything was great,” his wife told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week. “No heart disease, no kidney problems, no liver problems — nothing.”

She paused to cry, collecting herself with a nervous laugh.

“Just the brain,” she said through tears. “And if you don’t have that, there’s nothing you can do. There’s no coming back.”

Clients became friends

For the last eight years, DeFrate worked at West Coast Tattoo Parlor on the Strip, where in the wake of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting in 2017, he helped raise $12K for victims by inking a flurry of “Vegas Strong” tattoos.

His wife said he loved creating portraits, and he specifically liked designing pirates, Victorian imagery, and anything steampunk or trash polka, a black-and-red style of tattoo created out of Germany that usually features lettering and photorealistic-yet-surreal designs.

“If you had an idea, but you couldn’t get it out of your brain, he could kind of get it out of your brain — like, ‘Yep, that’s what I want,’” his wife said. “It was amazing.”

Before his move to Las Vegas, DeFrate spent years working at Studio City Tattoo in Los Angeles, on Ventura Boulevard, where he tattooed celebrities like Frances Bean Cobain, the daughter of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. She later invited DeFrate to her birthday party, which he and his wife attended, his wife said.

Stories like that are no surprise to those who knew DeFrate. He treated each client, famous or not, with attention and care, his coworker Cassie Dickman said. Even the older ladies who came in for small, one-off pieces loved him, teasing — with a flirt — that he looked like Johnny Depp, with his dark hats, his leather boots, his pinky rings that still managed to look cool.

Often, the clients who kept coming back became his friends, like Scotti Hughes.

Hughes, 31, had been going to DeFrate for years, and in that time, DeFrate logged more than 54 hours of work on her body — several small and medium pieces, but also a back piece, a thigh piece and a work-in-progress sleeve.

“He was a very respectful guy,” Hughes told the Review-Journal. “He – he’s not like most tattoo artists that I’ve met around town, or anywhere. When he met his clients, he was invested. It wasn’t just another piece for him. It wasn’t just for the money. And it was amazing, getting to have an artist like that.”

DeFrate even checked in on Hughes after her mother died about a year ago, she said. The next time Hughes came into the shop, DeFrate showed her a memorial tattoo design that he had drawn on his own time. She was hoping to schedule a session for that piece when she learned DeFrate had been hospitalized.

On the shop’s Facebook page, and a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $9,000 for DeFrate’s family, other longtime clients commented with shock and support at the news of DeFrate’s death, including Vance Lemley Orlando.

In 2016, DeFrate tattooed a large memorial piece for Lemley Orlando that incorporated his father’s ashes.

“He and I sprinkled the ashes in the ink in a traditional manner,” Lemley Orlando’s comment read, “and from that point on he made every session as spiritual and meaningful as the first.”

Meant to tattoo

Michelle Paul, the director of The Practice Mental Health Clinic at UNLV, said even if two people aren’t close, grief is defined by the individual and the impact he or she had on those around them. So while DeFrate’s wife and adult son are rightfully reeling, it makes sense why his clients may be mourning him too.

A tattoo artist, like a hair dresser, is someone who, over the course of time and conversation, can become intertwined in your life, Paul said.

“I’ve been going to the same hair stylist for years,” Paul said. “I know her kids’ names. She knows my kids’ names. We’re sort of touching base, going through life together.”

“In this case,” she said of DeFrate, “there are folks who really feel a connection to this individual who imprinted on them — literally — his art, and they carry with them a piece of him always.”

When DeFrate wasn’t tattooing, his wife said he was always thinking up new designs. Even while watching TV, he usually had a tablet in front of him, drawing.

“He’s one of the lucky ones that found that thing that they were meant to do,” she said.

Since the day her husband was hospitalized, friends and relatives have made sure Sita DeFrate isn’t alone, especially during the holiday season. She is grateful for the outpouring of support.

Knowing that her husband helped save lives through organ donation also brings her comfort. But the shock of his death still doesn’t feel real.

“We’ve been together since 1993,” she said, crying, “and I don’t know any other life outside of that.”

Memorial services for DeFrate are being planned through West Coast Tattoo Parlor. Those who wish to attend may check the shop’s Facebook page for more information.

To view DeFrate’s work, visit @sixfeet_deep on Instagram.

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter.

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