Tampa is a quilt. It’s comprised of varying patchwork (some parts patchier than others), contrasting colors, different textures and the occasional glitch in the stitching. But it’s all more or less held together by a common thread: Ybor City. Whether you’ve been in Tampa for three days or 30 years, there‘s a high possibility you’ve taken a stroll down the jungle of 7th street at least once, either for a steaming cup of Cuban coffee from King Corona or just the simple pleasure of people-watching. Ybor, for the love of all that’s cliché, is a melting pot of countless personalities and untold stories.
Luna has worked as a belly dancer at Acropolis for eight years. Growing up in Pennsylvania, she sought out a way to embrace her Palestinian roots at age 13 after watching dancers on TV.
“My father bought a restaurant when I was a little girl, and every Wednesday we had a belly dancer,” Luna said sitting outside after work, hands tucked away from the cold in the pockets of her leather jacket. “It was my first time seeing it live and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I could do this!’”
She took her very first class in Tampa after her father retired from the army and moved down south, and her time here since has been a seamless balance of both positive and negative feedback—proof that fusing two different cultures isn’t always an easy feat.
“There’s definitely people who don’t understand the dance, and there’s a lot of people who kind of place us in the category of strippers. But whenever that happens I just do my best to lift their spirits and let them know that this is an art. The best part is definitely the people who get up and join me. I once had a woman celebrating her 92nd birthday get up and dance with me, and she was great! I hope she comes back again next year.”
“If you want to work for the government, you have to play by their rules. So I left.” Ahmed Mustapha moved to Tampa from Egypt after attending Assuit University. Formerly a journalist of five years during the revolution in Egypt, Mustapha now works as a cashier at the family owned Ybor City Supermarket on 7th Street, where he evidently sees equally disturbing happenings on a daily basis. From the shooting that occurred just down the street from him in 2012 during Gasparilla, to the frequent thefts, Mustapha’s developed a unique philosophy about pushing through the day-to-day.
“Every week we catch people stealing things from us, but we just take it back from them, kick them out and that’s it. You never know what to expect here. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned: you gotta let it go. Just let it go.”
When you really start to think about it, the bar-to-tattoo-parlor ratio in Ybor City doesn’t seem all that coincidental. Bo has been an artist at Atomic Tattoo since this past Fourth of July, and with the shop located in the heart of 7th Street, he could probably paint a portrait of a drunken man requesting a tattoo while blindfolded.
“Last night I had a guy come in here to get his eyelids tattooed. He got ‘Stay True’ and already had ‘Pure Hate’ written across his knuckles. But I mean, the worst tattoos that people get? Probably the infinity signs with the anchors that say ‘Never Sink.’ Because I mean, you’re kind of infinitely sinking.”
However, Bo strongly advocates staying true to your tattoo ideas, and to even go at it alone.
“Go by yourself, get what you want and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.”
They met as next-door neighbors in a small town in Georgia when Joe caught Linda trying to steal his dog from his backyard. Ever since, they’ve crafted a tumultuous love story: Gypsy and the Drifter.
He was planning on leaving for Nashville while she was falling out of her first marriage, but she eventually convinced him to head for New Orleans instead. It was there that their musical career as street performers really started; they even received a $100 tip from sir Bob Dylan.
“We love what we’re doing, and it’s not for the money. It’s for the experience.”
After completing a work-trade program to pay off a boat, they sailed their way from Gibsonton down to the Tampa Bay. Linda sat perched against a wrought-iron fence with a cigarette in hand as a loyal fan dropped off a pizza for them—a frequent occurrence. They spend nearly every day playing on the streets of Ybor, sometimes from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m., so their fan base of passersby is pretty well-cultivated. While playing a few songs, Linda looked over to Joe every so often to make sure she was getting the chords right.
“She’s a gypsy, and she’s left me more times than I can count on my toes. But every song we’ve ever written has been for each other,” Joe said.
Jackie Braje can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org