The Ravens got under Eric Gilbert's skin this week. Wednesday found the 33-year-old football fan stretched out in a Hampden tattoo parlor as an artist carved the image of a raven into his flesh.
For three hours, Gilbert lay still as the tattoo machine hummed along, its razor-sharp needles burrowing just beneath the skin to produce the tattoo of his dreams.
Never mind the pain, he said.
"I wanted something to pay homage to the Ravens," said Gilbert of Hampden. "And I'd like to think this will bring them luck."
The Ravens play at New England on Sunday in a first-round playoff game against the Patriots. But the fresh markings on his right shoulder - two ravens sitting on a horseshoe festooned with black-eyed Susans - have a deeper significance, said Gilbert, who spent $125 for the tattoo at Have Fun Be Lucky, where he is the manager.
"It means I'll be loyal to the Ravens for the rest of my life," he said. "No one can take this away from me."
Tattoos allow rabid sports fans to ramp up their allegiance to a team, experts say. While others don Joe Flacco jerseys and adorn their cars with purple flags, some Ravens fans have taken their devotion to another level.
"A Ravens tattoo literally makes the team a part of you," said Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist in San Francisco. "It brings fans closer to the players. It shows them to be members of the 'tribe.'
"Having a tattoo is like wearing Ravens' gang colors - and backing it up with blood."
While some say tattoos pose health risks, such as infections, others see the markings on Ravens players such as Ray Lewis and Willis McGahee and want the same.
"Role modeling, with regard to tattoos, is very strong," Taylor said.
A scowling bird is emblazoned on Jeffrey Weiss' shoulder, waiting to be freed in frosty Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Weiss, 27, a financial analyst from White Marsh, will be in the stands, hoping to strip to the waist as he does after every Ravens' victory.
"Sure, it'll be cold," he said. "But if we win, rest assured my raven will be exposed."
Weiss, who got the tattoo last year, said he feels "more a part of the team's family now. Plus, it sets me apart. There are lots of ardent Ravens fans, but it takes somebody special to sit under the needle for three hours."
This is what Cory Glaze holds dear: a game of poker, his fiancee and the Ravens.
"I love 'em," Glaze said. "Win or lose, there's a place for the Ravens in my heart."
And on his biceps. Last November, on his 24th birthday, Glaze had the image of a raven etched into his left arm. It was money well spent, the Catonsville resident said.
"Every morning as I'm shaving for work, I see it in the mirror and smile," said Glaze, who works for the U.S. Postal Service.
"I'm not done yet," he said. "On my back, I want a tattoo of M&T Bank Stadium with the scoreboard showing us blowing out the Pittsburgh Steelers by some outrageous score."
Ravens fans have gotten tattoos in parlors from Fallston to Fells Point. Ben Smith, of Perry Hall, was in Las Vegas when he decided to bare a shoulder for a likeness of the bird atop a Baltimore skyline.
Smith, 24, a member of the Air National Guard, said the tattoo will keep him grounded when he is deployed to Afghanistan this month.
"It's a reminder of home, and of the team that takes up a lot of my time and interest," he said.
Tattoo artists say that while most clients are men, ages 20 to 40, there are women who get Ravens' markings as well. For two years, April Romeo has walked with a spring in her step and a "52" tattooed on her right ankle - the number worn by Lewis.
"He's the greatest linebacker in history," said Romeo, 36, a health care consultant from Perry Hall.
Her home is filled with Lewis memorabilia, from autographed helmets to the screen saver on her computer. But the tattoo, done in purple and black, is Romeo's pride. She wears ankle socks at work to show it off.
"I feel like I demonstrated my team spirit by sacrificing my skin," she said. "It'll be grand when the Ravens retire Ray's number, but mine will be there forever."
It's that permanence that sells tattoos for Baltimore's hard-core football crowd, said Brett Elmore, owner of Bulletts Ink, a studio in Mount Airy.
"For die-hards, it's the ultimate way to honor your team," said Elmore, who said he does about a dozen Ravens tattoos a year. "And you're guaranteed to take it with you, in the box, when you go."
Some tattoos run in the family. When Bill Smith of Salisbury put a raven on his right arm last September, he was the fourth in his clan to do so.
"I grew up a Colts fan, but I felt it was finally time to give my blessing to this team," said Smith, 51.
Nine years ago, following Baltimore's January 2001 Super Bowl victory, Joan Rodriguez and her 16-year-old son walked into a place in Brooklyn Park and left with matching tattoos on their legs.
"Kenny [Shifflett] said, 'Mom, let's get one together,' " said Rodriguez, 47. "I made him go first to see if it would hurt. After he did it, I couldn't back out."