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The sign off

They had been friends for years, calling themselves the Signature Boys for the array of celebrity names they had tattooed on. Then, the trash-talking began.

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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On Donnie Yebba’s body, now and forever, are the names of people he considers worthy. What makes them worthy is their celebrity — at least in Yebba’s definition — and what they are worthy of is a rather bizarre honor.

Yebba has them autograph his skin, then he has the signature tattooed on.

He has been doing this since the mid-’90s — it started when he met Gene Simmons at a Kiss convention and didn’t have anything for him to sign other than himself — and the epidermal wall of fame now has about 80 members, mostly hard-rock musicians, wrestlers, and, on his chest, porn stars.

When it comes to celebrity, he has a well-documented possessive streak. That may be why he never mentioned the other guy. And that’s definitely what led to the fight. And that’s how, weirdly, this very article became the end of the Signature Boys.

It is a twisted tale of who gets to call the signature style his signature style, and it began to unravel when Yebba was spotted by a Globe photographer at a book signing for Vince Neil (where Yebba was finally completing his Motley Crue collection of autograph tattoos). A short time later, Yebba sat down with a Globe reporter for more than two hours to tell his story and never once mentioned David Cannatelli.

Cannatelli is/was Yebba’s friend. They had grown up together in Everett, and he had also done the signature thing, had nearly 50 tattooed on his body, including a lot of the same people as Yebba because they’d gotten them together.

A few days after the interview, the Globe sent a photographer to a horror movie convention in Worcester to snap Yebba getting an autograph from Scout Taylor-Compton, 21, an actress who starred in the “Halloween’’ remakes.

Cannatelli drove Yebba to the convention. He thought he was getting his picture in the paper as well, that the story was about the Signature Boys, the name they had used when they appeared on “The Howard Stern Show’’ a few years ago.

When Cannatelli realized what Yebba was up to, that he was trying to keep this bit of micro-celebrity for himself, it got physical. Cannatelli put his hands on Yebba’s girlfriend. Security came.

The Signature Boys were over, and the trash-talking had begun.

“He’s been a copycat of mine for years,’’ said Yebba, 39, a cook at the Seaport World Trade Center. “When I started doing it, he used to give me [expletive]. Then he started seeing the notoriety I was getting and he got a little jealous. If it wasn’t for me, he would never be who he is. He ripped me off.’’

Cannatelli, 41, who was disabled in a fall several years ago and now walks with a cane, says the two were like brothers until Yebba got a new girlfriend — “She’s controlling him,’’ he says — and is very hurt by the slight.

Like an “E! True Hollywood Story,’’ the pursuit of fame, and what fame even means, has become the root problem in Yebba and Cannatelli’s relationship.

“I love the kid like a brother, but he’s getting out of hand with this signature thing,’’ Cannatelli said. “I’m very choosy and Donnie isn’t. I like to go with people who are more known,’’ he said, and pointed to his arm, “like Adrienne Barbeau from ‘Creepshow.’

“Donnie’s got all these wrestlers. And Ernie Boch Jr.? Come on!’’

Boch, a well-known car dealer, said he had serious second thoughts when Yebba approached him for his signature.

“He wanted me to sign next to Brad Delp,’’ the late lead singer of the band Boston. “I looked at the arm for at least 10 minutes until I even thought of signing it,’’ said Boch, who was approached by Yebba after a show he did with his band, Ernie and the Automatics. “I must have said ‘Are you sure?’ 30 times.’’

For the celebrities and pseudo-celebrities who are asked to sign, the reactions vary wildly. This isn’t just an autograph, a fan getting a piece of them; in this instance, the celebrity is getting a piece of the fan, forever.

Ozzy Osbourne told Yebba he was crazy; Tommy Chong told him he was “far out’’; Nuno Bettencourt, from Extreme, signed his hand as sort of a dare (Yebba still got it tattooed); Alice Cooper talked to him “like an uncle,’’ Yebba said. “He kept saying, ‘Are you sure? That’s going to be on your body forever?’ ’’

Some simply refuse. Stacy Keibler, the actress and former wrestler, turned Cannatelli down; Yebba has been refused by the drummer for Judas Priest and the guitarist from Hole.

Others get very nervous. Lisa Marie Presley felt so much pressure to give Yebba a good signature that she signed him twice, on his shoulder and his arm, and told him to choose whichever looked better. He made tattoos of both.

Many rockers, Cannatelli said, have heard about the Signature Boys, and are pumped to get their name on there. Others question the very company they are being asked to join. Marilyn Manson tried to rub off the names of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Yebba’s arm. Later, the actress Juliette Lewis signed over Manson’s name.

Some don’t even know what’s going on. Anne Allred, an anchor for WHDH-TV, signed Yebba at a health fair two years ago, and didn’t understand what was happening until he returned the next day to show her the tattoo, still dripping blood.

“I was very taken aback,’’ she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness. Wow. I can’t — wow. Thank you. I guess.’ ’’

Both men follow a strict ethic of getting the signature tattooed exactly as written, right down to the skips, smudges, and Sharpie color, and have plenty of stories of spending nights with their arms tied to a bed post, or covered up at work, trying to keep the signature pristine until they could get to a tattoo parlor.

Of course, there are many who mock what they do. When the two men appeared on “The Howard Stern Show’’ in 2003, he tore into them so viciously that “I didn’t think I was gonna be able to go back to work,’’ Yebba said. When Stern was done ripping them apart, they each got his autograph (as well as those of many of his cohosts and characters) and got the tattoos done in the studio.

Cannatelli thinks there’s a movie tucked into the Signature Boys story. He says he is writing a script and looking for backers, and wants to reunite with Yebba and go back on Stern’s show.

Yebba says he’s done with Cannatelli, and is actually enjoying a little break from being a man of letters — an annual vacation granted by the New England weather.

“I love this time of year because I can wear my coat,’’ said Yebba, who estimates he’s been asked to sign dozens of autographs himself. “I don’t get all the attention. I don’t get all the walk-ups. Sometimes, it’s great to just be a regular Joe.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.