Ricky Koger, a retired firefighter, never thought he'd get a tattoo.

Then again, he never thought he'd lose nine of his "brothers" in one night to a massive fire.

Koger, 55, used to swap shifts with Mike Benke, a NASCAR fan, so Benke could attend the races.

He and Billy Hutchinson watched their kids grow up together. Hutchinson, a part-time barber, used to cut Koger's hair, and once accidentally gave him an uneven haircut. ("That's my style," Hutchinson told him.)

These memories, Koger said, are what he will think of when he looks down at his new tattoo of a maltese cross on his right forearm.

Flowers wilt. Memorials blend in with the scenery. But Koger's tattoo — with the words "Fallen 9" below it — is a permanent symbol of those who died in the June 18 furniture store fire.

"My soul told me I needed to go," Koger said. "This way, everyone who shakes my hand will see it, and no one will ever forget."

Dozens of other firefighters went to Blu Gorilla Tattoo on Tuesday with the same idea. The shop at 1436 Meeting St. offered free tattoos to firefighters in honor of their fallen colleagues.

Less than an hour after the store opened, more than 30 firefighters had picked memorial designs. Each would normally cost between $60 and $90.

Some work was inked by Steven Beasley, a firefighter himself.

They came representing stations from around the Lowcountry: Edisto Beach, the Isle of Palms, Goose Creek and, of course, the city of Charleston. In the waiting room, they traded stories and got a feel for how the other departments operate.

Who's your department's craziest driver? Where did that engineer transfer to? What happens to the possum that lives under the Edisto fire truck when the department gets a call?

In unison, firefighters from smaller departments complained that it's been a while since their last "decent" call. Stations of that size can wait months before responding to a fire big enough to unravel the fire hoses.

And then there was talk about fire itself. They used a different language to describe the way it ate away buildings and forests. In their stories, windows popped, smoke rolled and flames walked.

They described the friendship between firefighters as "brotherhood." Many said they were closer to their co-workers than to their own families.

West LeMacks, 25, of North Charleston, started working for the Ashley River Fire Department four months ago. Already, fellow firefighters have duct-taped him to his bed and rigged his training gear in a way that left him entangled in rope.

"It's unreal," said LeMacks, who hugged a chair while Beasley etched wording into his right back shoulder.

The camaraderie stretches beyond the Lowcountry's borders.

Koger has traded fire stories at stations in California and Florida. And that's why more than 150 fire departments were represented at Friday's memorial service in North Charleston.

"This could have been for a fallen firefighter in Wyoming, and we still would have been here," said Michael Hommel, 28, who fights fires on the Isle of Palms.

He planned to get a "9" surrounded by angel wings, one of the studio's most popular designs.

For tattoo artist Beasley, etching the designs was a form of therapy.

The 32-year-old West Ashley resident works as a firefighter in the St. Andrews Fire Department every third day. He responded to the Sofa Super Store fire and helped rescue an employee from the side of the smoke-filled building.

He was one of 16 firefighters who entered the burning building and one of only seven who returned.

Beasley paused between strokes.

"You can talk to people you don't know all day, but talking to guys in the same situation — it's like talking to your family."