She sits quietly, the needle pulsing in and out of her bicep with a discreet sewing machine-like action and buzz. Her flesh is being riddled with ink. It hurts, but she's both proud of herself and excited by the process. When it's done, the excess ink is wiped away, and the scar is bandaged. She's not going to get back on her hog with the old man. She's going to take her children to soccer practice, order up some gourmet takeout on her cell phone, and terrorize the road ways with her SUV... all the way home.
"There's a tattoo shop whose slogan is 'Not just for whores and bikers anymore.' I think that's indicative of the situation," says Katrina Hegge, member of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists.
What was once a major taboo has now become the latest symbol of the mad scramble of a middle-class bourgeoisie desperately trying to stay hip and edgy - unsatisfied by their attempts to co-opt rap music (or the blues for the boomers) and unconvincing in their protestations that their all-time four-wheel-drive really is for excursions through the savannah as opposed to navigating speed bumps at the mall. Their expedition-weight GoreTex is suitable for Everest, even if they've never been up a mountain more arduous than General Butler state park. Tattoos are just the latest delusion- one that's growing in popularity.
Your Design or Mine tattoo artist Scott Thompson concedes tattoos have become much more mainstream. "I've been tattooing 15 years and I can definitely see a change. I'm eating better," he laughs. Thompson, for example, has tattooed his accountant, his dentist, and his lawyer.
In a modern tattoo joint, you might find one part artiste's studio, one part doctor's office, one part mall kiosk.
It's enough to give the business a bad name.
Charlotta Brunson of Tattoo Charlie's reports, "We get whole families. I've tattooed a woman in her 80s. We get everybody in here."
"Sixty to 75 percent of clients are female," says Gazza, a world-renowned tattoo artist from New Zealand, currently on a kind of sabbatical to learn and teach at Tattoos Down Under in Richmond.
What the hell happened? Is this a good thing? Has the Pope been informed? Are tattoos even cool anymore if your grandmother is thinking about getting one? The answer is more than skin deep.
Do you know where that thing's been?
If tattoos are as omnipresent as Range Rovers in this town, it certainly wasn't because Axl Rose touted them in 1986. Instead, massive, sweeping changes have occurred through the tattoo industry itself. The most noticeable difference between the shops of yore and today is certainly hygiene.
Wander into most any tattoo parlor in Lexington and there's the same, clean general feel of a doctor's office. Only with pictures of nekkid women and Taz on the wall.
Many states passed tattoo health and safety regulations during the 90s; this requires sterile and approved equipment, clean facilities, that the artists wash and use gloves, that consent forms be signed and the like. Kentucky has had some of the strictest tattoo regulations in the nation. But the steady mainstreaming of tattoo shops from back alleys to Main Street establishments is much more widespread.
"Most good studios are very clean and health conscious," says Gazza. "They've got their autoclaves [for sterilizing], all their equipment clean. It's been partly due to the various blood diseases than can be spread. Not so much AIDS-hepatitis is more likely. "
Greg (just Greg) of Underground Ink remembers how tattooists once reused needles on people-hardly sanitary, but very cost-effective. But he's not upset with the change. "I think if you want your art to survive then you want to make it as clean and safe as possible," he replies.
While some may scoff at the idea of large groups of hard-livin', on-the-edge tattooists suddenly concerning themselves with the public health, they have... out of self-defense.
"There's plenty of hack shops that aren't around anymore," states Thompson. "They didn't mop, they didn't clean, they didn't care; they weren't even artistically inclined. They gave the professionals a bad name." Most shops either chose to follow the new health regulations or stopped getting business. A tattoo is not something even the roughest hog rider wants done poorly.
With medically-sanctioned new regulations, the tattoo process no longer scares away the more adventurous homeroom mothers.
But is it Art?
Another reason for the growth of the tattoo industry is the influx of artists into the craft. When Charlotta Brunson started a decade ago, she had few intentions beyond making a buck but has kept with it because of the beauty and challenge of the art form.
Angelo Luchini likes tattoos because he's an artist.
Says Luchini, "I see more and more artists getting into tattoos; it's driving the others out."
The challenge and freedom of the medium has led a great deal of artists from all forms to turn to tattooing. A tattoo is a more personal expression for the artist than a simple painting, says Gazza.
"It's artwork performed on the skin," he says simply.
There is a distinction between the tattooist and the tattoo artist. A tattooist will simply copy down a design or pattern onto a person's skin. A tattoo artist will use the person like a canvas; like the nationally known Gazza, tattoo enthusiasts are likely to just offer a limb or back, trusting him to create a magnificent design.
"Like any trend it'll slow down," he says. Multiple tattoos are where the trend stops and the real tattoo collector begins.
He draws distinctions, defining the difference between the committed collectors and the casual fad seekers.
"About 80 percent of my body is covered," says Gazza. "It was done in the traditional Samoan style, where the ink is hammered in with sticks." Hammers made of filed shark's teeth, incidentally. Gazza admits that the process is lengthier and much more painful than regular tattooing.
"I just love the artwork," he says. "I can take it everywhere I go. It's my own personal art collection."
"A tattoo collector is a person who gets them for the art," he elaborates, "and not just because everyone else is getting them. A lot of people get them because their friend's got one. Twelve years down the track they'll want to have it removed. People who get a lot of tattoos are... doing it for the love of the art."
Tattoos are being recognized as art by the art high muckety-mucks as well, getting museum shows in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.
There's no doubt that tattoos are gaining acceptance as a form of expression.
For every 30-something woman trying to decide whether to put the rose on her shoulder or ass, there's a guy like Mark Hurte.
Hurte is a special education teacher with five tattoos and no regrets. "It's one of the best things I have ever done to express myself." He's waiting on Brunson to work on his back.
Hurte's on an installment plan. The tattoo in progress covers his entire back, and is so big that it can only be worked on in segments. It was started a year ago; this will be session three. Hurte chuckles that Brunson is too professional because she won't let him come back until she's sure the skin has fully healed each time.
"We started last summer," he says. "It's what I want, and it's worth waiting for. I eventually want to be 'shirted.'" This is to have his entire chest and arms totally covered, as if by a shirt.
"It's an ongoing process. You're never really done until the skin runs out," he says, as a woodland sprite progresses across his back.
Hurte represents the other end of the tattoo spectrum-those who just can't get enough. Some, like Hurte, enjoy the self-expression.
Brunson has the most philosophic outlook. "In our society today, there's very few things we endure on a collective basis that actually allows our culture to recognize you as having accomplished a specific point in your life," says Brunson matter-of-factly.
"It's that whole tribal mentality where I'm going to endure this trial of pain and endurance, and when I succeed I'll have something to show for it and people can see it."
The permanency of the tattoo helps mark important events or people in a manner that cannot be forgotten. Many married couples get the same tattoo to illustrate their bond. Of course, names are always ill-advised but popular; Gazza points out with a smirk that that the tattoo almost always outlasts the relationship.
Business society has yet to approve either. "Even though it's more acceptable in a lot of ways, it's not accepted in corporate or professional America," remarks Brunson. "But I don't see anything wrong with getting a tattoo in less apparent places. Why cut yourself off from a career just because you're trying to make a statement?"
All of Mark Hurte's tattoos are totally concealed with a long-sleeved shirt, for example. "It's a constant choice to be able to be covered," he says. "There are certain boundaries that the public school system dictates, and I understand that. Yet they understand my self-expression. It's no problem."
Dr. Andrew Moore II of Plastic Surgeons of Lexington thinks the new tattoo is more of a trend than a lifestyle choice. "There's a huge boom going on now. As society changes in the next ten to fifteen years, I expect to see a tattoo removal boom as well."
Even now, Moore has a great deal more patients seeking tattoo removal than in previous years. Most are teens whose parents drag them in.
Unsurprisingly, Moore estimates that 80 percent of people seeking tattoo removal are the 'tattoo posers.'
"There was one woman who came three weeks after she got the tattoo!" he says, noting that the tattoo collectors are much less likely to become disenchanted with their self-expression.
Those getting tattoos as a trend will likely regret it. "Now it's socially acceptable, but like any trend it'll go out of fashion. Then these people will have lifestyle changes; they'll get married, get a job, or have kids and be embarrassed by [a tattoo]. Even if they like it, tattoos fade and become a blob. They won't want it. They won't want their spouses or bosses or kids to see it."
Those who decide their tattoos are no longer chic are not out of luck but can expect to be out of pocket. Former tattoo removal procedures like abrasion and skin excision left scars or faded tattoos. New laser surgery enables usually complete removal with no scarring. But at 300 bucks a session and about five sessions for a smallish tattoo, the time, the money, and the pain to be invested are all much greater than the original tattoo.
Moore anticipates the price will go down; a good thing for trendsters unaware that time marches on whilst their tattoos remain pretty damn permanent.
When white upper middle-class women make up the fastest growing demographic of any trend, it does tend to justifiably lose its coolness among the counterculture and youth. The tattoo trend is having definite repercussions as those on the edge of society are forced to seek out more alternative alternatives.
For instance, when mom gets a tattoo, junior takes more drastic measures to piss his parents off. Body piercing has enjoyed a boom as the edgier alternative to tattoos for many people, a way to draw more attention. (Most tattoo parlors in town have piercers to grab this market.)
Meanwhile, tattoos have come to the masses.
Charlotta Brunson and Beef Stu wear uniforms at Tattoo Charlie's (Hawaiian shirts, it's not Prudential after all). There's no intense biker vibe. It could be your hairdresser's. Besides that, it's a franchise; there are three shops in Louisville, one in Indiana, and the one in Lexington, all similarly governed. With more expansion on the way, it's easy to see why other shops dub them the McDonald's of tattooing.
Brunson explains it. "Other shops tease us because we do so many people and make it not mainstream exactly, but a place for people to come [where they] don't feel excluded. Some shops have a certain mentality that they project, and that's not a bad thing, but it isn't something the general population wants to become involved with. Many people are scared enough, and they don't want to be scared by the people or the environment." Cleanliness and all-inclusivity is the rule for most shops.
For now, tattoos remain the chic way to decorate (or desecrate) a body. Like most of the others, Gazza feels that the fad may wane, but tattoos will never go out of fashion. If they've lost some of their edge during the recent fad, it's a good thing as far as Brunson is concerned. It means tattoos don't have the same negative connotations that they did even ten years ago. But she is worried about being too accepted.
"The worst thing I could see is if tattoo shops would start being in the malls. I don't know if I'd quit, but at that point I'd know we'd been digested and were in for life," she acknowledges.
Nobody interviewed wants to sell their soul to the hegemony.
"I didn't tattoo for the money," Greg concludes. "I don't want to be the Wal-Mart of tattoos."
Under the Needle
"Dear God, that hurts," I said as Charlotta Brunson repeatedly jabbed the needle into my flesh. She smirked at my wince, and my friend just laughed. There was a sign on the wall that read "Pain is absolutely free with the purchase of every tattoo."
How true. My purposeful bodily scarring began when I asked Charlotta Brunson why people liked tattoos. She replied, "You kind of have to get one to know."
And such is my commitment to journalism that I decide to get a tattoo; it's the only way to 'get inside the story,' as we journalists like to say. I also had been wanting a tattoo for years, and the excuse was too perfect.
The process starts with me picking out a picture. I choose to have permanently emblazoned on my shoulder the figure of Lum, the bikini-clad alien girl from Urusei Yatsura, a popular cartoon in 80s Japan. Don't ask. It's self-expression, remember.
Charlotta Brunson is the lucky artist to stick me with the needle. We do the appropriate paperwork.
As she goes to photocopy my ID, I sweat and marvel at my own journalistic integrity. She makes a tracing of the design and a carbon copy, like schools in the early 80s had. With a little goo, Charlotta puts the tracing on my arm, so I can see what it should look like when it's on and she has a stencil to work with.
It's a go. I sit down in the chair; she shaves and sterilizes my upper arm. The needle and ink tube are both single use and have been sterilized via autoclave, like medical equipment. Most shops use this now. She starts mixing the colors for Lum - yellow, teal, blue, and black.
The device itself is too funky-looking to seem scary. It's like a pen with a small motor attached to it. It's electromagnetic and works like a sewing machine. When Brunson presses the pedal, it bobs up and down. The tube acts as a reservoir for the ink, and the motion pushes the ink into the skin. There is no injection; the needle is solid. I can't decide whether that's worse or better.
She tells me she's going to use a needle for outlining and coloring. She warns me about the pain. I realize none of my friends will ever let it go if I chicken out now. So I brace myself for the worst.
Brunson told me it would feel like a burning sensation. Rather, I found it to feel like someone purposely driving a Bic Pen into my shoulder. But it's not that bad; I cry no manly tears but just sob quietly to myself.
It gets pretty painful up near the bones, a common phenomenon, but not overwhelmingly so. It's not fun. But it's nothing you can't stand. The knowledge of how cool it is that you're being tattooed makes up for the pain.
The outline hurts worse than the coloring; the body eventually releases endorphins to help combat the pain. As a result, those same endorphins demanded that I eat a candy bar as soon as possible afterwards.
The tattoo took about an hour and a half under Brunson's consummate skill. When she was done, the result looked fantastic. "Now it's going to scab up," she told me, covering it with a medical bandage and taping it down. She gave me a lotion to apply three times daily, told me to keep it out of water and sun, and above all let it scab and heal naturally. If you pick at it, you run the risk of picking out some of the ink too.
So I had a very sore arm and a vicious craving for sugar. I also had my badge of honor; I was tattooed... I was ready to kick someone's butt after I ate that candy bar. I also had a great tattoo; it looked even better than I'd hoped. Which is a good thing, since it's going to be a badge of honor for the rest of my life, barring expensive surgery. -RB
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