Shortly after Flagstaff Tattoo Company switches on its neon open sign and unlocks its doors to welcome clients on a recent Tuesday afternoon, two uniformed Flagstaff Police Department officers walk past the large front window. They do a double take as they notice a sign different from the one that has hung above the door since 2006. When they enter, a front desk worker greets them with a smile.
“We want to get tattoos on our faces,” one of them jokes before the other points out the name change and asks if the shop has a new owner.
Previously Birch Avenue Tattoo, FTC is back under original ownership of Todd “Soup” Matyas, who owned Birch Avenue from 2006 to 2016. It is also co-owned by Cam Chase, who owns and works out of Mirror Gallery in Heritage Square.
Although operating under a different name, Matyas says the shop has the same spirit as when he was last at the helm. The wooden front desk has carried over from Birch Avenue, but the new open floor plan allows the natural light from the waiting area to diffuse through the rest of the long interior. Mike Williams, Brian Randal and occasionally Matyas take appointments and walk-ins in this space, along with a rotating selection of guest artists; Portland, Oregon-based Zach Beckett will be working out of FTC Sept. 17-19.
Potted plants and a variety of framed art from local and international artists line the walls, and the east wall of the lobby draws the eye to around 50 flash sheets featuring art by Nova Scotia-based tattoo artist Sailor Jerry Swallow.
“It’s American traditional, it’s old shit and it’s there for people to choose from,” Chase says. “A lot of the idea behind it is kind of for nostalgia, an appreciation for the roots of tattooing.”
Traditional tattoos gained popularity with sailors, who would get work done as good luck charms or as a badge of honor commemorating the nautical miles they logged. Over the years, this classic style, defined by bold colors and heavy black outlines, has given way to a wide variety of styles from delicate black dotwork to whimsical neo-traditional to jaw-dropping realism. The artists who make up FTC take pride in the diversity of art they offer clients.
Although tattoos—an art form previously affiliated largely with prisoners, sailors and sideshow performers—are becoming more prevalent today, the history of tattooing dates back thousands of years.
Ötzi the Iceman died in the Italian Alps around 5,300 years ago and his mummy offers one of the best preserved examples of ancient tattoos. A study conducted by researchers at the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Research Academy in Italy revealed a total of 61 tattoos, a series of black lines thought to alleviate pain similar to acupuncture.
Then there is the 2,500-year-old mummy of the Siberian Ice Maiden, also known as Princess Ukok, which was found during an archeology excavation in 1993. Her intricate tattoos spanning both arms from the shoulders to wrists depict fantastical animals such as a deer with a griffon’s beak and Capricorn’s horns. Researchers suggest the detail of her tattoos and instance of her burial are representative of her high standing within society.
Each time someone goes through the process of getting tattooed and taking care of it during the healing period, they pen their own entry within the art’s storied history, and younger generations are more prone to the permanent adornments than their parents and grandparents. According to 2015 research from The Harris Poll, 47 percent of millennials are sporting at least one tattoo and 36 percent of Generation Xers compared to 13 percent of baby boomers. Whether it’s a way to mark significant moments in their lives as sailors did or just in appreciation of the art, there is a high demand for tattoos among many different types of people. Williams lists lawyers and veterans as part of FTC's clientele, among other professionals.
“Because of the way tattooing is going, it’s becoming more acceptable and more mainstream. When you come in here, you’re always greeted by a receptionist and checked out by a receptionist,” Chase says. “It’s like going to a doctor’s office.”
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“We’re just trying to be a friendly neighborhood shop where you can just go on down and get a tattoo,” Williams says.
With FTC’s central location downtown, many people visit the shop. Some have simply known it as a tattoo shop for more than a decade, while others happen to pass by and pop in to ask a few questions, but the artists there know they’ve left their mark on the community at large.
“[Sometimes I’ll be] cruising around town and go to a restaurant or something like that and realize, there are four people here with sleeves by me,” Matyas says. “That’s a pretty cool feeling, you know.”
Collectively, Matyas, Chase, Williams and Randal have almost seven decades of tattooing experience, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.
“You get to create every day—that is your job. How many people can say that that’s their job? And they actually get paid for it,” Chase says. “I still have the files, every tattoo [I’ve done that] I’ve ever taken a picture of. You flip back through that and you’re just like, ‘Oh my god, I was so bad.’”
“That’s one thing that’s cool about why it doesn’t get as old as quick, because you can learn shit even 20 years into it,” Matyas adds.
While FTC is still seeking more professional tattoo artists to join the shop, Matyas and Chase say they’re being selective to ensure they find someone who gets along with the current artists and fits within the vibes already established, an important aspect of any shop’s dynamic.
“No matter what’s going on outside, the shop’s always a safe zone,” Randal says. “Tattoo shops have always been that for me. You can throw all this shit out there, just have fun, hang out with people and do some cool tattoos.”
The shop emphasizes its walk-in availability, but that doesn’t mean someone can come into the shop without doing any sort of preparation. Pain tolerance differs greatly from one person to another, but there are some steps that can be taken to maximize both physical and mental comfort before and during the tattoo.
“Do your research, listen to your artist, get a full night’s sleep [and eat a] decent, healthy meal,” Williams advises, whether it’s a client’s first tattoo or 20th.
“Just come in and ask questions,” Chase adds. “A lot of people have a hard time just coming in, especially for your first tattoo. It’s intimidating, but all you have to do is stop in. We’re all nice dudes.”
Flagstaff Tattoo Company is located at 111 W. Birch Ave. Appointments and walk-ins are welcome Monday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Visit www.facebook.com/FlagstaffTattooCo for more information.