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The Art of Tattoo: From the margins to the mainstream

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This story wasnt as daring to write as I imagine it might have been 30 years ago. I didnt have to confront any suspicious men in smoky basement lairs. I didnt have to cozy up to any Hells Angels. I saw no signs of drug addiction, criminal behavior or hepatitis in any of the people I interviewed.

Instead, I walked right into tattoo shops that seemed something between art gallery and salon. I watched a young woman get a tattoo of a Good Luck Care Bear, for crying out loud. Times have changed.

Tattoos now come in every color and design imaginable. They are more accessible and safer to get. Tattoo artists say they are tattooing people of every kind, including white-collar professionals and elderly folks. Once I started looking, tattoos were everywhere.

But the times havent changed completely. Tattoos are popularly accepted only to a point. That point is vaguely defined; what one employer or parent considers reasonable could be intolerable to another.

Chuck Smith, an artist at Hole Punch, told me a story about a time he was verbally harassed at the grocery store while trying to buy some beef for tacos. His scalp, neck, and even eyebrows are tattooed, and he is also heavily pierced, so he is admittedly far from the mainstream. But where does the mainstream start?


A hundred years ago, tattoos were unseen in America beyond sailors and circus sideshow performers. Over the years, bikers, gang members and punk rockers adopted tattoos as counter-culture. At the beginning of a new century, its certain tattoos are more accepted. How they became so is less definite, but several forces are at work.

One is the advances within the industry itself. The art form has come a long way from a sewing needle and a jar of ink. The artists say brighter colors and new techniques have opened up the possibilities.

Tattoo artists look for information and inspiration in magazines and can attend conferences to learn from the masters. And although tattoo design constantly reinvents and updates classic images, tattoos are by no means restricted to the old designs of anchors and hearts.

If your tattoo artist is an artist and not just a tattooer, you can get whatever you want, says Vinny Sky, the owner of Skys Art With a Pulse.

Tattoo art comes in two categories, flash and custom. Flash is the generic stuff on the walls of the tattoo shops: butterflies, stars, Celtic patterns and Japanese kanji characters. Custom work is what the artists design themselves and keep in their portfolio.

All artists love custom work, Smith says. Artists enjoy doing that more, but flash is where you make your bread and butter.

All the artists I spoke with say they talk about the tattoo with the customer first. Sky says he tries to make suggestions, such as warning people about the job trouble that could result from a tattoo on the hands, or recommending custom work instead of a popular flash tattoo that a thousand people already have.

Woody Stone, of The Kind Connection II, says it is also important to make sure the customer is aware of the responsibilities of a tattoo.

Since its gotten so big, some people might not know what theyre getting into, he says. I try to tell them to take their time and represent themselves, because its going to be there a long time.

The influence of celebrities also helps the rise of tattooing. Tattoos arent restricted to the Tommy Lees of popular culture any more. Now, mainstream musicians of all genres are getting tattoos, and they are increasingly publicized. The Dixie Chicks get tattoos of chicken feet on their own feet to celebrate their successful records. Carson Daly, the host of MTVs Total Request Live, has tattoos, reaching millions of pre-teens every day.

A lot of kids are influenced by music and the way the artists present themselves, Sky says. He gives Blink 182, Korn and Godsmack as examples of influential and heavily tattooed bands.

People might choose a design they see a basketball player or rock star wearing. They like those tattoos and they admire those people, Stone says. The basketball player is saying, Hey, its okay to be tattooed.

Although many pop stars are tattooed and tattoos are growing in popularity, the artists in town say tattoos are not pop. As Smith says, Theyve been tattooing since before Jesusso thats why I say its not a trend.

Another force bringing tattoos to the masses is safety. Sky, who spearheaded the movement for tattoo shop licensing in Coconino County two years ago, remembers when sanitation meant a bucket of Lysol.

Now tattoo artists and the public are more informed about diseases spread through needles, including AIDS and hepatitis. Last August, Coconino County became the first in the state to pass tattoo licensing laws. The rules are based on the laws in Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas, and were created with input from the local tattoo artists (who are generally supportive of the laws). The artist and the shop must be licensed; to operate without a license is a felony. The artist must pass a basic sanitation exam and a blood-born pathogen test to receive a license, says Kirsten Cady of the County Health Departments Environmental Services division. Licensed shops are inspected annually.

Flagstaffs five licensed tattoo shops are squeaky clean and smell like lemony bleach. Patrick Sans and Todd Matyas (who works under the name Soup) of Burly Fish set up for giving tattoos by preparing brand new needles and ink taken from individual sterile packages.

Drawing lines

The place on the culture map where mainstream meets fringe is blurry. The main issue seems to be coverage. Can the tattoo be concealed during the workday or when the grandparents come for dinner?

Tattoo artists warn against tattoos on the neck and hands because they still carry a common stigma. The artists interviewed say a person with a tattoo on the hands might be more likely to get fired from a job, get a traffic ticket instead of a warning or be harassed in the supermarket. Extensive tattoos are a commitment.

Still, the future seems bright.

Once the mainstream accepts it, theres not such a stigma about it, Sans says. Nowadays, theres people from all walks of life.

Its not just bikers and drug dealers and gang-bangers getting tattoos, Sky says. Its professionals. He has tattooed teachers, police officers, dental hygienists, retired people and lots of college students, he says.

Tattoos are self-expression. They describe the person they adorn, whether that person is committed to an alternative lifestyle, is looking for adornment that can be covered from nine to five, or is just keeping up with cutting edge fashion. For whoever has one, tattoos are more than skin deep.

— Arizona Daily Sun


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Stephanie Ann Servis, 1st Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), of Flagstaff, Arizona, passed away on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 at age 54.

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