Body art has become more mainstream
by Bonnie Berkowitz
Published : February 27, 2011
It’s 1945, and you want a tattoo. You drive to the part of town your mom warned you about, past scruffy bars and burlesque shows, and arrive at a tiny shop offering maybe 200 designs in three or four colors. An ex-sailor who just clocked out of his day job rinses off his tattoo machine. Five minutes and $2 later, your arm bears a patriotic eagle – a nifty example of Traditional American artwork, although no one will call it that for decades.
Now it’s 2011 and you want a tattoo. You comb through online portfolios to choose an artist and call to discuss the design and book an appointment. When the day arrives, you drive to the funky-hip part of town. In a private room, the gloved artist unwraps sanitized equipment and chooses from dozens of colors of vegan-friendly ink. Six hours and $1,000 later, you’re wearing a custom piece of art – possibly in the retro-cool style of Traditional American.
Though getting a tattoo still can feel like a walk on the wild side, it’s a pretty safe one these days. Few government entities police tattooing because it is considered to be a cosmetic procedure rather than a medical one. But tattooists have largely cleaned up their industry, beginning in the 1950s in response to awareness of blood-borne illnesses.
Organizations such as the Alliance for Professional Tattooists say safer practices protect the clients – and the tattooists. (“I got hepatitis at Joe’s Ink” is not a good advertisement.) Many top tattoo studios advertise their autoclaves and hygiene standards on their websites, right next to their artists’ portfolios.
That type of public image has been a long time coming.
“Society wasn’t ready for tattooing back in the day,” said Terry “Tramp” Welker, owner of five tattoo studios and an ink company in the Detroit area. “They thought, if you have a tattoo, you must be a bad guy. People would say, ‘We don’t want a tattoo shop on Main Street! Next there’ll be a whorehouse next to it!’ ”
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, tattoo magazines and conventions began to let artists share ideas, and pro athletes and MTV implied that tattoos were cool. Painters and sculptors trained in fine arts migrated to tattooing, looking at skin as a living canvas.
“Modern tattooing was all in place in the 1980s and just waiting for the world to come around,” said longtime tattoo artist and historian C.W. Eldridge of Winston-Salem, N.C.
A revolution in ink-making provided the consistent textures and nuanced palettes needed to produce a higher level of art. (Welker’s company, Eternal Ink of Brighton, Mich., makes 97 organic, vegan-friendly colors.)
Soon the Internet connected artists and clients around the globe, and reality shows let suburban viewers peek into tattoo shops from their sofas.
Tattoos are still not for everyone, but they cover a lot more people than they used to. According to a 2008 Harris poll, nearly 1 in 7 U.S. adults has a tattoo, and a 2006 Pew survey claimed that nearly 40 percent of adults younger than 40 had one.
Women get inked at least as often as men, according to most tattoo professionals interviewed for this story. Mary Skiver, who owns a shop in Cumberland, Md., said most of her clients are 40- to 80-year-old women, and they’re not only biker ladies. “They’ve raised their kids and their kids’ kids, and now they’re ready to be themselves,” she said.
The surge in popularity has a downside. Established artists lament that untrained people – “scratchers,” they call them – think they can make a quick buck and churn out cheap, low-quality work. “Everybody’s watching TV and they think they can just get a starter kit and call it a day,” said Anna Paige, a third-generation tattoo artist in Waikiki who learned the craft in a four-year apprenticeship.
“My grandmother says it best: Any idiot can tattoo. All you have to do is pick up a needle, stick it in the ink and poke it. Voila! You’re a tattoo artist. But you won’t know the history, and you won’t be respected.”
The artistic and financial gulf between brilliant and lousy is vast. Top tattooists command up to $300 an hour for large, custom work that can take 40 hours or more.
Source : Washington Post