A generation or two ago, tattoos were just for Sailors, tough guys, people on the edge and risk-takers. Times have changed, and with them the tattoo experience.
“It’s 2012. We have doctors, lawyers and parents coming in,” said Mary Davis, owner of Dragon Fly Tattoo in Clinton, Md. “Back in the day, it was a private room, and no one could come in except the person getting a tattoo. Now, you can always have someone with you for moral support.”
Dragon Fly features a quiet “treatment room” for clients, and a play room for children who tag along with a parent. “We’re concerned about the future of tattooingwe don’t want children to be scared of what their parents are going through.”
For some customers, tattooing has become a family tradition. Kim Carpenter of Washington, D.C. recently brought her daughter, Kara and her sister to Red Octopus Tattoo in Morningside, Md. All three women were there for art to memorialize Kim Carpenter’s mother, who recently passed away. Though it was Kara’s first tattoo, Kim has used her body as a canvas before.
“I got Kara’s and my initials, and my godson, and my mother. For something like that, you’ll take the pain,” Kim Carpenter said, “not for something frivolous.”
Patrick Aikin, an artist at Red Octopus, especially likes working with family groups who plan their art in advance.
“That’s the way to do it. We get a lot of thatparents bringing kids in,” said Aikin while working on the final design for a set of tattoos he was about to create on several members of a family from Fredericksburg, Va. Working over a light board, Aikin discussed last-minute changes to the design with members of the family.
Though some people give a great deal of thought to their potential body art, it’s still very much a walk-in business for most. Summer, when the weather is fine and clothing exposes a lot more skin, is the busiest season for tattoo artists.
“Nobody comes out in the cold, nobody comes out in the rain, but the last time it was warm out we had 16 customers come in, getting butterflies, because it was warm out and they saw butterflies everywhere. It’s all a matter of your mood,” said Davis, “but two years ago we had people walking in through the blinding snow to get tattoos. You never can tell.”
Today’s tattoo parlors are regulated at the county and state level to maintain sanitary conditions and reliable business practices.
“They are very strict on us because there are so many illegal shops, working out of somebody’s basement or at parties,” said Davis. We know we’ll have at least one pop-in inspection every year. They’re watching every legal aspect of the business.”
Davis also said that the suppliers who sell tattoo inks, which now are made using vegetable and fruit based colors to avoid allergic reactions, also require proof of the same inspections done by the Prince George’s County government, to ensure safety and health for both customers and artists.
“The only thing that gets re-used is the machine itself,” said Davis. “We open every needle in front of the customer, use it once and put it in a sharps container. When we fill the sharps container, we turn it in and get a receipt, so we can prove we’ve disposed of the needles properly. We have our autoclave inspected at least twice a year. The inks are all single-use, and the equipment is all stainless steel, like is used in surgery. It’s all so people do not have allergic reactions. So much has changed, since back in the day.”
There’s no way to know just how painful your tattoo will be for you, until the work starts.
“It’s not how big or strong or fat or skinny you are,” said Davis. “It’s all in your pain tolerance.”
Sometimes, all a customer needs is a chance to take a break, squeeze a rubber toy, grab a quick snack and get back to the art. For others, getting the outline of a design is challenge enough for a first session. Though the pain can be intense, “99 percent of them come back in two weeks to do shading and colors,” said Davis.
Though each tattoo is basically a permanent, life-changing piece of personal art, there are common themes and images that become a hot trend for a while, before being replaced by something else. Customers at Red Octopus are requesting the “infinity” symbol, this summer, while Dragon Fly clients come in for the Egyptian ankh. At both stores, however, there are designs that remain popular no matter what the trends: flowers, praying hands, crosses, and other religious symbols are always popular, as well as “Money Over Everything” declarations, tribal patterns and breast cancer ribbon designs.
Customers have preferences, and so do artists.
“I got my start as an artist through graffiti, so I love to do anything that has a graffiti feel,” said Bob Miller, who has been creating tattoos since 2000. “I enjoy doing anything that’s original, bright, and has a lot of colors, a lot of challenge.”
The beauty of the work makes it worthwhile, to Miller, who like many tattoo artists sports ink on his own skin. “It’s a little bit of pain for a lifetime of enjoyment,” Miller said.
“I thought about all of mine. It takes me at least six months to get one,” Davis said. “And for my husband, too. They all have memories and emotions behind them.”
Those emotions can cause problems down the road, but today’s tattoo artists help their clients think through the design before it’s a permanent part of their livesespecially if the design is the name of someone who looks like Mr. Right, but turns out to have been just Mr. Right Now.
“We do see customers regret tattoos, especially if they met someone and after one night in the club they’re sure they’ll be with that person forever,” Davis said. “We say, ‘Think about it. In ten years, will you be with this person?’ We make it so it can be covered. We always have the cover-up in the back of our minds. Names are easy to do, and heck to cover up, but if they come in a week later and the guy has left them, we comfort them and talk about how to cover the name.”
Maryland laws allow people over the age of 16 to be tattooed, with parental consent. Ask any parent and you’ll hear that some 16-year-olds are more ready for lifelong decisions than others. As a parents of a 15-year-old and an 8-year-old themselves, Davis and her husband, Jimmy, are especially careful when tattooing young people.
“We won’t do guns, knives, or drug paraphernalia on a 16-year-old. We won’t do anything below the elbow or above the neck, because they need to get a job. Parents will come with their teenager and say, ‘You’re right, I don’t want him living on my bank forever.’”
Even for adults, Davis encourages a great deal of thought about certain tattoos.
“Gang tattoos have faded out a lot. We want to look out for our customers. We don’t want a child to ruin the rest of their life over a five-minute decision,” Davis said. “If it’s a gun, a knife, a plant leaf, paraphernaliawe tell them to take a day to think about it. You may not want to put a gun on your body for the rest of your life.”
Though a tattoo may be a spur-of-the-moment decision, there are things customers can do to make it easy on the artist, and on themselves. Miller recommends wearing comfortable clothing that moves with the body, and which is easy to move out of the artist’s way. “Sweatsuits, shorts and tank tops are the best,” Miller said. “We’ll take care of anything else,” from shaving and cleaning the skin to providing care instructions and lotions for the healing period, which can take a month or more.
Some artists recommend antibacterial ointments for the first 24 hours after the tattoo is in place, while others have switched to straight, white hand lotion from the start. Regardless, keeping the area moisturized while it heals makes the designs brighter and longer-lasting. Anjy Freimayer, who works the front desk at Red Octopus, said that a fresh tattoo “feels pretty much like a sunburn, as it heals,” meaning that putting on lotion is going to be easy to remember for most. What’s not necessary? Expensive, brand-name creams labeled specifically for tattoo recovery.
The continued popularity of tattooing has opened the market for new, specialty items that most tattoo artists will say probably are not really necessary.
“’Tattoo Goo’ and all the rest is just marketing. It’s lotion, like any other lotion,” said Davis.
Some things, though, are never going to change.
“It still hurts,” said Kim Carpenter. “The first one hurt, the second one hurt. I thought the third one would not hurt, but pain is still pain.”