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Behind the Ink: Local Industry Insiders Talk Tattoos, Industry Changes, Popularization
(Pictured above: Glenn Beers, of Studio XIII Tattoo and Piercing, of Clarion)
The invention of the first electric rotary tattoo machine, inspired by Thomas Edison’s electric pen, made way for Martin Hildebrandt to open a tattoo parlor in New York City in the late 1800′s, according to Time magazine. Nevertheless, the early artform was fraught with negative associations.
In the early parts of the twentieth century, tattoos were something found on the fringes of society, sported by sailors, sideshow performers, and later, bikers and gang members. Early tattoos were often created by traveling artists in caravans, while larger cities had small back-alley shops, often derided for their lack of cleanliness.
However, the latter part of the twentieth century brought massive change to the industry, as many popular musicians began to sport colorful artwork on their skin by the 60s and 70s, beginning a slow turn of the tide of associations for the art form.
ExploreClarion.com spoke to a number of local industry insiders about their own experiences with the tattoo industry and how it has continued to change.
Glenn Beers, Proprietor of Studio XIII Tattoo and Body Piercing, of Clarion
Glenn Beers told exploreClarion.com that the old stigma was originally well-deserved.
“It used to be you hung out in a shop, and there was a bleach bucket that was changed once a week and you wiped everything down with it and that was that,” Beers said.
Beers noted that he still gets expressions of surprise about their fanatical devotion to cleanliness, safety, and proper aftercare, particularly from older clients who come in.
“Back in the day, it was just a bunch of bikers and hooligans. Then, it hit the mainstream in the 80s, and everyone and their brother got tattoos. You get a couple of nice politicians and nurses and kids that grew up into their careers, and all of a sudden, they’re not bad because they’re tattooed. It just changed everything.”
Beers has been running Studio XIII for twenty-one years, making it the longest established tattoo and piercing business in the area. He noted that the industry has gone through a number of changes recently, as well.
“About twenty years ago, people saw that tattooing and piercing was on the rise, and everyone and their brother opened a tattoo shop. Then, all of a sudden it went from about 7,000 skilled piercers to 21,000 and from 500 tattoo shops to 6,000 tattoo shops.”
Clarion has seen its share of shops come and go, with a number of shops opening in the area in the last decade, then moving on.
Andy Mast, Ink Excess Tattoo Studio, of DuBois (formerly of Resolute Tattoo, of Clarion)
Andy Mast was a proprietor of a Resolute Tattoo, a former Clarion area business, which just closed earlier this year.
“As a business owner, it’s difficult pulling skilled and trustworthy employees into a smaller town like Clarion,” Mast said.
“I would spend a year training a new tattoo artist, and they would quit or leave because they got good enough to move to an area they could do better in. I felt like I kind of bit the bullet for years. I knew I could do better elsewhere and even turned down good job offers.”
In July of this year, Mast closed his Clarion business and began working out of Ink Excess Tattoo Studio in DuBois.
“I’m still close enough to my clients. Yet, I have the ability to travel, do tattoo conventions, and guest spots. There are three other amazing artists up there. It takes a lot of the weight off my shoulders, not being the shop owner. It’s also nice having other people around that are motivated at doing the same thing I am.”
Mast, who began his own training locally, under an artist in the Franklin area, finished his apprenticeship under world-renowned artist Marc Fairchild, who owned one of the largest chain of tattoo shops on the east coast.
He explained that the difference he found between the local tattoo scene and the one he discovered under Fairchild was “colossal.”
“Tattooing was huge out there. We put on a big convention/sideshow every year.”
He also discovered a distinct difference in the reaction many people had to visible tattoos in more developed areas as opposed to the rural areas.
“In smaller towns, you get treated lower, like you’re poor or a junky. When I moved to the city, if you were heavily tattooed, done well, you’re treated like you have money.”
Mast also noted that the industry has changed immensely by the popularization of tattoos in the media over the intervening years.
“All of the tv shows and big conventions and events being in the media now has definitely brought more of a sense of not just professionalism, but glamour to the public’s eye. I had a bad outlook on tattoos as a kid because all I saw was poorly done work. Once I learned it could be done precisely and have the color stay bright, I was all about it. Not only that, but the fact that people are treating it like a surgical procedure like it should be.”
Morgan Roos, Bad JuJu Tattoo, of Seneca
Morgan Roos, an Oil City native who tattooed at the recently closed Bad JuJu Tattoo in Seneca, expressed very similar sentiments about the advances in the equipment and cleaning techniques in the industry.
“A lot of people from my church had that stigma about tattoo shops: they’re dirty or whatever, but when I started working there, they came into the shop and realized ‘Oh, this can be done the right way,’” Roos said.
“It helped that they knew me and trusted me because trusting someone to put something on you forever, especially someone putting a needle to your body. You really have to trust them. I feel like in that way I’ve been able to help change it.”
Another strong proponent for professional tattoo parlors is the importance of cleanliness; Roos emphasized concern about how those who offer tattoos from their homes are negatively affecting the industry.
“There’s a lot of people who work out of their house in this area, and that kind of gives it a bad name, as well.”
“I know a lot of people have seen stuff that isn’t that great, and they think that’s just how it is, but I’m a big advocate of ‘If this is something you want to do, then go about it the right way.’ That’s just something we promoted.”
“We have people ask us, ‘What’s the best tattoo machine to get?’ and I don’t want to tell you that because I don’t want you working out of your house, that’s a health risk first of all, and you just shouldn’t do it, it gives tattooing a bad name.”
Roos believes that when it comes to getting a permanent work of art on your body, taking the time to find the right artist in the right setting is incredibly important.
“Research your local artists, save your money, and do it the right way, because 99% of the people I talk to as an artist, if they went the cheap route, the at-home route, they regret it. Most of the people who go the professional route, they don’t regret it.”
She also noted, with the profusion of tattoo artists and business in some areas, it is best to ask about their methods for handling tools, as well.
“I always tell everyone, go in and ask them, ‘How do you clean your tools?’ and if they can’t answer you, walk out.”
Corey Anderson, Feel the Steel Tattoo and Piercing, of Brookville
Corey Anderson, the proprietor of Feel the Steel Tattoo and Piercing, also emphasized the importance of cleanliness in contemporary tattoo shops.
“You should always stress to people you have to get it in an environment like a doctor’s office atmosphere, and there’s no reason not to,” Anderson said.
Anderson, who did a lot of traveling and doing guest spots at tattoo shops from Canada to Florida before settling down to open his business in Brookville, noted many of the same changes in the industry as Beers noted.
“Back in the day, the bikers got the tattoos and the outlaws. Now, you see judges having tattoos.”
“There’s people that come in here from all walks of life to get a tattoo. I have tattooed people from neurologists to firemen and law enforcement.”
Anderson shared the story of two very memorable customers he tattooed, which all began with a call from a woman from California who was in the area to visit her elderly and ailing grandmother.
According to Anderson, the woman brought her grandmother – in a wheelchair with her oxygen tank in tow – to the business because they wanted to get tattoos together.
“She [the grandmother] was stage four and passed two weeks later, but they got tattooed, and that right there is a memory that will never be taken from her. It was awesome.”
“I always tell people, life’s about creating memories, not waiting for them to happen.”
Anderson noted that there have been many instances of people he has tattooed that he felt had an experience that went beyond just the artwork.
“When someone sits it the chair, and they’re exhausted, they’ve got the mortgage and the kids and the bills and, this one bill that just came out of left field, then they sit in the chair, and they’re just like ‘Oh!’ … You know, it’s a relaxing feeling. It’s a kind of therapeutic session when people come here, and they get symbols in their tattoos that tell a story.”
Ric Austin and Nex Arroyo of Austin Ink, of Oil City
Ric Austin and Nex Arroyo both noted similar experiences where the customers’ tattoos tell a story.
“We get so many personal tattoos in here, people who have lost loved ones, people who have lost pets, that’s another big one, we do a lot for people who have lost their companions, and sometimes that can end with an emotional response at the end of the tattoo,” Austin said.
“We might have somebody crying on our shoulders, but to us, that means the world because that means that the job we did was cathartic to them, it did have that healing effect and that meaningful memento for them to take with them. We’ve had people come back to thank us for those tattoos months, even years after they were done. That to us means a lot to be able to reach out and touch someone’s life in meaningful ways.”
“Whatever you’re going to put on you is most likely something you truly believe in or something that you really like or are into. Sometimes people just seeing that on someone else brings people together and that’s what we want to do, to bring the community together,” Arroyo added.
“We want to stop the stereotypes because that’s pretty much what they are. You don’t have to be a biker to get a tattoo, you don’t have to be a gang member to get a tattoo, everybody should treat each other like people, and that’s what we are, just people.”
While the negativity and stereotypes surrounding tattoos have faded somewhat over the years, many of the industry insiders noted that they are certainly not completely gone.
John Tucker formerly of Resolute Tattoo, of Clarion
John Tucker, who began his tattooing career as an apprentice at Resolute Tattoo in Clarion and is currently an artist at Ikonic Tattoo Co. in Tampa, Florida, noted that while he doesn’t see a lot of negativity, he has gotten a few minor instances of someone asking why, shaking their head at him, or looks of disgust, mainly from people of older generations.
“People down here in Tampa are a lot more open and into it. I think it’s just because being a bigger city, warm year round, and a younger age demographic for the city help make it less negative. Jobs don’t seem to mind about tattoos at all down here,” Tucker said.
“I think with its growing exposure, TV shows, celebrities with tattoos, etcetera, it’s definitely becoming more acceptable.”
Tucker also noted that not all tattoos are created equal, and sometimes the content or symbolism of a tattoo is more of a problem than the mere existence of the tattoo.
“It also depends on the tattoos a person has. I think we can all agree that if we saw a dude with a swastika tattooed on his forehead, everyone would be judgmental toward him, as they should. I refuse to tattoo any hate symbols or imagery.”
Artists Taboo Offensive Tattoos
The refusal to tattoo certain things, or even tattoo certain parts of the body, was another topic that was echoed among many of the individuals interviewed.
“I usually turn people down if it’s anything that will offend other people, including myself. If someone comes in here and has something that they want to put on themselves, usually they explain to me the reason why, but I’m the one that’s doing the work, so if I think it’s not appropriate, in my own beliefs, I will not tattoo it on them. I will politely decline the tattoo,” Arroyo said.
Austin added, “That goes into hate speech and things like that. We’re not looking to advance negative stereotypes of tattooing, we’re looking to advance the positive.”
Beers also said that he refuses any requests for hate symbols at his business, while Anderson noted he has denied customers based on the symbols they have requested and tried to get them to change their choices.
Anderson explains that some people may not know what they are getting into with certain types of tattoos.
Anderson said that “In some cases, I am going to speak up and say I’m not going to do this. He wanted something that was kind of a gang sign but he didn’t really know what he was getting into. I explained it to him and he decided to do something else. That’s what I would aim for. I’ve got bills and all, but I’m not going to ruin your life.”
That attitude toward their customers, not only caring that they get the artwork they want but also caring about how it may affect their lives, was also echoed repeatedly throughout many of the interviews.
Austin said that he doesn’t do face tattoos, as he wants the customers to realize how it may affect their lives.
“We won’t do face tattoos, and I won’t do neck tattoos unless it’s on someone who’s heavily tattooed already. A lot of artists won’t do hand tattoos or finger tattoos; we still do, but we’re very cautious. When you get into tattoos that are in areas that are very highly visible like that we try to sit down with the customer and talk to them and, even if it means money out of our pockets, we want to help them make the best decision that they can,” Austin noted.
Likewise, Beers noted that they do not do facial tattoos or hand tattoos and Studio XIII, and Anderson said much the same for Feel the Steel.
Anderson added that he does “turn away a lot of face tattoos around here. If you’re not fully covered, I’m not going to be responsible for going down that path.”
Mast explained that he doesn’t tattoo minors.
“I don’t tattoo minors period, even with a parent’s signature, anything racist or drug-related, or pretty much if I think someone is flat out making a bad decision,” Mast noted.
Artwork Has Changed
Some of the changes in the industry have also gone beyond just the popularity and the cleanliness, with major changes in the artwork itself over the last few decades.
“If you look at thirty years ago and go back and look at the tattoo magazines of what was essentially the best work being put out thirty, forty, fifty years ago, and then you look at the work that’s being put out today, I mean, you’ve got amazing artists all over the place,” Austin said.
“If you take a look at the quality of work, that has attracted people who would snub their noses before, and now they’re like ‘wait a minute you can really do fine art on skin, and rather than hanging this on my wall, I can hang it on my arm for the rest of my life’. People are willing to invest in that because it’s something that it’s going to mean a little bit more to you when you can take it everywhere.”
Affordability A Concern
While the artwork is obviously central to the industry, the focus on the customer, what they want, and what they can afford, is also a concern in the area.
Roos noted that shops in this area have to keep their clientele in mind when setting prices because people in this region just can’t afford the kind of prices that some more urban shops set.
“A lot of the time you know what your art is worth, but you have to look at your clientele and consider what they are able to afford. That’s just something that you have to compromise on for this area,” she said.
Beers made note of the same issue, saying that they try to keep their prices in a reasonable range to make both tattoos and piercings affordable for locals.
“We’re not going to get rich, but this isn’t what you do if you want to get rich. That’s not Clarion, and that’s not us. We’re just like everyone else, paycheck to paycheck, day to day, but we do what we like,” he noted.
Tattoo Artists Loyal to the Profession
While urban areas can offer higher standard prices, and therefore a higher pay rate, for those in the industry, according to Anderson, it also offers far more competition and rivalries between businesses, and a fast-paced environment with more stresses than some artists want to deal with.
“What mainly started this in Brookville was that I felt my peace and serenity out here. I love it out here. Jefferson County is a beautiful place,” Anderson said.
Ric Austin, who grew up in Venango County, loves his community as well and chooses to reach out through Austin Ink’s charity efforts, which range from simple donations to Chinese Auctions, to their hosting their own events for locals in need.
“I think that when we do something like that [charity event], not only are we helping people, but we’re setting an example for the community,” Austin noted.
“More so, we’re the big scary tattoo shop, but we’re setting the example that your local convenience stores and pizza joints aren’t, we’re reaching out and doing things for the general public, and in doing that, we’re setting an example not just for businesses, but for individual people as well, and I hope that goes as far as we wish it to, to remind us all that we’re people, let’s take care of each other.”
That sentiment, that reminder that whether an individual chooses to adorn themselves with tattoos, or to leave their skin unmarked, was echoed many times throughout the interviews.
“I think the main thing is that no matter if you have tattoos or not, everyone should look and treat each other with respect,” Tucker said.
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