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Photo courtesy of Rob Hunt
A diary in ink
“[Tattoos] represent memories and loved ones and nightmares and dreams. A lot of people get tattoos because they help them release something. Instead of having to explain that they experienced something, they can show it and say, yeah, I got it right here.” — Rob Hunt of Forever Tattoo in downtown Asheville, N.C.
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Paul Clark photo
Rob Hunt tattoos Cassidy McFadden with a heart image that she believes expresses her open-heartedness.
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Paul Clark photo
McFadden wears her heart on her shoulder after getting tattooed by Hunt at Forever Tattoo in Asheville.
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Dale Johnson photo courtesy of Mythical Markings Tattoo Studio
Dale Johnson of Mythical Markings Tattoo Studio in Knoxville, Tenn., with customer Martin Pittman. Johnson says he likes to keep each tattoo personal while still infusing his own artistic style.
Historically, societies have marked rites of passage with tattoos that forevermore indicate the bearer has transcended or ascended into a new world. Like makeup, plastic surgery, and scarification, tattoos are a way people change their bodies’ appearances to show that they are members of a particular culture, said Ward Mintz, who co-curated a tattoo exhibit at the Asheville Art Museum.
The Egyptians were some of the earliest known tattooers with examples found on figurines, female figures in tomb illustrations bearing markings on their thighs, and mummies dating back to 2,000 B.C. In a Smithsonian interview about the history of tattooing and its cultural significance, Joann Fletcher, research fellow in the department of archaeology at the University of York in Britain, theorizes that Egyptian women viewed the art and act of tattooing as a form of protection during pregnancy. Tattoos were found as a web of dots encircling the abdomen, much like the nets of beads traditionally placed over mummies to “keep everything in.” Also, depictions of the deity Bes, protector of women in labor, were found tattooed on the tops of women’s thighs.
“Tattoos represent our feelings, our psyche, our fears, our everything,” said Rob Hunt of Forever Tattoo in downtown Asheville, N.C. “They represent memories and loved ones and nightmares and dreams. A lot of people get tattoos because they help them release something. Instead of having to explain that they experienced something, they can show it and say, yeah, I got it right here.”
There are as many reasons for getting tattoos as there are people who have them. A Harris Interactive Poll done in January 2012 indicated that one in five U.S. adults have a tattoo—a steep climb from the same poll done ten years earlier. Women were more likely to have them than men. Tattoos made both genders feel sexier (30 percent of responders), rebellious (25 percent), attractive and strong (21 percent), spiritual (16 percent), healthy (9 percent), intelligent (8 percent) and athletic (5 percent). Democrats were more likely to have them than Republicans.
“Me, I look at all my tattoos as a living diary,” said Daron James, owner of Diamond Thieves Body Piercing and Tattoo in West Asheville. “I can remember where I was and what I was into—and why I got it—with each of my tattoos. Some people consider their journals to be priceless, things they keep with them throughout their lives. I don’t think I could put a price on my tattoos. A tattoo is a fantastic piece of artwork that you get to wear everywhere for the rest of your life. You don’t have to put it on; you don’t have to take it off. You’re never going to lose it or leave home without it. And eventually, you’ll take it to the grave with you and it will be the only thing left to tell your story when nobody has any idea of who you are.”
Tattooing as self-expression has been on the rise for more than a decade, but it has gotten a big boost from TV shows like “Ink Master,” “Tattoo Highway” and “America’s Worst Tattoos.” More people want to be inked, Hunt said, and those who do are older and seemingly more conservative than they were when he started out 20 years ago. The old stereotypes of who gets tattoos—the biker, the bohemian, the outcast—don’t really apply any more. Now, one’s attorney is as likely to have a full sleeve of tattoos as is one’s mechanic, Hunt said.
Hunt’s wife, Lauren Brady, is the dietetic internship coordinator for Lenoir-Rhyne University’s center for graduate studies in Asheville. The picture of professionalism, she dresses conservatively at work. One would never know that she has several large tattoos, all “strategically placed,” as she puts it. Brady, whose Twitter moniker is EdgyRD, is pretty sure most of the people she works with knows she has them. “I’m not shy about telling them,” she said. “When they ask what my husband does and I tell them he’s a tattoo artist, they ask, ‘well, do you have tattoos?’ I say, ‘why, yes’.”
Though one might expect the wife of an tattoo artist to have tattoos, Lauren got her first before she met Hunt—a small tattoo that asserted an 18-year-old woman’s independence from her parents. She didn’t think about getting more until she saw all the ones Hunt had. He introduced her to people who were covered in them, and that got her thinking about starting her own mosaic. But she was discreet. One knows she’s tattooed only when she’s wearing a sleeveless dress.
She’d like to get more, but if she got one on her leg, then she’d have to wear pants to work. And if she got one on her arms—above the elbow only, she said—she’d have to wear sleeves. “When people see you with a tattoo, they make assumptions,” Brady said. “I don’t want that to be part of the equation in a working situation. When I see people who are heavily tattooed, I wonder what they do for a living.”
Jerry Bradley is an emergency room doctor in Sevierville, Tenn. He chuckles when he considers the reactions that some people have when they find out he has tattoos. “A bit of a rebel” still at 61, he got his first 16 years ago to mark the end of his marriage. A motorcyclist, he was in Myrtle Beach for Bike Week with his girlfriend at the time. She had one, a botched job that she wanted to get covered up.
Bradley accompanied his girlfriend to a tattoo studio, which had hundreds of sample images hanging in the waiting room. Bradley found one he liked. “I muttered to myself, I said ‘if that guy was here today that drew that, I’d probably get it’,” he said. “And I heard a voice behind me say, ‘oh, really?’ I turned around and this woman said, ‘there’s the man, sitting right over there.’ I’d kind of stuck my foot in my mouth, and I wasn’t going to back down.”
The image—a wolf’s head inside a dreamcatcher-like surround—isn’t visible while he’s at work, he said, nor is the aboriginal image or the University of Tennessee football helmet. Bradley’s no wild man. He doesn’t have hair down his back, though he does have a bit of a beard. He was a hippie back in the day, but even though his email moniker is “rebfromtn,” he’s just a regular guy who, these days, sports a couple of new tattoos that he and his new wife, who’s of Norwegian descent, share. They both have Norwegian symbols for “strength” and “grace.”
“Each one of my tattoos has to do with phases of my life,” Bradley said. “I get tattoos when relationships change.”
Dale Johnson at Mythical Markings Tattoo Studio in Knoxville, Tenn., did the last four of Bradley’s tattoos. Many of his customers are people who are marking significant events in their lives. The biggest difference in tattooing now and when he got into the business 20 years ago, Johnson said, is that tattoos aren’t just for aesthetics now. For most people getting them, they have significant meaning. They honor the passing of loved ones. They offer hope and remind people to stay strong. They note a life before and a life after, especially in the case of divorce.
“It’s a lot more personal now,” Johnson said. “Us artists, we still want to get in as much artistic value as possible. But for the customer, it’s more about the personal part.”
Jennifer Lunsford and her best friend got tattooed in late November at Victory Boulevard Tattoo in Asheville. Lunsford, who received hers as a birthday present from her friend and her husband, got two—a skeleton key incorporating her name on her hipbone and two small ladybugs on her wrist. The ladybugs are in appreciation of her 4-year-old daughter, who has severe cerebral palsy.
“Before she was born we decorated her room with ladybugs, and now, when she goes through her bad stuff, they calm her down,” Lunsford said. “This is a reminder that no matter how bad things are for me, she goes through far worse.”
Lunsford is another person one might not think would get a tattoo. She’s an appointment scheduler for a neurosurgeon in Asheville. She grew up in a conservative family in Weaverville, N.C., and, at 18, got “your typical tattoo at 18,” a butterfly on her back. Outed when she talked about it to her high school newspaper, she incurred the wrath of her deeply religious father.
“He didn’t speak to me for quite a while,” she said. “People certainly look at you differently. But to me, tattoos are beautiful. There are lots that I’d like to get, but I don’t want to be perceived as trouble. Society looks at you in a different light when you have them.” Though she’ll cover up her new markings when she’s at work say says, “I’m at the point in my life that if someone has something to say about it, I really don’t care.”
Johnson often talks to first-timers about what to expect, as far as how it feels, which some people love and others describe as sandpaper rubbed over road rash, and tries to talk them out of certain decisions they may later come to regret, such as getting a boyfriend or a girlfriend’s name tattooed on them.
“It’s bad luck, I’ll tell them,” he said. “Whether they take our advice is up to them, but we hate it when they come back and say ‘we broke up six months ago.’ I used to turn them away if they wanted a boyfriend’s name. But nowadays I try to talk them into having the name done in a lighter color, in case we have to cover it up.”
In both Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, the going rate for tattoos tends to be around $100-$150 an hour, with a $50 minimum for small jobs. The best tattoo artists are adept in other arts, such as airbrushing, painting and sculpting, Johnson said. They tend to be much better than the literalist who can recreate an image pulled from a showroom sample. Those guys are good too—it’s not easy to duplicate a design perfectly—but the best artists are the ones who take a client’s ideas and work up a design that captures not only the image one has in mind but also one’s reasons for wanting to get the tattoo, Johnson said.
Though it’s easy to spot bad tattoos—and Johnson and Hunt have covered up plenty of them—subtlety often sets the well-executed ones apart, both said. Things like shading and gradient and fine line work make the good ones stand out.
“People are seeing the art aspect of tattooing, whereas before they just saw gritty symbols,” said Hunt, who’s been tattooing since 1994. Many of the tattoos that people want these days are complex, with depth, dimension and shading that wasn’t prevalent 20 years ago, he said. “When I first started, there were only a few artists that were amazing good,” Hunt, a talented painter, said. “Now there are a lot of artists who are discovering what’s possible.”
Like other aspects of popular culture, tattoos trend, and they shift “on a monthly basis,” said James, of Diamond Thieves Body Piercing and Tattoo in West Asheville, who has been in the business about fifteen years. Right now at his shops in Asheville and Marion, N.C., the Browning deer symbol is big. A year ago, it was the clawed marks from the Monster Energy drink. “People like the brand stuff,” James said. “I’ve got a Wonder Bread logo tattooed on me somewhere.”
“What people are asking for is a lot different now,” Hunt said. “I haven’t had a request for a tribal armband or barbed wire in eight or nine years. Now people want things of a more painterly style. Or they want the traditional stuff. A lot of the stuff I like to do is the classic stuff—flowers, skulls, snakes and butterflies, and everything in between.”
Hunt points to television and tattoo reality shows as motivation for many of today’s trends. “Before ‘Miami Ink,’ people asked for cartoon characters,” he said.” Now they want koi fishes. That’s what I dream about now—people coming in and getting koi fish. I dread it. Everybody wants that kind of stuff. Trends can really hurt some things and help some things.”
The proliferation of studios is one of those not-so-great things, Johnson said. A lot of shops are apprenticing people who do beginner’s work, and they have so many apprentices that they’re flooding the market with people whose sole goal is to strike it rich. “It’s not that way,” Johnson said. “They should be in this for the art work, not the money.”