By Anne Maertens
The tattoo industry has changed a great deal in the past 100 years, but whether the individuals who tattoo for a living embrace new technologies or cling to the old, they appear to be thriving on a growing population of people looking to add a little ink to their lives.
With the growth in demand, multiple tattoo shops have opened in Bellingham in the past 10 years. Each shop is shaped by the owners and employees who all have their own styles and interests.
Jeff Johnson, a Portland tattoo artist and author of the book “Tattoo Machine,” which was published in July 2009, said the age-old tattoo taboos remain in the industry.
According to a Pew Research study, 36 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have at least one tattoo. Johnson said the societal taboos that allowed only bikers and sailors to get tattoos 30 years ago are the same forces that influence young adults to decorate their bodies today.
“I don’t think the taboo has gone away,” Johnson said. “I think in some ways, it’s being reinforced on a weird sociological level. The forces of homogeny that are brought to bear on the average person today are more sophisticated than they ever have been. People are taught to individualize themselves.”
While other specialty boutiques have been forced to close their doors due to the recession, the pressure to present one’s self as an individual has helped keep tattoo parlor doors wide open.
People don’t suffer from buyer’s remorse, Johnson said. Nor can they return their tattoo or exchange sizes.
“We have people come back and ask to make things smaller,” Johnson said. “We tell them the only way to make that smaller is if you gain 100 pounds.”
The interiors of tattoo shops have become more individualized as well, reflecting the personalities of the owners and employees.
Bellingham’s Black Rose embraces traditional tattoos
To Chucho Garcia, owner of Bellingham’s Black Rose Tattoo Parlor, one defining difference between tattoo shops is whether the men and women operating the vibrating tattoo machines refer to themselves as tattoo artists or tattooers.
A tattoo artist tends to work with vibrant, color-saturated images, but a tattooer is drawn to the bold, basic design tattooing was founded on, said Garcia, who firmly described himself as a tattooer.
“I truly believe that a tattooer is a guy that sticks to the old, where we came from, the classiness of it all.” Garcia said. “The elements of traditional tattoos are charming with a simple message.”
There are rules that tattooers follow in their work to achieve the old look, which Garcia, who belongs to three secret tattoo societies, said he couldn’t reveal because those rules are only to be spoken amongst close friends.
The original prints that hang on the Black Rose’s walls all carry a theme of simplicity. A cross with a banner that says “Sister” shares a frame with a skunk that resembles Pepé Le Pew.
“The forces of homogeny that are brought to bear on the average person today are more sophisticated than they ever have been. People are taught to individualize themselves.” — Jeff Johnson, Portland tattoo artist and author of the book “Tattoo Machine”
Garcia opened his first shop in 1983 at age 15 in Missoula, Mont. From the beginning, he had always held a respect for traditional tattoos. He opened Old School Tattoo in Bellingham in 1995 and sold it six years later.
In the late ’90s, Garcia said, tattoo culture lost its ties to tradition, and no one was interested in getting tattooed by a tattooer. They wanted tattoo artists to decorate their bodies, so for several years Garcia made an attempt at artistry.
“From ’98 to 2003, my tattooing was the worst thing that was out there because I was trying to do new school, mechanical, all this stuff because tattooing had changed so much,” Garcia said. “The traditional was gone. Finally I decided to do what I loved to do and if nobody liked it, they could kiss my ass.”
Luckily for Garcia, the last five years have seen a revival of tattoo’s roots. He said right now, there are more traditional tattooers than ever before.
Garcia said the type of customer that is drawn to the tattooer style varies from older tattoo veterans to young-hipster-tattoo virgins who are attracted to the lifestyle.
While he is able to convince some people to put a traditional touch in the modern images they bring in, not everyone wants to be led astray from their original ideas.
“For the most part, people are sheep,” Garcia said. “If you start to take them somewhere they don’t want to go with their tattoos, they claim ignorance, and they say ‘Well I want to get this, I don’t care if it doesn’t have any meaning.’”
If there is an image that Garcia doesn’t believe his shop is best for, he’ll refer them to someone else because he said, it is important that people get what they want since they have to live with it for the rest of their lives.
There are at least eight other tattoo shops in Bellingham, and many of them employ tattoo artists who enjoy the colorful, highly technical look that modern tattoos are able to achieve.
Female artist brings unique perspective to business
Penelope and Daniel Barringer have been the owners of Chameleon Ink Tattoo & Body Piercing since they purchased the shop, formerly known as Camden Chameleon, three years ago.
While Daniel is tattoo free and mostly runs the financial end of the business, Penelope has been a tattoo artist for 12 years. In an industry where approximately 10 percent of tattoo artists are female, Penelope said she is a bit of a rarity.
When she took over the shop, she wanted to offer a different kind of experience that was welcoming to everyone who wanted a tattoo.
One thing that makes Chameleon unique is that each tattoo artist has a private room, which offers customers protection from the eyes of people inside or outside of the shop. For this reason, Penelope said she attracts a lot of young women, which account for 60 percent of the shop’s business.
“As soon as you walk in the door, we’re going to be helpful,” Penelope said. “We’ll sit with people for hours and help them through the process before the meter starts running, so to speak.”
Because much of Chameleon’s crowd consists of young college students, Penelope said there are tattoos she won’t give. For example, she won’t tattoo hands or necks because she doesn’t want to ruin someone’s chance at a future career.
The shop also charges a $100 minimum to make people think about what they actually want tattooed on them for life, rather than just get a quick, cheap tattoo so they can say they have one.
“A good tattoo is not cheap, and cheap tattoos are not good,” she said.
Penelope said although a lot of what she does all day is basically tracing, you have to be very detail oriented and patient. She said it took her a long time to get used to working on a living canvas.
“To sit down there and do that on a body and its forever, I tell you what, it took me a year before I didn’t want to throw up before I sat down,” she said. “It was terrifying.”