Growth of Ink; Tattooing in the Triad

Times are changing. That’s what any tattoo artist in theTriad will tell you. As the years pass, tattoos are moving from being associated with convicts, bikers, and other rough crowds and towards social acceptance. According to a 2012 Harris Poll, more than one in five American adults has at least one tattoo, which is up from less than one in seven in 2008. There are more than ten tattoo and piercing shops in the Burlington area alone and upwards of 70 or more in the Triad.

In the midst of this change, there are key differences between the tattoo scene now and that of years past. “Most people nowadays at least have one, or have talked about getting one or thought about it. No matter the age, we’ve seen as much as 18-year-old people in here all the way up to like 65. There’s been a 65-year-old woman that came and got a tattoo here before.” says D.J. Catlett, shop manager of Inferno Ink Tattoo in Burlington

As the industry moves into the mainstream, the practice is embraced as an art form more and more, even by older generations. Bobby Maness, who owns his own shop Last Stand Studio and trained at least nine artists currently in Alamance County, described how the art of the ink has changed, “Tattoos now are more of an art form, instead of just the sticker kind of tattoos. And so the people that can’t really draw are being pushed out. And it’s a good thing because this sticker art thing is not ‘in’ anymore.”

Sticker art is the genre of tattoos that essentially looks like a sticker on the skin.  They are small, colorful and the generally cliché tattoos your parents warned you about. Maness believes they are on the way out, being replaced by more custom designs. However, the majority of the tattooed community is not setting any speed records abandoning old ways.

Jordan Goldston, an artist at Inferno Ink Tattoo said, “People around here aren’t used to fully tatted people walking around, so we get a lot of generic pieces around here.” The tattoo scene in the Triad is quite unlike tattoo culture on the west coast, where tattoos are viewed as more of the artist’s creation instead of just body art.  Goldston described the scene in California, “Out west… [you] give the artist an idea and the artist just runs with it, makes it however he wants to and makes it his piece.”

Generic pieces, such as the sticker art and names, while not the most interesting for the artist, are the bread and butter of financial security. Chris Burgess, who tattoos at Rare Breed Tattoo in downtown Burlington, described the small quick tattoos as being the moneymakers, while the larger custom pieces are what builds the portfolio and skills.

Chris Burgess applies a stencil for a small tattoo at Rare Breed Tattoos. These small tattoos are the real moneymakers for artists.

Unfortunately for the growth of tattooing, the practice of “scratching” is becoming more and more common. Scratching is when people, disdainfully called “scratchers,” by artists, tattoo illegally out of their homes without having formal training or licensure.  DeShazo said this is the main competition with the legal shops in the area because illegal operations can charge much less.  “What’s messing up the tattoo scene, I think, is the people that are [working] out of the house.”

Cheaper tattoos often come at the cost of quality; especially since most tattoo supply companies will not sell quality equipment to artists not associated with a legal shop, so only knockoff companies sell cheap equipment to anyone.  Maness blames in part the many tattoo shows on television today.  “It’s taken a dramatic effect on the general public, everybody thinks ‘oh I see it on TV, I see these people doing it, I can do the same thing.’  These companies are selling people tattoo equipment so that they can do it out of their house, and then they gotta come to me to get it fixed, because they’re not an artist.  They have no idea what they’re doing or how to run the machine.  They haven’t gone through any type of apprentice.” Maness clarifies that art still prevails. He started tattooing underground while in the Navy, but he had been an artist since he could walk.  He criticizes scratchers that are simply tattooing to make some fast money.

Zachery Wright, an artist at Body Ink Tattoos in Haw River, says the increase in scratchers is what has changed the most about the tattoo culture since he started tattooing.  He says that there are more scratchers now than there were five years ago. “I think it’s one thing to start out as a scratcher realizing that you want to pursue it further, and go into a shop and learn it then, but I think its another thing never to draw anything…and just try to tattoo for the popularity of it.”

Bobby Maness works on a large custom piece in his new shop, Last Stand Studio. These large works help build the portfolio and name of the artist.

The biggest problem with tattooing as a scratcher is not the lack of quality in the tattoos; it is the danger of infectious disease.  When someone buys a cheap tattoo kit online, sterilization of the equipment is not easy. In a licensed shop, there is an autoclave to ensure the equipment is clean, but home shops often do not have this technology, and even while using disposable needles and tubes, the machine itself can become contaminated if it is not properly cleaned after each session.

A common argument for the banning of tattoos is that there is a higher risk of disease.  However since 1985, when the Centers for Disease Control started tracking HIV transmission, there has not been a single case of HIV being contracted from a legal tattoo studio.  There have, however been seven cases from the dental industry.  As far as hepatitis goes, there are approximately 12 cases annually from legal tattoo studios, but 43 from dental offices.

As part of the application process to open a tattoo studio in North Carolina, each artist in the studio must prove that they are educated in blood borne pathogens and the studio must meet a series of guidelines concerning the construction of the shop as well as water, plumbing, and sewage systems.  In addition, the shop must keep a record of every person tattooed for a minimum of two years, including a copy of photo identification.

Tattoos are entering their prime time of acceptance in American culture.  They’re in, hot, and safe.  Instead of being shadowed in doubt and distrust, the art form is growing.

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