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Phoenix, Ink: Tattoos Not Just for 'Whores and Sailors' Anymore; What Happened?

Tattoos have gone mainstream.
Tattoos have gone mainstream. Michelle Sasonov

click to enlarge The full view inside Immaculate Tattoo. - JIM LOUVAU
The full view inside Immaculate Tattoo.
Jim Louvau

Amber Butterfly McPherson can’t decide if she wants the skeleton holding a dozen roses or the Star of David.

“It’s my first tattoo, so it’s, like, really important I get this right,” she explains. “I like just found out my grandfather was supposedly Jewish. So, like, I want him on my stomach. The guy holding the flowers could be him, because he, like, owned a flower shop. Or my mom said just get the Jewish star, because that could be like him and me both.”

Amber Butterfly (“I go by both names,” she insists, “and that’s really important”) is flipping through a book of tattoo designs at day one of the Hell City Tattoo Festival. For the 11th straight year, Hell City has taken over the Arizona Biltmore Resort for three days of late-August tattooing and ink-related merriment.

“I mean, it’s like I’m going to have it like forever, right?” Amber Butterfly is telling a heavily tattooed man standing over the book of tattoo art.

“Totally!” he barks each time Amber Butterfly pauses.

“Because I’m like not like a girl who’s going to get her tattoos removed. Like, ever. Also, this is like my first one, so that’s special, right?” she asks, then sticks her lower lip out in a pout.

“Totally!” her new friend bellows. His earlobes, stretched with turquoise-encrusted metal washers, dangle close to the collar of his Harley-Davidson tank top. His impressive jawline is inked with what look like little apostrophes.  

Amber Butterfly, a 23-year-old massage therapist who traveled here from Indio, California, bats her long, blue eyelashes at Apostrophe Beard. “Can you help me decide?”

“I don’t work here,” he grunts. “I’m getting a lower back piece done.” He jabs his thumb over his shoulder at a skinny guy who’s bent over the moist midriff of a young woman in a sports bra and a shiny red miniskirt. “I’m up next,” he says.

A shirtless man in a devil mask wanders up and starts flipping through the tattoo book. “You having a good time, angel?” he asks Amber Butterfly, who begins tracing her forefinger over the birds of paradise that trail up and over this stranger’s colossal shoulders. It’s the kind of interaction one sees a lot at Hell City.

Launched in Columbus, Ohio, by tattoo artist Durb Morrison, Hell City’s been around since 2002. Five years later, Morrison brought the annual convention to Phoenix and the Biltmore, where more than 200 on-site tattoo artists stain the skin of nearly 6,000 people over a long weekend. Adding Phoenix was a no-brainer, Morrison says. 

click to enlarge There was no ink shortage at the Hell City festival last year. - MICHELLE SASONOV
There was no ink shortage at the Hell City festival last year.
Michelle Sasonov
“Tattooing is so huge in Phoenix,” he says. “It’s a mecca, really one of the tattooing capitals of the country. You have so many body-art pioneers here. People come here from Vegas and Cali and all over.”

At Hell City, they come for tattooing seminars and art exhibits, to add to and compare body art and listen to bands with names like Venomous Pinks and Fairy Bones, and to watch an aerial exhibition and a freak show called The Pain Proof Punks and the Dipshit Sideshow.

They’re joined by the hottest celebrity tattoo artists from the glut of reality TV shows dedicated to inking bodies: This year, Josh Payne from Paramount’s Ink Master, Big Gus from Spike TV’s Tattoo Nightmares, and Kelly Doty from Ink Master: Angels are in residence, signing autographs and judging a vaguely misogynistic beauty pageant called The Hell City Hotties, in which women in tiny scraps of cloth walk a runway, showing off their ink and various other body modifications. Finalists get to hand out trophies to winners of the weekend’s tattoo design competition, which is the big ticket event of the convention.

Hell City is noisy, anarchistic proof that tattooing is more than just a naughty trend these days. It’s big business; an art form; a community. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine claims the percentage of tattooed adult Americans rose from 14 to 21 percent between 2008 and 2012. According to Statistic Brain Research Institute, 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have at least one tattoo, and 21 percent of all Americans have one or more — that’s about 45 million people. 

Of those who have tattoos, 70 percent have more than one and 20 percent have more than five. Americans spend an estimated $1.65 billion a year getting inked. (A paltry 17 percent of all tattooed people regret their body art, usually when the design is linked to someone who’s dumped them. Remember Johnny Depp’s ill-conceived “Winona Forever” tattoo?)

And, as Morrison says, tattooing is especially popular in Arizona. That may be because our regulating of body modification businesses is more relaxed. None of the 245 tattoo shops listed in the local Yellow Pages is held to the same health-code standards of those in most other states.

click to enlarge "The shock value of a heavily tattooed person is gone," says Immaculate Tattoo's Aaron Coleman. - JIM LOUVAU
"The shock value of a heavily tattooed person is gone," says Immaculate Tattoo's Aaron Coleman.
Jim Louvau

Back when tattooing was used in place of clothing to conceal nakedness, there was no need for regulation. From all reports, tattoos — the word is derived from the Tahitian “tatu,” meaning “to mark” — have been coloring mankind since Neolithic times. Ancient art, cave drawings, and mummified skin all point to long-ago practices that brought drawings to arms and legs and torsos.

Much later, 17th-century British pilgrims used them to memorialize trips to various holy lands. In some cultures, inked symbols indicated a person’s particular skill: a blacksmith might have a tattoo of an anvil on his arm, a weaver a drawing of a basket. Primitives inked wrists and fingers to ward off illness; in more recent centuries, tattoos indicated clan membership. In Greece, tattooing was used as shorthand among spies; Romans used it to mark criminals and slaves, while western Asians marked their social status in intricate skin designs. For a time in Japan, tattooing was a religious ceremonial rite.

Modern tattooing among westerners is usually attributed to William Dampher, a sailor whose Polynesian pal Prince Giolo was heavily tattooed. Dampher exhibited his friend in London in the late 17th century, and small, discreet tattoos briefly became a thing among gentrified folk in England. Shortly after the American Revolution, sailors began augmenting their government-issued protection papers with descriptions of their tattoos, to prevent impersonation by British officers trying to pass as Yanks, and to help identify sailor bodies should they be lost at sea.

Whether employed by seamen or British gentry, tattooing was an arduous and painful process — each puncture was inked separately, one pin-prick at a time- — before the advent of the electric tattooing machine in the late 19th century, an early version of the electric pens used today. By this point, in England and America, tattooing had become a working-class trend, but its popularity waned, thanks in large part to its close relation to criminal culture and a series of high-profile blood-poisoning scandals.

In the 21st century, tattooing is the stuff of reality TV shows like A&E’s Inked and TLC’s Miami Ink.

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Tattooing slowly re-entered the mainstream in the late 1950s, and by the time Janis Joplin had a heart tattooed on her left breast by artist Lyle Tuttle in the late 1960s (considered a watershed in the acceptance of tattoos as art), tattooing had already shifted from a deviance to a desirable form of expression. 

In the 21st century, tattooing is the stuff of reality TV shows like A&E’s Inked and TLC’s Miami Ink and big-deal art exhibitions (most notably Chicago’s recent record-breaking “Freaks and Flash” show at Intuit Institute). In 2011, body ink really went mainstream when Mattel introduced a tattooed Barbie doll. 

Today, there are more than 20,000 tattoo parlors in the U.S.; according to the National Tattoo Association, a new one opens pretty much every single day.

More shops means more ink on more people, says Immaculate Tattoo’s Aaron Coleman. “The shock value of a heavily tattooed person is gone. People aren’t locking their doors anymore when they see some guy with a neck tattoo or a full pair of sleeves.”

“It’s more rebellious nowadays to not get tattooed,” agrees local tattoo artist Taryn Moore, somewhat wistfully. “There was a time when it wasn’t even legal in every state to be tattooed. It made the art and the decision to get inked a little more precious.”

There’s a recurring sentimentality, among the old-timers, for the days when tattooing was a form of rebellion, something that set one apart. Coleman, who’s 45, feels like these days, everyone has a family member who’s heavily tattooed. Back when he started, it was all bikers and punks getting inked. 

“Today we have soccer moms coming in wanting a full sleeve,” says Coleman, who specializes in what he calls “weirdo stuff” — cartoony designs that incorporate elements of traditional American and Japanese tattooing. “By the late ’90s, everyone was getting tattooed. It wasn’t considered weird or fringey anymore.”

Phoenix tattoo artist Magic Marge Middendorp says that when she started out, “It was very special and rare to be a tattooist. You waited for the day someone called you a tattooist. It was just the shit. Now we’re told we’re all artists. I feel like we’re lumped in with every other kind of artist, now. Back then, a tattooist was a tattooist, period.”

Middendorp has a thigh devoted to images of her family members, and a portrait of Janis Joplin “because she’s awesome.” Three of her knuckles are inked with the letters W, T, and F. “Because,” she says with a little laugh, “what the fuck!”

She’s more than just wistful for the old days. “There are so many tattoo shops now, we’re not as busy as we used to be. In the old days, we hung together, everyone knew everyone, we used to sell supplies to one another. You had to be versatile — you had to be able to tattoo anything. Today everyone’s specializing, and it’s kind of snotty sometimes. They’re like, ‘Oh, I only do flowers,’ or whatever.”

No longer unique to ex-cons and drunken sailors, tattooing has come of age; a full-color diorama covering all of one’s back is as controversial as a mini-skirt. But why? What happened to tattooing to make it respectable? 

“You can ask a hundred different people why tattoos are such a thing now,” Morrison claims, “and you’ll get a hundred different answers.”

click to enlarge Tattoo artist Harley Goodson likens getting a tattoo to "mental warfare." - JIM LOUVAU
Tattoo artist Harley Goodson likens getting a tattoo to "mental warfare."
Jim Louvau
In the purple-walled back room of his Tempe shop, a room hung with mirrors and taxidermy, Harley Goodson is bent over the bare torso of a youngish fellow with a shaved head and a prominent love patch. Goodson is peering at a portrait of St. Francis that he’s transferred, using tracing paper and a solution called Detox, just under the man’s left armpit. With a marking pen, he adds lines and swirls to the portrait, which is encircled by the rosary beads Goodson tattooed there a couple weeks ago.

“That looks fucking dope!” a young tattooer named Jimmy hollers from across the room, where he’s hunkered over a drawing table, sketching a tattoo for his next client. Jimmy, who never refers to himself as a tattoo artist, has been tattooing for seven years, four of them at No Regrets, Goodson’s shop on University Drive. 

The man with the soul patch, who says his name is Devin Barras, hops up onto a pleather massage table and tucks his elbows behind his head.

“Sometimes it burns,” Barras says of getting tattooed. “Sometimes it’s sharp. Scratchy.”

“Yep,” Goodson agrees, glancing at his original sketch. He draws his designs first on paper, later making adjustments for the contours of a client’s body. The needle of his machine is multi-pronged, like a tiny paint brush made of steel. He can swap the needle out for a larger or smaller one, depending on whether he’s shading or filling in. 

“Any time I’m getting tattooed, I’m preparing mentally the whole week before,” Goodson admits. “I don’t have any fun spots left where a tattoo isn’t going to hurt. It’s all mental warfare.”

He coaches clients to get a good night’s sleep and stay hydrated before getting inked. He takes a piece of fruit with him when he’s in for an all-day session. “Anxiety and hunger are a bad tattoo combination,” he says, yanking a bright overhead lamp closer to Barras’ chest. Goodson’s own arms are covered in brightly colored sleeves; a pair of neatly feathered wings peeks out from the neck hole of his black T-shirt. An oldies station blares ’80s New Wave while Goodson swabs St. Francis with Dentol, a numbing anesthetic that smells like Pine Sol.

click to enlarge "I prepare mentally for a whole week before getting tattooed," says Harley Goodson. - JIM LOUVAU
"I prepare mentally for a whole week before getting tattooed," says Harley Goodson.
Jim Louvau
“How’s your lady liking this?” Goodson asks Barras, pointing to the designs that cover his chest, stomach, and both his sides. 

“She likes it,” he mutters, an arm draped over his eyes. Half of Barras’ torso, which tells the story of his journey to Arizona from Southern California, is devoted to his lady. Hers is the side with the pretty desert creatures: a tortoise, a deer, a jackalope. Francis, the patron saint of animals, peers down from the clouds; below him, a peaceful Prescott mountain range emerges. On Barras’ right side, the Superstitions are a backdrop for a Wild West story featuring a cowboy’s noose, a desert squirrel, and a ring-tailed cat.

“You have to prepare for it mentally,” Barras tells the ceiling, thrumming his fingers on his bare chest. “I can’t come in here when I’m pissed off.” 

Goodson taps a foot pedal with his black-and-white checked Vans, and his tattoo pen buzzes. While Debbie Harry raps about Fab Five Freddie, Goodson begins tracing St. Francis’s beard, stopping occasionally to blot away ink and blood with a tissue and a bit of the white petroleum he’s globbed onto the back of his rubber glove.

Barras, who’s been collecting tattoos for seven years, never flinches while Goodson punctures his skin. “When I started in 1993, you had to go to a big city to get ink,” Goodson recalls. Back then, he worked for a mobile tattoo shop that traveled to Memphis or Albuquerque or any small town that didn’t have a tattoo parlor of its own. “We’d pull in and park and people would just start lining up,” he says, pausing to check on Barras with a gentle, “How you doing?”

Today, Goodson says, it seems like there’s a tattoo shop every quarter-mile. You never know who’s going to walk through the door, or what they’re going to ask for. Tattooing trends come and go, but there are always mainstays. “Lately, I do a lot of eagles,” he says. “I’m getting a lot of patriotic stuff because there’s such political division in the country.”

Goodson draws every one of those eagles himself. It doesn’t occur to him to worry that another artist might steal one of his designs; he has no time to think about things like that. He’s studying art history at Mesa Community College and running his busier-than-ever tattoo shop. “I’m thinking about finishing my homework, and doing good designs, and keeping my needles clean,” he says, then laughs.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, only Coconino County regulates its tattoo industry.

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Several U.S. lawsuits have addressed whether body art is copyrightable, but local lawmakers are still scratching their collective heads about the larger governance of tattooing. Most states in the U.S. also regulate the activities of tattoo shops, requiring them to be licensed, to only serve sober clients, and a long list of other nitpicky restrictions.

Not so Arizona. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, only Coconino County regulates its tattoo industry, requiring all body-art operators to register their business and participate in an annual training course on blood-borne diseases. 

In Maricopa County, tattoo shops are policed by a comparatively short list of laws —stuff like using sterilized needles and not inking clients younger than 19 unless they bring a parent along. But there are no regular state inspections of tattoo or body-piercing parlors; no law saying that employees must receive proper training.

State Representative Kelli Butler, a Democrat from Paradise Valley, wants Maricopa County to be more accountable. In February, she introduced House Bill 2442, which would have required ink shops to pass a health certification or close their doors. Butler’s proposed bill wanted stricter sanitation guidelines, annual blood-borne pathogen training for artists, and state health department inspections. Right now, consumers in Maricopa County aren’t able to file a formal complaint about tattoo parlors with either the state department or the Arizona Department of Health Services, but HB 2442 would have changed that. 

Earlier bills to regulate body-art shops have failed, and HB 2442 never got a hearing. Butler swears she’ll reintroduce the bill next session.

 “Sailor Bill” Johnson is happy to hear someone in Arizona is taking an interest in regulation. In 1992, he and his colleagues at the National Tattoo Association lobbied the legislature in Florida, where he lives, for strict regulation of tattoo shops there, and won stricter policing of ink masters and their clients.

“Every couple years, someone from Arizona will call and ask how that’s working out for us,” says Johnson, who’s 69 and has been a tattooer for 40 years. He’s now vice president of the National Tattoo Association, which polices health-safety issues for ink masters and their clients. “They always end up saying, ‘Well, it sounds like a lot of work to regulate. We’ll just leave things the way they are in Arizona.’ I always want to ask them, ‘Then why the heck did you call me?’”

Goodson polices his own shop’s healthy practices. “You have to,” he says. “There’s a ton of tattoo shops, but it’s a small community. People talk. It would be bad to lose everything over some dumb mistake.”

Right now, he’s got a portrait of St. Francis to think about. He doesn’t know how many hours it will take him to finish Barras’ left side. “You don’t eat the elephant in one bite,” he says. While Goodson whistles along with Toni Basil, whose boyfriend is so fine it blows her mind, Barras stares at the ceiling, holding perfectly still and thinking about why he’s turning his torso into a travelogue of his life.

“There isn’t one single reason,” he finally says, addressing the ceiling. “But I can tell you this: Anyone who tells you tattooing doesn’t hurt is lying. Tattoos are something you earn.”

click to enlarge “Women typically handle the pain better than men," says "Sailor Bill" Johnson. - MICHELLE SASNOV
“Women typically handle the pain better than men," says "Sailor Bill" Johnson.
Michelle Sasnov

The pain of a tattoo, “Sailor Bill” Johnson says, is somewhere between a mosquito bite and a bee sting. “Women typically handle the pain better than men. But then again, you hit some people with a feather and they act like they’re going to die. Other people like the pain, and it doesn’t faze them.”

For some people, tattooing is a kind of therapy. Taryn Moore sees women who’ve had mastectomies and feel bad about their appearance. “A lot of tattoo artists have been doing areola recreation work, creating floral pieces and chest pieces over where a woman’s breast used to be.”

One of Moore’s clients, a woman who’s ill and in constant discomfort, comes to her for what Moore calls “pain transfer therapy.” 

“Tattooing takes her mind off things,” says Moore, who inks at Lady Luck Tattoo. “It’s a different kind of pain, and in the end she gets a pretty bouquet of flowers on her calf or whatever.”

Like many of her peers, Moore got into tattooing as part of the local punk scene of the late 1990s. Later, she apprenticed at Artistic Tattoo, a popular Central Phoenix shop. “I did grunt work,” she remembers. “I learned how to make needles, mix ink, build machines. I wasn’t a great people person, and back then there weren’t a great variety of people getting tattooed. A lot of very interesting characters came through the door, and learning how to talk to all these different people helped me mature.”

Moore, who tattoos here and in the Bay area, doesn’t know how many tattoos she has. She’s never counted them. They’ve started to blend together into one big picture. Occasionally, she adds to the picture herself.

“Lots of artists do that,” she explains, “for practice. Maybe you’re testing a new machine or ink or needle. I’ll do a little something on my leg to see how it looks.”

Face tattoos "don’t age well. Face skin is different. The ink spreads and runs more quickly." – Taryn Moore.

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Moore tries not to roll her eyes when people ask if she’s thought about what her tattoos will look like when she’s old. “I tell them I can’t wait to see what they become. It’s like people think I haven’t made peace with the fact that my body art will merge and bleed and fade out. Seriously?”

She doesn’t do face tattoos, though. “They don’t age well,” Moore says. “Face skin is different. The ink spreads and runs more quickly."   

Artist Aaron Coleman agrees. “I have weird anxiety about doing necks and faces.” He broke his no-faces rule once, when a colleague planned to ink his own visage after a family member died. “I said, ‘Okay, no, I’ll do it.’ It’s very small. But I see him all the time and I just fixate on that tattoo.”

Coleman has been tattooing locally for a quarter-century, and has owned Immaculate Tattoo in Mesa for nearly as long. He makes it a point to talk to his younger clients about their tattoo choices. “I don’t try to talk anyone out of anything,” he insists. “But I have tons of shit on me that I was into when I was a kid.” Coleman wasn’t thinking about whether the Misfits would  be his favorite band forever when he got their logo tattooed on his hip in the ’90s. “That one was a bad choice on my part,” he says with a laugh.

When a young, angry kid wants Satan tattooed on his chest, Coleman gets it. “I was a pissed-off kid once, too,” he says. “But people can grow out of their tattoos.”

Tattooing may be mainstream these days, but its predominantly demonic imagery remains. Why all the demons, the skulls, and blood-dripping hearts and grim reapers? “Tattoos,” Morrison says, “have always had that life-and-death thing going on.” Skull imagery is likely carried over from the old days, he says, when tattoos were a tough-guy thing, when skeletons referenced that scariest thing ever: death.

Coleman says he gets as many requests for Jesus tattoos as he does the devil. And culture critic (and longtime Phoenix New Times contributor) Amy Young knows more people with workaday tattoos than satanic ones. “I’ve seen a seamstress with a spool of thread tattooed on her, and a chef with a fork-and-knife design,” says Young, who wrote for International Tattoo Art magazine for years. “Lately, people are being playful with the rebellious nature that tattooing inherently has.”

These days, death imagery typically memorializes someone’s passing, Morrison claims. “Someone gets a skeleton on their back because their mom died. But if you look closely, you see that the skeleton’s eyes are heart-shaped, because they loved their mother.”

So why not memorialize Mom with a nice likeness of her on your inner thigh? Morrison, whose Hell City promo trailers proclaim “the apocalypse is coming!” and refer to convention goers as “hellions,” just shrugs. “I guess because people want you to look at their tattoos. And hell gets more attention than a bouquet of flowers.”

Magic Marge Middendorp of Lady Luck Tattoo misses the old days, "when tattoos were more special." - JAMES BYRNE
Magic Marge Middendorp of Lady Luck Tattoo misses the old days, "when tattoos were more special."
James Byrne

The breakfast buffet at Frank and Albert’s is a study in contrasts on this Sunday morning. The usual business types are cozied up to four-tops in the Biltmore diner, sipping mimosas in gauzy summer attire. But most of the better tables today are taken up by a colorful crowd of shave-headed, black-T-shirt-clad, brightly enhanced out-of-towners, girding their loins for day two of Hell City with bacon and eggs and lots of hot coffee.

Amber Butterfly has chosen an outside table near a blue-tiled fountain, where she’s sipping hot tea and looking worried. She’s staying at the Motel 6 a few miles east (“I can’t afford this place,” she says, indicating the Biltmore with a wave of her fork), although last night she roomed here at the Biltmore with Apostrophe Beard, whose name, it turns out, is Marcus.

Marcus is simultaneously advising Amber Butterfly about her new tattoo (“You want to get the outline finished today, babe, so some other guy doesn’t have to try and match the style”), and explaining the story behind each of his arm tattoos to Angela, a Scottsdale matron seated at the next table.

Amber Butterfly is trying not to scratch. “It burns,” she says of the angry red patch just below her left wrist.

Marcus makes a pouty face at her. His lower lip is ringed in silver piercings. “This one is a peacock, because they symbolize immortality,” he says, turning back to Angela and pointing to the vivid bird on his right biceps. “It used to say Viv, my girlfriend’s name, but she turned out to be kind of a bitch so we inked that out.”

Angela had an uncle who got a tattoo, she tells Marcus, which led to Angela’s father never speaking to her uncle ever again. “This was in the ’50s,” she says solemnly. “Yeah,” Marcus nods. “Things are different now.”

The crowd here this morning is loud, colorful proof — if anyone still needed proof -— of how much, where tattoos are concerned, things have changed.

“I used to tattoo whores, and cops, and gangsters, and voyeurs,” Artist Aaron Coleman says, later that day. “You had to make sure one guy from one gang wasn’t coming into the shop when a guy from a rival gang was there. But now it’s schoolteachers and businessmen coming in. Soccer moms who want full sleeves done.”

Artist Kristin Forbes-Mullane recently had a 92-year-old client whose tattoo was a Mother’s Day gift from her grandchildren. “People used to come in and say, ‘I want a tattoo here on my wrist, so I can cover it with a bracelet for work.’ Now they’re like, ‘Do my neck! I want people to see my tattoos!’”

“Getting tattooed isn’t weird or fringey anymore” — Magic Marge Middendorp

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Magic Marge Middendorp remembers when tattooed people were thought of as uneducated and dangerous. “I got hassled daily,” says Middendorp, a sought-after artist who inks at Lady Luck Tattoo. “I was in the grocery store one day sometime in the 1980s, and I was talking to this little girl, and her mom saw, and came, and just grabbed her kid and ran. That poor woman looked like she’d seen fucking Satan in the snack-food aisle!

“Getting tattooed isn’t weird or fringey anymore,” she sighs. “You go to Walmart and there’s a kid with a face tattoo. Everywhere you go, there’s people with ink. It’s more weird not to have tattoos.”

Something happened to tattooing. Once the outsider art of bikers, and punks, and skateboarders, it’s now mundane to get inked. Tattooed supermodels, actors, and professional athletes made body inking something more than a passing fad; the Safeway bagboy and your kid’s second-grade homeroom teacher clinched the deal with their proudly-displayed hearts and flowers and LOVE-HATE knuckle ink.

Why? Tattooers may refer to themselves as a “community,” but none in this arty enclave can agree on why or how ink became a revolution, a movement, an increasingly admired art form.

It’s all the reality TV shows, according to Forbes-Mullane, a fine artist who grew up in the east valley and lives now in St. Thomas. “The problem with the reality shows,” she says, “is they make tattooing look easy and quick. People think you walk in and a couple hours later you walk out with a half-sleeve.”

Tattoo’s burgeoning popularity is no mystery, says festival organizer Durb Morrison, who’s 45 and has worked as a tattoo artist and inventor (“My company came up with the first steel-tip disposable tattoo tube,” he says) since he was practically a kid. He owns a trade-supply company based in Ohio. Skateboarding and punk rock, both faddish in the ’80s and ’90s, embraced body modification — and so, therefore, did its young audience, who maybe didn’t know that skull tattoos were once the chattel of bikers and convicts. 

“Those people are adult consumers now, and they grew up with tattooing that didn’t have the same bad-guy stigma it had before,” Morrison explains. “They’ve had actors and models and athletes who are famous, and they’re family men, and they’re moms, and they’ve got tons of tattoos. You look at any NFL game now and there are more visible tattoos than there are jersey numbers. Instead of saying, ‘He’s a shitbag because he’s tattooed,’ people are saying, ‘He’s my favorite athlete.’”

It doesn’t hurt, Morrison says, that tattoo art is getting better. “People aren’t just getting blue spider webs on their elbows anymore,” he says. “People are treating their bodies like art galleries, and they’re collecting paintings by really talented artists.”

Because there’s more competition, Morrison says, artists are taking their jobs more seriously. “Let’s say they’re spending more time at the art table and less time drinking and getting into fistfights.”

click to enlarge Tattoos have gone mainstream. - MICHELLE SASONOV
Tattoos have gone mainstream.
Michelle Sasonov

No one’s drunken brawling at the Hell City convention today. Out on the floor, Amber Butterfly is waiting to have her outline finished, and trying not to scratch. She holds up her angry red wrist, glistening with petroleum jelly.

“The barbed wire was Marcus’s idea,” she says of the Jewish star studded with sharp spikes and entangled with roses.

Amber Butterfly seems unimpressed by her new tattoo, oblivious to the ink on her arm as membership in a new fraternity. She’s distracted; she hasn’t seen Marcus or his apostrophe beard since breakfast. “He knows a lot of people here,” she says, scanning the room hopefully. “A lot of people from the old tattooing days.”

Taryn Moore sometimes misses those old days. “It all felt more special back then,” she says of tattooing. “All our secrets weren’t out there. You really had to dig around to figure out where to go to get what you wanted. Now it’s everyone coming in, there are shops every half a mile, there are tutorials on YouTube, everyone is an expert.”

Aaron Coleman says he sometimes worries that novice clients will go cheap and get crummy ink jobs. “Someone might say, ‘Hey, this guy will tattoo me for 70 bucks an hour,’ but what they don’t know is that the design will take three hours, and the guy doing it is still learning the trade. A pro can do the same tattoo in an hour and it’ll be better.”

Magic Marge thinks the kids are all right. But she’s not above waxing nostalgic, either. She remembers when  every tattooer had a moniker, like Painless Jeff or Hamburger Tom. She’s noticed that lately, tattoo artists want to be called “tattooers” again, like in the old days. “The kids want to be identified with the people who were part of the beginning of tattooing,” she says. “They think we’re glamorous.”

She lets out a long what-the-fuck sigh. “It used to be just sailors and whores who got tattooed, and I miss those days. I caught the ass end of that era, when we were more exclusive. You’d see someone on the street with a lot of tattoos, and it was like a secret handshake and a wink. Being all tattooed up made you feel special, back then. And that felt good.”

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela