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We sing the body eclectic, part 2

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | SEPTEMBER 18, 2014 5:00 AM

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In this two part series, The Daily Iowan explores the blossoming tattoo and piercing industry in the Iowa City area, from its cleaned-up shops and artists to body modification trends amongst college-age clients.

The changing (female) face of tattoos and piercings

Tattoo artist Anne Marsh was raised to view tattoos as “lowbrow,” and her parents still have this belief. But when Marsh went to college 13 years ago and saw the beautiful designs on her friends’ skin, her mind was opened to the world of tattooing.

“It was kind of a switch that was flipped,” she said. “I’ve seen bad tattoos just trying to be badass … But that’s not to say I don’t like them now. Even shitty sticks and pokes are marks on the skin, a choice you make to add something to your body.”

Marsh, as a female artist, is certainly in the minority. But as a woman with tattoos, she has joined a relatively new majority.

A 2012 Pew Research study found that women make up 59 percent of Americans with tattoos, marking the first time U.S. females have outmatched men in body ink. (Though they’ve been winning the metal race for decades, with women making up 72 percent of pierced Americans.)

Marsh, as well as other local tattoo artists, said she has seen this demographic shift firsthand, with college-age women making up a large majority of her customers.

“It may be that women are typically more concerned with fashion and how they adorn their bodies,” Marsh said. “There are certainly trends that exist the same way as fashion.”

Unlike men, who tend to get large tattoos in highly visible areas, women gravitate toward smaller, more discrete designs that cost an average of $45 and can be completed in one tattooing session.

Some trendy designs cited by local artists include small infinity signs, cancer ribbons, anchors, bird silhouettes, meaningful quotes, and white, UV and glow-in-the-dark ink tattoos. In the piercing industry, gauges (which involve the stretching of ear lobes over time) and dermal piercings (jewelry inserted into the skin, often in the cheeks, lower back or neck) are on the rise.

Marsh said such ideas, on the Internet, spread like wildfires in the California mountains, especially on the image-sharing site Pinterest. But unlike a consultation with a professional tattooist or piercer, the web might not explain health risks, or, aesthetically, how these delicate designs can spread out over time and become blobs (especially on the inside of the finger — a new hot spot) and how most white ink tattoos fade to look like illegible scars after they heal.

Rather than profit off of consumer ignorance and attach their names to a botched tattoo or piercing, many local artists have made consultation nearly half their job and hygiene the first priority.

Hunter Last — an employee at Release Body Modification, 110 S. Linn St., with stretched ear lobes struggling to support two heavy marble earrings — described the extensive sanitation process used before a piercing job. This includes running all equipment and jewelry through a surgical cleaner twice, achieving a standard of cleanliness far exceeding the standards recommended by the Association of Professional Piercers.

“If we didn’t [sterilize to this extent], we wouldn’t function as a business,” he said. “We choose to go above and beyond for the safety of ourselves and clients. We’re here to give Iowa City a really healthy, safe place.”

The tattooing ‘renaissance’

While there remain amateur “artists” administering tattoos in basements and back alleys, Mike Wardell, a tattoo artist at Omega Red Piercing and Tattoo, 314 E. Burlington St., said the increasingly welcoming atmosphere of tattoo shops might have encouraged more women to get inked — and has made tattooing rise to a $1.65 billion a year industry.

“People seem less intimidated by the environment,” he said. “It’s hard, no matter what, to put yourself out there and say your idea when it could be shot down.”

Wade “Beans” Petersen, a piercer at Omega Red, said a shop’s ability to “adapt to the times” — and thus, create a comforting environment for young women — will determine if it will be able to compete with the nation’s other 21,000 tattoo/piercing parlors.

For Omega Red, this meant selecting a bright and welcoming shop location, decorating the interior with a comforting forest mural, a room-expanding mirror with its “ΩR” logo, and a Buddhist elephant statue, and maintaining a level of professionalism among the employees.

“If you wear black T-shirts and blare death metal, you’re probably going to freak out college girls a little,” Petersen said, just before attending to a young woman in slacks and a dress coat looking to purchase a new nose ring. “We carry ourselves a certain way and project a certain image. Whether it’s right or wrong to judge that way, it’s a business.”

This business has not only had to adapt to changing demographics, it has to comply with increasingly strict health standards. Though Iowa law does not regulate tattooing or piercing and requires only blood-borne-pathogen and standard first-aid training for aspiring tattoo artists, strict laws in other states have created competition. For example, the state of Washington has extensive legislation outlining sterilization requirements, and Oregon requires tattoo artists to complete 360 hours of supervised training and take both written and practical exams before issuing a license. 

Along with increasing health requirements, the tattoo industry is also seeing what Wardell calls a “renaissance” of art-school graduates entering the tattoo business, bringing with them a detailed knowledge of portraiture and other less-traditional tattoo styles.

“Tattooing has always used elements of art: contrast-color theory, composition,” he said. “[The difference is] you’re actually putting it on the human body … It’s a craft as well as an art.”

A pox of tattoo-focused television reality shows has also attracted more interest in the profession, from women hoping to emulate Kat Von D to Spike TV and Oxygen viewers eating up the shows “Ink Master,” “Best Ink,” “Tattoos After Dark,” and “Tattoo Rescue.”

Wardell said, such exposure garners attention and appreciation for the art of tattooing and ultimately leads to more customers. Still, he sometimes misses the edge of the old tattoo and piercing industry.

“Some of us still wish it was underground and still kind of gritty and outlaw,” he said.

Body art: fad or cultural shift?

The University of Iowa men’s swimming-team members consider it a sort of rite of passage to gather as a group, travel to Nemesis Tattoo Studio, and get inked with their school’s logo: a solid black Tigerhawk of approximately 3-by-4 inches, usually placed on the swimmer’s upper back, bicep, or rib cage.

Despite being a trend of only around six or seven years, swimmer Gianni Sesto considers the tattooing a team tradition. His own tattoo is on his shoulder blade, and he makes a point of patting the Tigerhawk after particularly sweet victories, acknowledging that his wins are “for more than just myself, but for the Iowa Hawkeyes.”

Of course, Sesto and his teammates will not swim at the UI forever — but they will wear their Tigerhawks long past graduation. That is, unless they join the 11 percent of tattooed Americans who choose to have their ink removed.

Whether for self-expression, fashion, or community-building, the recent increase in tattooing may halt when wearers face the “permanence” of their body art. Though women are the fastest growing tattoo demographic, they are also twice as likely as men to have their tattoo removed, and 17 percent of all tattooed individuals harbor some sense of regret about their ink. Even some piercing trends such as gauging and dermal piercings cannot just be taken out and forgotten —they leave lasting marks and malformations.

So will interest in tattooing and body piercings soon plateau or die out, or should the United States prepare for a continued acceptance of body modifications, in and outside of the workplace?

“I don’t think it’s a trend,” Megan Schwalm said. “People have been getting tattooed forever. There has to be a peak, I guess … but I think it’s indicative of greater acceptance.”

Sesto isn’t worried about the future of his body art.

“I decided to get the tattoo because I wanted to solidify myself as a Hawkeye for the rest of my life,” he said. “Obviously, I would not put the tattoo on my forehead … but I feel there are no limits to commemorating your team.”

A limit does still exist for body modifications in certain workplaces, including Capitol Hill. But besides donning a blazer in the office, Schwalm said, she will wait for the world to adapt to her body art and not the other way around.

“There will come a time when I have to show it. It’d be tough to win an election, but my hope is that will change with time,” she said. “I hope by virtue of being here and being a person with tattoos, I’ll give people pause.”


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