By D.R. Bartlette
Tattoos. It’s a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Otzi, the bronze-age iceman found near the border of Italy and Austria in 1991, had simple line tattoos on his joints and ribs. Today, more than 40 million Americans have at least one, according to the History Channel.
A little history
The modern style of tattooing probably began with the Maori of Polynesia. In fact, the word “tattoo” comes from the Maori word “tatau,” meaning “to tap.” The Maori sported intricate facial designs, called moko, which were made by literally carving the design into the face with a chisel. The skin was allowed to heal, then cut open again and filled with a dye made from sap and soot.
Other cultures have tattooed themselves as well. In parts of Asia, South America and the Arctic, tattoos were created by sewing designs into the skin with a bone needle and a thread coated in soot. In Peru, a tattooed mummy was found that was over 1,000 years old.
But perhaps the best known, and most influential, style of tattooing comes from Japan, and the culture of the Yakuza, meaning “to lose a hand of cards.” Yakuza were a band of assassins operating in the mid-17th century. At first, all Japanese convicts were tattooed on their feet or arms, making it impossible to hide their past. As their numbers grew, the convicts banded together and began covering their “prison tattoos” with other tattoos, of more intricate designs. Despite being illegal, the art form flourished. Yakuzas’ tattoos would cover nearly all of the Yakuzas’ bodies, yet could easily be concealed with clothing. And although it’s no longer illegal, many Japanese bathhouses won’t allow people with tattoos to enter.
According to a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, almost a quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo. Of those aged 18 to 29, over a third have a tattoo. In some places, like the West Coast, more than half of people have at least one tattoo.
People get tattoos – called “ink” or “tats” – for a variety of reasons: for beauty, as a rite of passage, rebellion, to honor their ancestry or to remember a loved one.
“It’s your personality coming out, and once it’s there, you can’t hide it anymore,” said Rob Jameson, a licensed tattoo artist in Missouri. Jameson is currently apprenticing with Beeline Tattoo & Piercing in Fayetteville to get his license in Arkansas. “Tattooing is harder than most art forms. Watercolors are probably the only medium as unforgiving.”
In Arkansas, tattoo artists and their shops are regulated by the Arkansas Department of Health. To become licensed, a tattoo artist has to pass a written exam, complete at least six months as an apprentice under a licensed tattoo artist, and pass a practical exam. Shops must pay an annual license fee and have approved sterilization equipment.
Beeline Tattoo & Piercing is both a tattoo parlor and a school licensed with the state board of education. The owner, “Scooter,” and his wife, Corina Morgan, are two of the three artists. They have five apprentices, including their 13-year-old daughter, Kylie “Kiwi” Peel.
“She may be the youngest apprentice in the U.S.,” Scooter said. Their niece, Cheyanne, hangs out to learn until she’s old enough to become an apprentice.
The walls and ceiling are covered in flash – designs that can be reproduced in tattoo form an unlimited number of times. The shop also does custom work, where clients bring in their own design or have the artists create a design specifically for them.
Despite the Halloween-inspired décor at Beeline, Morgan says they try to make the shop “a home away from home.” There are comfy couches, a big-screen TV and a menagerie of pets: a snake, fish, four dogs and two birds.
“Comfort plays the biggest role,” Morgan said.
Hemi, one of the Beeline artists, explained: “The important thing is that a customer finds an artist they’re comfortable with.”
Joe Crow, 23, came in to Beeline to get an Arkansas “A” tattooed on his side. Although he already has four tattoos, he said he was a little nervous because “It’s on the ribs, and I hear it really hurts.” But he said he wanted to get the work done “to see what it feels like.
“I’ve always loved tattoos and wanted one since I was a little kid. My dad has one, and my grandpa’s a Hell’s Angel, so he’s covered in them,” Crow said.
Crow had been to Beeline before, to get his tongue pierced. “I’ve always liked [Beeline]; it’s really clean here,” he said.
Hemi took Crow’s ball cap upstairs to create a transfer of the design. He drew the “A” on regular copy paper, then used carbon paper and deodorant to transfer the image to Crow’s skin. The first placement wasn’t quite what Crow wanted, so Hemi wiped it off and applied it again.
Using sterile needles, Hemi started tattooing a small line on Crow’s ribs “to see if he could handle it.”
“It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it was gonna hurt,” Crow said, though he did squirm and wince during the process.
Devin Albert, 26, is also a repeat customer.
“It’s addictive,” Albert said.
Albert has six tattoos. She got her first tattoo two years ago.
Morgan said that repeat customers make up 90 percent of their business.
“It’s a whole different kind of people [who get tattoos],” said Teddi Lothes, an apprentice at Beeline studying permanent cosmetics. “It’s not the taboo thing it was.”
The staff said they get doctors, lawyers, surgeons, ministers and priests.
Permanent cosmetics, also called permanent make-up, micropigmentation or microdermal pigmentation, is much the same as tattooing. The regulations and licensing procedures are the same.
Wendy Golden, a licensed permanent cosmetic artist and an RN, operates Renewed Beauty inside a small room at Beauty World in Fayetteville. Golden said the only difference between what she does and what a tattoo artist does is that she uses pigments instead of ink. The pigments, Golden said, are molecularly smaller than those in ink, and have less iron oxide. “So you can get an MRI without fear of getting a ‘sunburn,” she said.
Typical procedures include having permanent eyeliner, “eyebrows” and lip color applied. Other procedures include camouflaging birthmarks or scars and areola restoration after breast surgery.
Golden, 59, has tattoos as well as permanent eyeliner and brow color. She uses a very low-powered tattoo gun, which looks more like a gold pen. She said the lower power means there is less bruising than with a traditional tattoo gun.
There is also more pain management with permanent cosmetics. First a topical anesthetic is applied to the area, then Golden uses cryotherapy to make her clients more comfortable and for smoother color.
But the name “permanent cosmetics” is a bit misleading.
“Nothing in this whole world is permanent,” Golden said.
She said while the pigments normally last seven to 10 years, she’s seen them last 20 years. Variables like your body’s metabolism, the shade of pigment used, sun exposure and medications can affect how long the pigments last.
Both tattooing and permanent make-up involve piercing the skin with needles and injecting an ink or pigment beneath the skin. Not surprisingly, there are some risks if a business does not follow procedures:
• Infection. Non-sterile equipment and reused ink can transmit infections like hepatitis and staph.
• Allergic reactions. While rare, reactions to inks and pigments can occur, sometimes years later.
• Granulomas. These are nodules that the body can form around foreign material, such as tattoo ink.
• Keloids. If you are prone to keloid formation (scars that grow beyond normal boundaries), you can get them from a tattoo, though they occur more frequently when tattoos are removed.
• MRI complications. Also rare, but there have been reports of people who have experienced swelling or burning of their tattoos or permanent make-up during MRIs. The sensation usually subsides quickly and has no lasting effect.
According to the FDA, the most common problem people have with their tattoos is dissatisfaction. Fading or blurring over time, or a change in tastes or lifestyles, can lead to regret. There are a few methods for tattoo removal and all of them are time-consuming, expensive and not guaranteed to work:
• Surgical excision. The skin is cut open and the ink removed.
• Dermabrasion. The skin is “sanded” off to remove the tattoo.
• Salabrasion. Much like dermabrasion, only salt water is used to grind off the skin.
• Chemical peels. Acid is used to burn away the skin.
• Creams and balms. Similar to chemical peels. The FDA does not recommend using any creams or balms for tattoo removal.
• Laser removal. The most common method, which uses high-powered laser beams to destroy the inks under the skin.
Sheila Harrison is an LPN and trained in laser tattoo removal. She said the laser treatments are fairly quick. A one-inch by one-inch tattoo might take only a minute, but that it can take several treatments, with at least four weeks between each treatment.
“It’s a long process and you can’t have any sun exposure [to the area] during the process,” Harrison said.
For a small tattoo, however, Harrison said sometimes one treatment may be enough.
Harrison said the procedure feels like somebody is “snapping you with a rubber band.” After the treatment, she said it usually feels like a sunburn. The procedure doesn’t always remove a tattoo entirely.
“It depends mostly on the color,” Harrison said.
Success also depends on how deep the ink is below the skin. Harrison said green is the hardest color to remove, and sometimes, the removal process can only lighten the ink. It also does not remove permanent make-up.
“If the ink has any zinc in it, it reflects the laser,” Harrison said.
In the end, the FDA recommends that you consider tattoos permanent.
“Most people will stick with a tat, even if they’re not thrilled with it,” Jameson said. “It becomes a part of you.”
By D.R. Bartlette