Young woman: May I help you?
Me: Yes, I have a strange request.
Young woman: What's your strange request?
Me: I have a blog, and I'd like to talk with someone for a few minutes about tattoos, and take pictures.
Young woman: Sure! . . . Perry! This lady has a blog . . . .
I had recently met a delightful woman, who happens to have tattoo "sleeves." Not having spent time with anyone who had so much skin covered with art, hers has been rumbling around in my psyche. Suddenly in the middle of one insomnious night (that's about perimenopause, not tattoos), I knew I was curious to know more about tattoos, especially for people who see all their skin like a canvas. So on my lunch hour yesterday, I walked across the street from my university building and dropped in on Splash of Color. This is where I accompanied Lesley one year when she was 15 or 16 to get her eyebrow pierced. The next year her dad accompanied her to a different tattoo shop to get a tattoo on her back, which she wanted to wear with her magenta organza prom dress and bleached punk-spiked hair. If you're under 18, you must be accompanied by a parent or guardian for a tattoo or body piercing. Friends thought we were nuts. But we were pretty sure that conceding on these requests was a small price for maintaining openness and understanding with our teenage daughter. This is Lesley's pretty tattoo, at the right.
There were a few minutes waiting in the lobby while all the clients were being assisted that I had second thoughts and wanted to flee. I had never done anything like this (had I?), just dropping in and introducing myself to strangers for an interview. But as soon as I met Perry and Kris (the owner), they put me at ease with their gracious welcome.
Perry introduced me to Sue, a visiting tattoo artist from Chicago.
Sue was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri.
"When did you get your first tattoo?" I asked.
"I was 13."
Concealing my surprise, "Did one of your parents accompany you?"
"Oh. My mom looks like me. Everyone in my neighborhood looked like me. I would have been odd if I hadn't gotten tattoos."
Sue has been creating tattoo art since she was young and realized she could do better than what had been done on her. She takes her portable craft industry around the world. She has drawn tattoos in Barcelona, Milan, Puerto Rico, Manhattan, Chicago and now East Lansing.
Sue told me about one U.S. town where she worked, I forget where (I'm a blogger, not a reporter, dammit), where there was a state penitentiary. Most of the people who lived in town were on parole, and they came into the tattoo salon regularly for tattoos.
"These were big, burly, intensely macho types, and they weren't interested in having a woman tattoo artist paint their big art. There haven't been many female tattoo artists traditionally, and so it's hard for them to trust us. It took me years to build up a 'portfolio' that would show people that I was good at what I do. I watched while the male artists got the big jobs, and I was stuck with the $50 roses or hearts on teenage girls' ankles or wrists. Tattoo creation involves a lot of trust. I've also had to help young women understand that this is an expression of their own taste. They'll ask for a rose. I'll ask them, 'What color?' They'll ask, 'What color is it on the art I picked out?' I say, 'It's blue, but this is yours, and you can decide.'"
I said to Sue, "You're a tattoo adviser!" I told her I'm an academic adviser.
The writing on Sue's neck says, Die Trying. And here are her hands, with HOLD FAST.
After a few minutes Kris, the owner of Splash of Color joined us.
Kris told me about how she trains people in the tattoo industry on health and safety. More and more states now have certification and inspections, though the inspections are lax. Health inspectors don't know what to look for. These are the same inspectors who check up on restaurants and nail salons. There isn't a lot of specific training out there for inspecting a tattoo parlor. But Kris is helping to raise that standard and keeps her tattoo shop impeccably clean.
Kris and Sue explained that many of their clients have past lives they want to forget. Some have served time in prison and are moving on in a new job where gang tattoos or memories of prison are unwelcome. So some tattoo art that Sue paints is to cover up previous tattoos. In fact, she has gang tattoos of her own that she has had covered.
Shop owner Kris showed me her art. She is not an artist. Her wrist says Hang Tough.
I told Sue and Kris about the lady I had recently met, with sleeves, and how she sees her tattoos partly as reminders of life messages she wants to give herself, and not just to others.
"Oh yes," said Kris. "A lot of people get words written on their bodies to be like a mantra. They want to remind themselves to hang in there when life gets hard. There those encouraging words are, every morning when you wake up."
Sue and Kris spent almost the entire lunch hour with me. Kris, who has a 13-year-old daughter who hangs out with her at the shop, said she has tried working in places other than tattoo salons, and she always comes back, because of the open, caring atmosphere. She's owned Splash of Color now for about 13 years (if I remember right, no notes).
"I love having my daughter grow up in this environment where people are accepted for who they are. I've never seen more accepting people than these."
I thanked them for their time and willingness to answer my questions, pose for my camera and be posted on my blog. On the way out, I stopped in one of the rooms where Perry was painting an American eagle on Russ, a Harley Davidson club member.
Perry showed me his arm, which has undergone four treatments of tattoo removal.
"Why are you having it removed?" Dumb question, and I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
"So I can get a new one."
Do you recognize that woman on Perry's left leg? Oh. I forgot to ask Perry what his new tattoo was going to be. Drat.
Even though I don't anticipate ever having art permanently painted on my body, it's fun to think about what I would get if I did. What symbol of my life? What words for a mantra to see fresh every morning, like manna, except that they don't rot overnight? I don't know, but I like knowing that these women keep on keeping on with a little help. Hang tough, Hold fast, or Die trying.