For all the arguably beautiful things it can do in the right hands, a tattoo gun makes the ugliest sound in the world — a high, beehive drone that sounds something like fine shot rattling in a beer can.
What it does when it touches your skin isn’t much prettier: a cluster of needles puncturing the dermis up to 80 times a second, each point driving a molecule of pigment down deep enough that the color will never flake or shed.
Love ’em or hate ’em, you’ve got to respect the hidden truth behind every tattoo: That change requires suffering. That nothing that stays comes easy.
That pain-for-permanence tradeoff is one that more and more Americans are willing to make. A 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24 percent of adults aged 18-50 had at least one tattoo, with the number jumping to 36 percent of those aged 18-29; the figure split almost evenly between males and females. In larger cities — particularly on the West Coast — where body modification has become more accepted by both employers and society, researchers have found that the percentage of tattooed young people routinely tops 50 percent.
While there are no current figures for the number of people with tattoos in Arkansas, the sometimes days-long wait for an appointment at the state’s top parlors is proof enough of the phenomenon. Helped along by hit tattoo-themed cable television shows like “Miami Ink” and an influx of traditionally trained artists into the field, the last 10 years have seen Arkansas’s tattoo culture make its way out of the biker bars and into the mainstream. In 1985, there was one shop in the whole state. Now there are around 140.
Though some say health and safety regulations haven’t kept pace with the growth of the industry, and others caution that it’s nearly impossible to pick a tattoo you’ll be happy with for life, one thing’s for sure: Even if they weren’t so permanent, tattoos aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Situated in a narrow, coffin-deep storefront just off Conway’s Harkrider Street, Melvin “Mel D” Dikeman’s tattoo shop, Inkjunkys, doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d shop for fine art — anything not painted on velvet, anyway.
Born and raised in Northwest Arkansas, Mel D has been tattooing for 20 years, and is recognized by many as one of the best in the state. Quick to smile, with a stud in his tongue, he got his first tattoo three weeks before his 18th birthday. Within a year, he had started doing unlicensed tattoos (which, he admits, was the wrong way to go about it). These days — heavily tattooed and license long since in hand — he talks about his work with a passion that would do the best paint-and-canvas artist proud.
“With tattooing, you’re looking at one of the last true forms of handmade art,” he said. “We’re in a digital age now. The majority of art you see is manipulated through computers or Photoshopped through software programs. Tattoos are made by the hand, and there’s no way to alter them. Once it’s there, it’s there.”
On this night, Mel D has Quaid Campbell — a 30-something systems engineer who works at Alltel — laid out in his chair, painstakingly sending the last of what will be $2,000 worth of ink into the skin of his left arm. Campbell settled on Mel D after looking at the online portfolios of over 250 tattoo artists all over the South. Campbell came in for his first session several months back, looking to pay homage to his Scottish ancestry. Twenty hours later, his arm is sleeved in an intricate patchwork of blue and green plaid, crosses, and Scottish-themed imagery. At his wrist is a castle with the full moon behind it. Even from inches away, it has the depth and richness of a black-and-white photograph.
The hardest part with Campbell’s piece, Mel said, has been working out the plaid. It has to flow with the arm, but still look “right,” he said. Which means, strangely enough, almost no straight lines.
“The geometrical shapes aren’t very attractive to the body line,” he said. “What we’ve done is, we’ve changed the pattern so that when you see this, it appears right to the eye… It’s pretty much like putting together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.”
The night we chatted in Conway, Mel was buzzing about the upcoming Inksplosion tattoo show at the Clear Channel Metroplex. Dreamed up by Mel and his business partner Alexis “Lollie” Moore, and held over one full weekend of March, the Inksplosion show was the first of its kind in Little Rock — a tattoo extravaganza featuring clothes, cars, motorcycles, magazines, photography, food, performances by hardcore bands and more than a dozen out-of-state tattoo artists.
Far from the biker-heavy, beer-soaked gathering you might expect, a Saturday afternoon visit to the Inksplosion show found almost the atmosphere of a street fair, with tattooed young couples carrying toddlers in backpack harnesses and those stopped at booths politely giving way so the wall-to-wall crowd could keep moving. By the end of the weekend, paid attendance stood at over 6,000. Mel D said that kind of scene is typical of today’s tattoo shows, which draw people from all walks of life.
Though tattooing hasn’t changed much in the two decades Mel D has been behind a needle, he said that one area that has seen great strides is cleanliness and sterilization. While Arkansas regulations say that tattoo needles can be reused if they are cleaned and sterilized in an autoclave — a machine about the size of a microwave which uses high heat and pressure to kill pathogens — Mel D said that most shops have long since gone to one-time-use needles and ink tubes.
“It’s a lot easier and a lot cheaper to skimp out on what you need to do,” he said. “But do you really want a used needle stuck in your arm?”
First and foremost, he said, a good tattoo is a clean tattoo.
“Your equipment is sterile, your septic procedures are proper. That’s clean,” he said. “When you walk out, it doesn’t matter how awesome a tattoo looks, if it’s a dirty tattoo, it’s a bad tattoo.”
Mel D’s apprentice Moore is one of the rare female tattoo artists in the state. On the job for two years now — petite and lovely; her arms and chest frosted with pink hearts, flowers, and a luminous, photorealistic tattoo of her grandmother — Moore has the definite air about her of the girl who ran away with the circus. Originally from the small town of Tuckerman, Moore was a 20-year-old sorority sister from Arkansas State University when she got her first tattoo at a shop in Memphis. Five years later, she’s anybody’s definition of “extensively modified,” her arms and chest awash in delicately shaded pastels and the septum of her nose pierced with a ring.
Moore said it’s empowering to be a woman working in what is mostly a man’s world, but she admits she gets her share of stares. “It’s a lot harder in the general public,” she said. “I get a lot of snobbery when I go into the more upscale places. I have some dollars to spend on clothes, and God knows I do. But it’s definitely a different reception, being a heavily tattooed woman.”
A disciple of Mel D’s edicts about cleanliness, Moore has begun a project, “Modification Education,” to educate students in high school and college. Part “Blood on the Highway” filmstrip (featuring some truly gruesome pictures of tattoos afflicted with everything from infection to keloid scarring), part questionnaire on knowing if you’re ready to get a tattoo, and part educational piece about how to pick a tattoo you can live with if you commit, Moore’s hour-long PowerPoint show fills in some of the educational gaps she said are lacking for those looking to get a tattoo.
“In school, you get taught driver’s ed, safe sex, even how to bake a cake, but nobody says, ‘Hey, you need to protect yourself if you choose to get tattooed,” she said. “It’s not just the fact that you’re going to have a crappy tattoo when you’re 30, it’s that if it’s an infected tattoo, you can be hospitalized. Staph can kill you.”
While Moore and other tattoo artists we spoke with said the Arkansas Health Department does a good job inspecting the parlors, regulations that govern tattooing in the state are outdated. Other than laws passed in the last three sessions forbidding tattooing on minors without a parent on the premises, and others regarding more extensive training of new tattoo parlor apprentices, the regulations haven’t been fully overhauled since 1993.
It’s a slow process,” Mel D said. “By the time [new regulations] happen and it takes effect, it’s going to be time for new regulations again. We’ll have already surpassed them.”
Becky Binz with the Health Department agrees that it’s time to update the regulations. Since 1985, Binz has been one of two inspectors who oversee the state’s tattoo parlors. Along with her partner Kenny Free, Binz inspects the state’s 140-odd shops at least twice a year, checking them for cleanliness, proper record keeping, and proper autoclaving procedures. Cutting into her time is the fact that she is also does plan review and inspections on every swimming pool built in the state — what she calls her “day job.”
“A lot of things have changed in just the last 10 years,” Binz said. “More and more, the artists have growing concerns themselves — [resulting in] some of the things they’re doing with barrier protection and using pre-sterilized needles and so-forth.”
Binz said that changing the regs is likely to be a drawn-out process, requiring an invitation for comments, public hearings and hashing out a workable draft. Though she couldn’t discuss the details, Binz said that plans for new tattoo regulations have been in the works since 2000.
Binz said her office receives six to 10 complaints a year about tattoo shops, though that number has been on the rise in recent years due to the growing prevalence of staph infection, which can mar a tattoo and — in extreme cases — lead to hospitalization and death.
Dr. James Phillips of the Health Department said that if a tattoo artist sticks to the regulations, the chance for spreading infections like hepatitis, staph and HIV to a client is minimal. In the case of staph, Phillips said it’s much more likely that a person might become infected through insufficient hygiene and aftercare.
“It may not be the tattoo parlor that is responsible for the staph infection,” he said. “They may have done everything perfectly correct, and given them perfectly good instructions, but the person who got the tattoo is not complying with the aftercare instructions.”
As described by Phillips, a new tattoo is a virtual playground for all manner of potentially harmful bacteria. “You have created an environment where you have violated the normal body defenses of the skin. In addition, you’ve created tissue trauma and introduced a foreign substance, all of which can be favorable for infection.”
While states like Texas don’t allow anyone under 18 to get tattooed, current regulations in Arkansas allow minors to get inked if a parent is on the premises. There is no bottom limit, either. Binz said that she has heard of children as young as 10 years old getting tattooed and piercing with a parent’s permission.
Given that many people don’t think it through, Dr. Phillips said that it’s his personal opinion that a tattoo is never a good idea. “Talk to that 10-year-old 20 years from now, and see what kind of psychological agony they’ve gone through because of their tattoo,” he said. “That’s very common.”
Chris Thomas, the owner of Golden Lotus Tattoo in Sherwood, said that he tells artists to be careful what they wish for when it comes to new regulations.
“If enough people keep bitching about the old rules,” Thomas said, “they’re going to get new rules and most of the shops are going to shut down. You think there’s rules now? There will be rules you can’t imagine. We’ll all be wearing little booties on our feet.”
Managing to look bookish behind dark-rimmed glasses, even though his tattoos spill out from under his shirtsleeves and down his arms, Thomas is another of Arkansas’s big wheel tattoo artists. In 10 years, he has gone from lowly apprentice to one of the state’s tattooing superstars, with two dozen national awards and multi-page spreads in nine nationally distributed tattoo magazines to prove it. Though the year-old Golden Lotus shop really doesn’t advertise outside the phone book, he and his apprentice-turned-partner August Thompson usually stay booked at least a week out.
A native of Shreveport, the 32-year-old Thomas got his first tattoo at 21.
Asked when he decided to take on tattooing as a career, he jokingly gives a nod to the stigma that still exists for those with extensive tattoos. “About the fourth or fifth tattoo, I went to New Orleans and got my entire forearm done,” he said. “After that, it was either digging ditches or tattooing from that point on.”
Though younger people are much more accepting of tattoos these days, Thomas said that many older adults have preconceived notions about it— something brought into sharp focus the first time his grandmother visited the Golden Lotus shop.
“She opened the door and the first thing she said was, ‘It’s so clean!’ ” Thomas said. “So, we already know what she thought about it from the word go: dirty, nasty, probably a dead hooker in the corner. Back in the day, that’s what tattooing was: chopper on the front lawn. Dingy. Everybody smoking. ... It’s come a long way.”
While Thomas said that shows like “Miami Ink” have made people seek out quality tattoos, part of mainstreaming tattoo culture has been an influx of college-trained artists into the profession. Thompson’s friend and colleague August Thompson has a bachelor’s degree in visual arts.
“If you come from an extensive art background,” Thompson said, “you’re not worried about the artistic part of it. You can worry about the technical part of it and about doing it clean. You already have the color theory ingrained in you. It’s one less thing you have to worry about.”
Though Thomas and Thompson do their share of the quick-hit tats to keep the lights on, they always try to steer clients toward better tattoos. Some of the things Thompson discourages people from getting are names; tattoos on their hands, face and neck, and tattoos that are going to become dated or physically distorted as a client ages. “Things that, when they’re 40 years old, they’re going to say, ‘Look, I can’t wear this dress,’ or, ‘Hey, I’ve got to wear a turtleneck in the summer,” he said.
Thomas said it’s better to avoid what he calls “stickers and tags” — small, random tattoos with no real meaning for the client. Better to get a piece that represents something for you. If you’re really ready to commit, he also suggests saving your money for a more extensive tattoo — a focal object with good background.
Above all, he said, “Search out your artist. Don’t look for the picture you want, look for the artist. People come in, asking if we have a certain design. Skip that. The real question is: Do you want us to be the one that does your tattoo?”
In contrast to small, “custom” tattoo shops, Little Rock’s 7th Street Tattoo is a so-called “street shop.” Though they do their share of large custom pieces by appointment, 7th Street’s bread and butter is smaller tattoos, many of them picked from the store’s huge collection of flash art that lines the walls.
Jud Ferguson has been tattooing at 7th Street for four years. He’s one of five artists and two apprentices that work there,
“One of the reasons I like it so much is that it’s a constant challenge,” he said. “When you paint or draw on paper, it’s going to be consistent… With tattooing, no one’s skin is the same. Everyone who sits down in your chair is different. You learn something every day.”
Ferguson said that the popularity of tattoo-themed cable shows helped tattoos become accepted, and now they’ve started making their way into high fashion. A few years back, he said, big-name designers began buying rights to designs by artists like San Francisco’s Sailor Jerry. Now, tattoo designs can be seen on everything from shoes to hats to cell phone skins.
“Because it’s so popular, people are thinking less about their tattoos,” he said. “They see something on a tattoo TV show — somebody gets something on their ribs, not everybody wants something on their ribs. It’s good and it’s bad.”
In terms of how to get a tattoo you can live with forever, Ferguson said it’s different for everyone. Staying away from exposed areas of skin is probably smart if you’re just planning on getting something small, he said. Simpler tattoos are better, he said, because they “read” better on the skin.
Then again, he cautions, there are people who just aren’t a good fit for a tattoo. “I tell people that if they’re too picky about their tattoo, then they really shouldn’t get one,” he said. “They’ll try and look at it and find everything wrong with it they can. Tattoos are handmade, so they aren’t going to be perfect.”