Human Canvas

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    Most who enter the small, dimly-lit
    building on a shabby block near the outskirts
    of downtown do so with a tinge of
    anxiety, though it is often disguised by
    confidence.
    Framed drawings of tattoos wallpaper the
    rooms, the artistic visions of professionals
    who earn a living by prickling ink into the
    skin of customers. But the images are only
    copies of masterpieces whose original canvases
    were not paper, but flesh, and whose
    instruments were not pencils, but needles.
    These sketches can be taken down, but the
    marks the needle makes are meant to stay
    on their canvases forever.
    Tattooing is a tradition rooted in history,
    and even its less-extensive life in the
    United States is marked by several influential
    periods and phases of art. From the
    brutish military tattoos that were once so
    taboo to the stereotypical “I love mom”
    biker tattoo, the popularity of inked body
    art has seen its ups and downs.
    Chris Brown, an artist at the Salty Dog
    Tattoo Shop on Berry Street, described
    the recent shift in tattoo trends. He said
    in the beginning of American tattooing, it
    was an “outlaw thing,” but lately has become
    more about the art.
    But for the many who view their bodies as
    canvases awaiting beautiful masterpieces,
    there are just as many, if not more, who
    only want to rebel. Brown spoke of this
    group, the group that is plastered across
    TV screens and has mothers worrying
    about their children coming home bandaged
    from their latest, all-too-permanent
    attempt to be trendy.
    Two tattoo artists at Liberty Electric Tattooing
    said the impermanence of white
    tattoos has been appealing to many young
    women lately. Artist Jon Hill said in his
    more than 15 years of tattooing, he is now
    seeing more young people than ever.
    “I probably do about 100 stars a week,”
    Hill said.
    Brown agreed that geometric shapes and
    tiny, hidden tattoos are big right now.
    “Girls are coming in here in packs of five
    and only one of them is getting tattooed,
    and it’s normally like a white star or something
    on the toe,” Brown said.
    He called these “faux tattoos” because
    of the lack of dedication involved in the
    decision-making.
    “It’s not really a tattoo,” Brown said.
    “There is no commitment at all. They want
    something that’s going to fade away.”
    Brown, who has more tattoos than he can
    count, said tattoo history and art is often
    lost on this group of people. To them, he
    said, tattoos are just a novelty.
    “It’s like the prize at the bottom of a
    Cracker Jack box,” Brown said. “How
    long do you keep that? You tell your
    friend you will keep it forever, but in 20
    years, where did it go? It’s lost like a loose
    sock, like a Zippo.”
    Brown said young people’s decisions to
    get small, easy-fading tattoos often stem
    from a desire to express independence.
    “They’re not totally and entirely sure they
    want a tattoo,” Brown said. “They want to
    feel for a minute that they’re in control of
    their life, but they don’t want to live with
    the responsibility of that.”
    But students who have these types of tattoos
    disagree.
    Laura Kelsey, a senior advertising/public
    relations major, has the outline of three
    blue stars on her foot.
    “I actually thought about it for a really
    long time because I knew it would have
    to be something that I would have to live
    with for a while,” Kelsey said.
    She said the three stars have multiple
    meanings. They represent the biggest influences
    in her life: her mother, father and
    grandfather, as well as the Father, Son and
    Holy Ghost. She said she realizes that tattoos
    are considered trendy by many, but
    said she thought about her design for two
    years before deciding to have it inked.
    Daniel Shafer, a junior communication
    studies major, has a cross and fish in the
    middle of his upper back. He also said
    he thought long and hard about getting
    a tattoo, but said he doesn’t think he will
    ever regret his decision.
    Brown said this idea of tattoos having a
    special meaning is important to him.
    The date “1-18-06” is written on his
    hand8212;the date his wife found out she
    was pregnant. Above the date is a red rose
    that he had inscribed the day his daughter
    was born.
    “That’s for me,” Brown said. “It’s personal
    and it’s imagery. It’s an icon.”
    But Joe Haasch, who also works at Liberty
    Electric Tattooing, said sometimes a
    tattoo can just be about art.
    “A lot of people think they have to get
    something that means a lot,” Haasch said.
    He said people often come in with very
    complex designs, trying to cram as much
    meaning into the picture as possible.
    Sometimes, he said, it can just be “whatever
    imagery you’re turned on by.”
    While the trend for students seems to be
    simple tattoo8212;geometric shapes, religious
    symbols and the like8212;the, professionals
    say the true art comes in the form
    of the less-subtle, more intricate pieces.
    Whatever a person chooses to get, the artists
    agree that once the needle touches the
    skin, it changes a person.
    “It’s kind of a mythical, mysterious thing,”
    Brown said. “Just the energy with me sitting
    with you, holding your arm for an
    hour and you’re bleeding on me, on my
    gloves. That’s like transference of energy.”

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