The Spirit in the Ink
As far back as we have discovered preserved human skin, we have found evidence of tattooing. It has always been a means of establishing both cultural and individual identity, and often has been used as an approach to both mundane and spiritual power. Although the practice and art of tattoo have changed greatly as new inking technologies have evolved, the reasons why people get inked are often still profound. Salt Lake City has a thriving tattoo culture. If you’ve ever been curious as to who gets tattooed and why, and more importantly if you have ever wanted a tattoo yourself and have been wondering how to go about getting one, read on.
Why get a tattoo?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people with tattoos, but one common thread that runs through the tapestry of responses is “to make visible something that was fundamental but unseen before.”
To change the nature of your skin is to make a statement about your own active role in the construction of your identity. It’s not subtle, especially if the ink is extensive and not easily covered by clothing. It’s about bringing an intrinsic aspect of the self into the material world, where other people can immediately see and understand it on a gut level. It is an act of bravery, a staking-out of psychic territory, an affirmation that says, unequivocally, “This is who I am.”
Meet the canvases
Stevo le Diable, a musician who volunteers on the board of a local nonprofit, has several intricate blackwork dragons tattooed on his forearms, and other dragons that writhe their way up onto his shoulders toward a stylized pair of dragon wings on his back. “I had just finished an MBA degree in 2007. At the time I entered the program I owned a fairly good-sized entertainment company that I’d built myself, and I’d wanted to capture and legitimize those skills in case I made a lateral move later on. But I became so disgusted with the culture of the MBA, and the people I was hanging out with, that after graduation I decided to burn that bridge. I got forearm tattoos because they would be really hard to hide. It was a way of abandoning that whole path and what that meant. Having this ink closes a lot of conventional doors, and I was happy to do that. Sometimes it’s the bridges you burn that light your way forward.” Stevo has also commemorated an occasion with a tattoo: He has a circle of text on his chest that he got the day his father died. It reads, When the world lies in ashes, there will still be love.
Ryann Lee, a local children’s photographer, captures the impish essence of her young subjects in a way few other shutterbugs can ever manage. She is successful and in demand, and has a tattoo on her right foot and full-sleeve tattoos from shoulder to knuckle on each arm. On such a creative person, the surrealist style of the ink is evocative: You can imagine her reaching into the world of ideas with her kaleidoscopic arms, receiving her creations directly from the hands of the Muse, and bringing them back into the material world for the rest of us humans to see. Each of her four limbs represents a different element, and her arms are “earth” and “air.” A beautiful art nouveau girl on her left shoulder represents Mother Earth, “my higher self, and is a depiction of the Divine Feminine,” Ryann says. Her right arm is covered in fantastical animals. “Every one of those animals represents a part of my body, as well as an aspect of myself, so that I can deeply understand and embrace the awareness of all the different personas I have,” she says. “I believe the biggest convolution we impose upon ourselves is that we forget we are wearing masks. This is my homage to those masks, so I can put them on and take them off conscientiously, and always remember that the core of my self is very simple, and exists in a completion that isn’t necessarily safe or appropriate to manifest in every aspect of my current reality. It’s like a rainbow, with white light being the core. I get to consciously divide up that light into all the different colors, and decide which one serves me at the time. It wears very appropriately for a children’s photographer.”
Thomas Riley is a paramedic with a pair of beautiful gray-and-black angel wings tattooed on his back, and an “eye of Ra” on the back of his neck. “I love angels,” he says. “I love the iconography of them. I’m not religious any more, but I was raised Catholic, and I found I always gravitated towards angels and stories of angels. As my spiritual side evolved, I grew into adulthood and realized that organized faith really wasn’t for me, but still I clung to that iconography, and I discovered that other religions also had beings that fulfilled a similar role. I had a couple of what I’d call spiritual experiences, near death…I was in a car wreck when I was 19, and for me it was fairly clear that something had intervened on my behalf and prevented what would easily have killed me. So this fascination with angels stuck; I painted tons of them, I doodled them all the time, I read about them. The thing I like about them is that you take a step back from talking about deities and the figureheads of religion, and there are these beings that are pure and light and good, and the best possible representation of what we can be. The wings I have remind me of what I aspire to, but I made them black so I don’t get a big head, so I keep in mind that I have fallen and I have a long way to go, and that this is something that constantly needs to be evaluated and worked on.”
Bo Dean, a self-described Jack Of All Trades (and master of some), has five separate tattoo pieces, but his most striking are a full black, white, and gray sleeve on his left arm and an amazing color-only mandala-like female face on his back that radiates into representations of the four elements, taking up all his skin from shoulders to buttocks. “It represents the other side of me,” he says, “the female side of me, and it shows the four elements uniting into the fifth element, which is life or spirit. It’s an interpretation of the places I have been and been affected by in my life—on earth, under water, and in the air. I also have integrated my Western and Chinese zodiac birth signs, as well as spiritually significant ideas that I have developed about the experience of being human and what it means to me. The left arm piece shows a collection of flowers and insects, as well as a couple of ‘special guests.’ This one symbolizes that, even from just a little bit of distance, things aren’t what they seem (because you have to be close up to see the creatures in the foliage), and that life is never black or white, but is all shades of gray. I really enjoy being a canvas for art.”
Lindsi Holmstead, a local barista, is a walking work of art. Full sleeves on both arms shade into tattoos on her shoulders and back, and her shaved head reveals a scalp tattoo in the shape of a geometric crop circle. For her, tattoos have been a process of discovering her true self. “They all have their own meaning, and over time and the longer I have them, this meaning builds and changes and evolves.” Many of the images on her body represent beloved family members—a sun for her grandmother, a spool and thread for her mother, a rabbit named “Geronimo” who reminds her of her father.
Her most striking ink by far, however, is the scalp tattoo, which was as much about the process of tattooing as it was the final artwork. “It’s my crown chakra crop circle,” she says. “I took a year to get to know the artist who did this one (Phil Lambert) and he’s just as interested in the subject as I was, so he jumped into it. I did a lot of meditation during the month before the appointment, and during the sessions I had crystals to hold and I thought of my connection with my spiritual father as well as my earthly father. I made sure I knew what I was doing it for. Before the first session I went and got a hot shave from Brent at the Art of Shaving, and it was lovely and felt ceremonial. It was important that this be a sacred process.”
Having a tattoo can change both your attitude toward yourself and the way that other people treat you. If you’re thinking about getting inked, you’ll do well to consider the consequences.
What did your mom think?
Among the human canvases I talked to, the perennial question, “How did your mother react?” garnered predominantly neutral responses. Stevo indicated that although his mom wasn’t overjoyed about his choices, she respected his decisions and her love for him never faltered. Lindsi’s mom actually signed for her to get her first tattoo a week before her 18th birthday; “She knew I was going to get a tattoo anyway, and this was her way of being there for me and supporting me, and I guess keeping me safe during the process.” Thomas’s mother knew about his plans for his angel wings, and after she saw them for the first time she told him, “That’s the most beautiful tattoo I’ve ever seen…I just wish it was on someone else!”
Salt Lake City is a pretty tattoo-friendly town, all things considered, but traveling around may expose you to populations that aren’t so tolerant.
Ryan says, “I visited my sister in Houston, and tattoos aren’t as prevalent there, so I got a lot of very extreme reactions from people. One lady at a shopping center looked as if she was going to throw up and fall over! The color on my arms is so vibrant that you can’t help but see it, so there’s this shock value. People will holler at me and point, and strangers will walk up and touch my body. I have to have a lot of awkward conversations when that happens. My artist [Phil Lambert] calls it ‘tat rape.’ It’s not okay to do this to someone. I am not ashamed of my ink, but I will sometimes cover up so I can be more anonymous, and that’s fine. But clients of mine and people who know me will remark that they forget that I even have my tattoos because they’ve become so much a part of me. I really don’t recommend that people get extensive tattoos, and especially hand tattoos, if they aren’t willing to deal with the consequences.”
Kids, on the other hand, are often fascinated by tattoos and don’t have the same kind of judgment about them. Ryann’s tattoos serve to break the ice between her and her young subjects. “They say to me, ‘wow, you have a lot of tattoos!’ and I say, ‘mmm-hmm, I do.’ Then they ask me, ‘why do you have so many tattoos?’ and I say, ‘because I like ’em!’ and they just accept that.”
Through the eyes of a child, a tattoo is just a tattoo, not a possibly threatening statement about the wearer’s position with regard to society. As Bo says, “People’s reactions to my tattoos run the gamut from blatant looking, sidelong glances, direct questions and raised eyebrows, to compliments…but kids really seem to like them. They like to play ‘seek’ on my arm, looking for all the different shapes in the tattoo, and I’ve had some really positive interactions with kids and the adults they’re with when the tattoo is the starting point for a conversation.”
Some professions are more tolerant of visible tattoos. Other professions are becoming more tolerant. Thomas’s angel wings don’t show unless his shirt is off, but he does get some jokes about the eye of Ra on his neck. He told me about a firefighter he knows who has some extensive tattooing, but who is so good at his job that he’s blazing a trail in a profession where visible tattoos have often been a disqualifying factor. “People realize that he’s really good, and they want him to work for them. And then they realize that the tattoos are just marks on his skin, and they don’t change who he is intrinsically, or how he interacts with people.”
Arguably, someone who goes to the trouble of indelibly marking their skin is more likely to be consistent in their identity and comfortable with being a more genuine version of themselves, since the tattoo is a kind of truth-telling charm.
“I’m far more willing to be present in my body covered in this beautiful color than I ever was in the skin I had beforehand. I am very conscious about how people interact with me socially now,” Ryann says. “It makes me so I am true to myself, and I never want to go back.”
So you think you want to get a tattoo
There’s a feeling inside you that you can’t really ignore—some inchoate urge, or some life passage you want to memorialize, or a piece of art you want to become one with. You understand the impact that getting inked will have on your life, and you think you are ready to go under the needle. What are some of the considerations of the actual process? Both the inkers and the inkees have some good insight.
Take your time
Repeatedly, from both artists and canvases, I was told that a good tattoo takes time. It takes time to find the right artist, time to decide on the right art, and time to get the tattoo put on and healed up properly. “A lot of people rush their artists and rush themselves, and that’s not fair!” Lindsi says. “When I pick an artist, I have a series of questions. It’s an interview; I’m hiring them to make a piece of art for me. I’ve heard a lot of stories about people just walking into a shop and getting pressured to get an appointment, just within 15 minutes of showing up. If that happens, t’s a good indication that I’m not in the right place.”
Ryann commented on the intimacy of having someone put permanent marks on your body. “You have to carry that person with you for the rest of your life,” she says, “so make sure you have a good relationship with them.”
She believes that tattoos are such fundamental body modifications that you should wait until you’re old enough to understand who you’re becoming before you decide to put something permanent on your body. “You should be at least 25 years old,” she says, “or preferably older. If you have an image you’re very set on, you need to wait a really long time, years, easily, before you do that. I think you should know a tattoo artist for a minimum of three months before a session.”
Artist Greg Christensen at Oni tattoo studio tells me that bad customers are impatient ones. “The ones that think they know too much about your job, the ones who are pushy and want something done right away, those are some of the worst.”
Tattooing is about collaboration, and a big part of the process is developing trust between customer and artist. Daniel Walker, an artist at Painted Temple Tattoo, says his favorite clients “can let go of control and just let me do my work. That’s the best advice for how to be great at getting tattoos. Pick an artist that you trust and like to work with, and let them take your concept and do it their way.”
Phil Lambert, owner/operator of SoleTattoo, says that well-known artists can choose their clients just about as much as clients choose their artists. “I’m in a unique position now where I can be choosy about what I do and don’t do in my work. Some potential customers get a little bummed about that, but for the most part people really appreciate it, because if it’s not a good fit, a different artist is going to take that job on and be super stoked about it, and if it’s more their style anyway and the customer will get a better piece.”
Greg at Oni really appreciates a customer who has a good idea of what he or she wants. “The best customers have references on paper, and they help me depict in my head what it is they want. It’s the worst when they come in and say ‘do whatever you want’—that’s a terrible attitude to have toward a tattoo. If that happens, I say ‘okay, you’re getting a bloody skull with a grim reaper!’ You want to look at a prospective artist’s portfolio very carefully. Look for clean lines and solid colors. You also want to feel them out for their bedside manner. That’s a big deal for me—I try to be as patient with my customers as possible, and I hate being tattooed by assholes.”
A lot of people worry about the pain of receiving a tattoo. While it’s not the most fun aspect of the process, the people with tattoos I talked to all agreed that the pain wasn’t a big deterrent.
Stevo in particular has a pretty high pain tolerance. “The artist I worked with on my dragon tattoos told me it was like tattooing a stone,” he says.
Thomas found the pain a little more intrusive. “It’s kind of a necessary evil, a rite of passage, and a sign of your commitment to the artwork. Where the needle was dictated how bad it hurt; there were big swaths of my back where it didn’t hurt at all and was almost soothing, but there were a couple of places where it was really bad. I felt like it was just part of the process, being willing to pass through that experience to get what I wanted. A four-hour session turns out to be my maximum, and by the end of one of those I’d be really shaky, and had to take 10 or 15 minutes to calm down before I could drive.”
Lindsi didn’t find the pain too bad, but agrees that it’s a good idea to have a driver to and from the studio for longer sessions. “Sometimes if it’s a long session and some emotional stuff came up, I’ll be shaking at the end of it.” She also believes that intention and meditation make a big difference in your experience of the pain. “The more you put intention into your tattoo, and the more you get to know your artist and collaborate with them, and the more you meditate on the reasons you’re doing this and put a lot of investment into it, the less the pain will be a big deal.”
Ryann experiences the pain of the needle as fundamental to her relationship with her tattoos. “I experience the pain, and that’s how I cope with it. I spend most of my life doing everything I can to never dissociate, and my tattoos mark my progress into being present.”
Bo says that the pain reminds him that he’s alive, and brings home why he’s getting a tattoo. “Getting through it with the person who is painting beauty on you makes it all worthwhile.”
As the saying goes, “A good tattoo ain’t cheap, and a cheap tattoo ain’t good.” For a good artist, expect to pay $150 to $200 an hour or more, for a piece of art that you’ll love, which will endure on your skin for the rest of your life, and which will perish together with you at the end. Tattoos are not something to penny pinch.
That said, just because an artist has a high hourly rate doesn’t mean they are the right artist for you. Do your homework and get to know them first. “For the right artist, you should be fine with giving them $200 an hour, and it would be just like you were giving your best friend a drink of water,” Ryann says. “I bring gifts to my tattoo artist,” Lindsi says, “and I always give them a fat tip too. The more you get to know tattoo artists, the more you realize that a lot of them underprice their work, so I try to show up with around an $80 tip for them on a long session.”
Even so, the price of getting a tattoo should not put you off if you are committed to the image and the process. “For people who don’t know how they can afford their tattoo, I tell them to make the appointment first, and the money will show up. You’ll make it show up! It’s the power of manifestation for something you really want,” says Lindsi.
Healing and curation of your living artwork
Contemporary tattoo technology is a far cry from the pierce-the-skin-and-rub-soot-in-the-wound convention of many traditional forms. It goes without saying that the shop you go to should be licensed and hygenic, and the equipment sterile, but healing a tattoo, and caring for one, is still a big investment of time and energy. A long session creates a big wound, even if a superficial one, and your immune system will be taxed until you heal up. It is best to plan for this and to give your body the time it needs. “Healing [the tattoo] takes dedication,” Ryann says. “I don’t go in water, I don’t take baths, I’m careful with the clothes I wear, I don’t let people touch me. I don’t work out or get sweaty. I don’t over-medicate it, either—I think that’s a mistake that a lot of people make. Phil [Lambert] believes in dry-healing his own tattoos, but the standard is to use a thin layer of A&D ointment, and that’s totally fine too. I don’t use any soaps that have residue when I wash a fresh tattoo, and I certainly don’t ever scratch them.” You have to wash a tattoo for the first few days when it’s healing to remove the layer of plasma your skin will exude, so that the tattoo doesn’t scab. Ryann also recommends using ice cubes to cool them off if they burn or sting during the healing process. Both she and Lindsi recommend a good meal planned after every session, and to make sure you get a lot of rest over the next few days. It’s a time for contemplation and meditation, not a time to go out and party. In the long term, sun is a tattoo’s worst enemy.
Lambert says he likes to see his customers treat his work “like they just paid a ton of money for it! It’s amazing to me how people will get tattoos and just not care about them at all. The more you can make your ink never see daylight, the longer and better it will last.”
A good tattoo is never undertaken lightly. It’s something that, if done well, can help you understand yourself and your place in the world, and that can bring some of your innermost qualities to the surface. The process isn’t for everyone, but if it’s for you, the best you can do is to take your time and be conscientious with it. Happy inking!
Who would get a tattoo? If you asked your grandma, you know she’d probably say bikers, sailors, and jailbirds…but oddly, if you could ask your great-great-great-grandmother, she might have had a completely different answer: Back in the late Victorian era and just afterward, tattoos were commonly sported by the aristocracy. Both King Edward VII and King George V of Britain had tattoos, as did the then monarchs of Denmark, Romania, and Yugoslavia, and even Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Tattoos had begun to filter back into the European world with the return of Captain James Cook’s expeditions to the Pacific in the mid-18th century, and after a knighted member of Cook’s crew got inked, the aristocracy became fascinated with them. By one estimate, by 1898 as many as one in five members of the gentry sported tattoos.
In ancient times, “who would get a tattoo” included the Celts and the Rus Vikings, and the 5,300 year old Tyrolean ice mummy, “Ötzi,” who was found covered in some 57 tattoos which seem to have been applied as medicine for arthritic joints and other maladies.
The ancient Scythians and the Pazyryk culture of western and central Asia also practiced tattoo in a sacred context, as did Egyptian priestesses of the goddess Hathor.
Starting in the 15th century, Croatian Catholic women during the Ottoman rule of their land applied beautiful linework tattoos to their hands, arms, necks and sometimes faces to mark themselves as Christian and to decrease their chances of being taken by Turkish men and forcibly converted to Islam.
Around the globe, there are many different rich traditions of tattooing. Those of Japan are somewhat well known in the West, but a little less so are the sacred Buddhist sak yant tattoos of Southeast Asia, inked by monks and intended to protect the wearer from bodily harm.
Native American tribes such as the Iroquois, Chickasaw and Inuit tattooed themselves, as did South American and Central American native peoples such as the Inca and the Maya.
Polynesian tribal and New Zealand Maori tattoos represented the wearer’s status, line of descent, tribal affiliations, and exploits in war.
In Borneo, the Iban tribes still tattoo themselves to chart their journey through life, for protection, and to connect themselves to their ancestors in the spirit world.
Questions for a prospective artist:
May I see your portfolio?
What makes a great customer for you?
Who’s your most frustrating customer, and why?
What is your favorite kind of art to do?
What is your favorite piece you’ve worked on recently?
How long is your waiting list? How long will it take me to get an appointment?
How would you interpret my idea of what I want tattooed on me?
What shop do you work at?
How long have you been tattooing?
How to be a good client:
Take your time and be patient.
Respect your artist and his or her process.
Don’t bring large numbers of friends to a tattoo session. It’s distracting to both you and the artist, and you’re more likely to wind up with a mistake on you.
Don’t drink alcohol before a session.
Don’t take pain pills before a session, particularly if you don’t know how they will affect you.
Do eat a decent meal before a session, to make sure you have a healthy blood sugar level.
Take snacks and water with you to your session to help you keep your strength up.
Practice yoga breathing during a session to help with pain.
Get to know your artist. It’s always nice to bring them a little gift.
Tips for healing:
Take painkillers after a session if you need to.
Follow the aftercare instructions from your artist.
Wash your tattoo carefully during the first couple of days, but don’t swim or soak your tattoo afterward. The aim is to avoid a scab forming. And if it forms, don’t pick it!
Eat good food and get good rest during the days immediately following a session.
Use ice cubes to take the sting out of a new tat.
Never scratch or pick at a tattoo.
Keep out of the sun!
If you have a problem with healing, contact your artist first. Doctors who do not have experience with tattoos are usually unfamiliar with the issues involved with healing one; a good, experienced tattoo artist will know the ins and outs of healing a lot better.