Halo sat in a crowded hotel ballroom hunched over pictures of Johnny Depp. Tattooed crescents framed Halo’s eyes, and blue and green curls crept like vines from the neckband of his black T-shirt. He wore his hair in a vertical black and green Mohawk and jaguar spots dotted one side of his pale scalp. Even at a tattoo convention, Halo was a highly visible specimen.
In the photos, Depp looked sexy-paranoid; his eyes veered sideways as if someone was following him. The night before, Halo had watched the thriller Secret Window to capture screen shots and absorb Depp’s character. This was all in preparation for tattooing Depp’s portrait onto Sarah Garza, a bubbly tattoo artist from Fayetteville, North Carolina.
On one forearm she already had portraits of Depp dressed up as Jack Sparrow and as Edward Scissorhands.
Sarah wore stylish plastic glasses set off by an Orion’s belt of studs embedded in the skin below her right eye. Anticipating a long ordeal—the tattoo would take about five hours—she came prepared with an iPhone and a water bottle full of something alcoholic.
“The wetness in his eyes. The pores on his face,” Halo rhapsodized. “I’m gonna capture it all, darling. You’re gonna love it.”
Secret Window is Sarah’s “favorite movie of all time,” she said. “He’s always dressed up, but in this one you get to see his face.” On one forearm she already had portraits of Depp dressed up as Jack Sparrow and as Edward Scissorhands.
Halo knelt in front of Sarah as if she were knighting him and sketched the picture on her thigh in marker. She then took a walk to accustom herself to the new face on her leg.
While Sarah was gone, Halo traced the picture onto Thermofax paper and bantered with well-wishers and potential customers as they paid their respects. A man pulled up his shirt to show off a portrait of his daughter who was standing next to him.
The banner on Halo’s booth showed off his portfolio of flesh emblazoned with pop culture touchstones: a blood-spattered American Psycho, Ironman, a Na’vi, each one a trek into the uncanny valley. Sarah returned and Halo spritzed her leg with an antiseptic and then smeared it with an ointment called Stencil Stuff. When he wrapped the paper around her leg, the image transferred to her tan skin.
“There’s a whole different aspect when you’re in the chair,” an artist named James Cumberland said. “A camaraderie.”
Sarah scootched up on to the padded bench and Halo squeezed ink into a few dozen tiny plastic pots arranged on a table. He dipped his Magnum, a cartridge of twenty-seven needles packed to the width of a USB drive, into black ink. Heavily decorated convention goers stood around, cell phone cameras aloft.
Halo stepped on the pedal and the machine whirred. “Alright gorgeous, you ready?” Halo leaned in. Holding the tattoo machine’s tube casing like a pencil, he began at Depp’s collar. The needles left a thin smudgy film on her leg, blood camouflaged in black ink. Lying on her back, Sarah’s thin smile tightened, “It tickles.”
It’s getting harder to distinguish between tattoo culture and the mainstream. In the last decade there have been at least five tattoo reality shows and a 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 38 percent of 18 through 29-year-olds have tattoos, compared to 15 percent of baby boomers. During this year’s Super Bowl, a lush black and white commercial took us on a tour of David Beckham’s body art, repurposing an ancient practice to sell underpants.
A few weeks earlier, I’d gone to Washington to learn about the tattoo world and to join it. I’d never wanted a tattoo before, or even found them particularly attractive, but as I started making phone calls it seemed like a minor imposition to understand what I was writing about. “There’s a whole different aspect when you’re in the chair,” an artist named James Cumberland said. “A camaraderie Having to deal with a little bit of pain.” He convinced me. I thought it would be irresponsible not to get a tattoo.
Practically every weekend, there’s a bland hotel somewhere in America where the inked hordes gather to drink, curse, scare bellboys, and scribble on each other. The second annual D.C. Tattoo Arts Expo took over the Crystal Gateway Marriott in northern Virginia, between Pentagon City and Reagan National Airport. The drafty, labyrinthine pile connects through a tunnel to Crystal City, a famously sterile complex of defense contractor offices, shops and apartments. It was MLK weekend, a few weeks before tattooers start banking their customers’ tax refunds at one hundred and fifty dollars an hour.
Outside the main hall, industry standard brand Eternal Ink displayed hundreds of plastic squirt bottles filled with colored ink. The catalog lists more than one hundred colors. The greens alone included: grass green, lime green, mint green, olive, nuclear green, avocado, spearmint, jungle green, dirty money, seafoam, honeydew, tropical teal, green conc[entrate], and green slime. An add-on set of ten zombie colors counted freshly dead, rigor mortis, decomposed skin, infected skin, and gangrene among the options.
Dustin Bobee, Eternal Ink’s friendly sales rep, had plugs that stretched his ear lobes wide enough to hold a cell phone. He attends dozens of conventions a year and appeared to be deeply familiar with the company’s product. Eternal’s ink is so safe you can drink it, he claimed: “No metals, no seashells.”
The hotel ballroom smelled like a hospital. Artists had set up compact studios complete with their tools: inks, padded tables, and stands for holding body parts steady. Each had a collection of moisturizers and disinfectants. In front of the booths, tables displayed flip books of “flash”—the stock designs that cover tattoo shop walls—and photos of the artists’ work. Everywhere, needles buzzed.
Dave Bell, an artist who was both friendly and highly quotable on the phone, wore a red plaid shirt buttoned to the top, baggy jeans, a red baseball cap, and red sneakers. He had a burst of hair below his chin and a “tribal” tattoo—a monochrome crown of thorn jumbles—in the shape of a chin-strap beard. I composed myself and said hello.
Bell was working on a flaming skull on the arm of a well-fed biker type in a Jagermeister cap and a white goatee. Skulls are as fundamental to tattooing as the Virgin was to Renaissance painting. Bell loves doing them. “You have so much movement and texturing and you can put so much life into ’em. Everyone is different,” he said. “And they look cool. Chicks dig ’em.”
Bell, thirty-nine, grew up in California and Arizona in a strict Catholic home with a father in retail and an orthodontist mother. He dropped out of high school, worked as a chef, and got into trouble. He and his friends experimented with tattoos, “little hand-poked stuff, stuff you and your homeboys do on a drunk night of forties.” He said he’d been arrested for, among other things, assault, dealing firearms, dealing drugs, DUI, and indecent exposure. “That’s all in the past. Now it’s marriage and work and a business owner. Gotta be responsible now, which sucks.”
I followed him out for a smoke break to ask how people react to him. “Old ladies love this shit,” he said. “People stop and talk to you constantly but you also have the element of people who are scared of you. They pre-judge you and think you’re a heroin-addicted fucking whatever.” Mainly, people want to know if it hurts.“You’re getting a bunch of needles poked in you. Of course it fucking hurts.” Where does it hurt the most? “Your ribs, your head. My kneecap hurt Any spot where there’s not a lot of skin or a lot of meat.”
Bell specializes in a southern California tattoo style characterized by thin lines and an emphasis on black and gray shading. But like most artists I met, Bell is a hired needle who has to please his customer. He’d rather not do names, for obvious reasons, but he’s not the body police. (Artists vary on whether they’ll do hate tattoos and some won’t decorate hands, necks, or faces, at least not on neophytes.)
After spending some time as a “scratcher,” tattooing out of his home, he went to a tattoo shop and asked for a job. His would-be boss said, “Dude, you are a fucking horrible tattooer,” Bell remembered. “If I could go back I’d probably beat my own ass for doing bad tattoos.”
In 1994, Bell began an apprenticeship at Majestik Tattoo in Tucson, two years of hard work and long hours for no pay. The store had two thousand sheets of flash and Bell went through them outlining, shading, and coloring. “In the meantime I was building needles, cleaning tubes, running the shop, cleaning the shop opening the shop, closing the shop, grabbing lunch, washing cars, scrubbing wheels, doing whatever the fuck they asked me to do.”
The more old-fashioned artists say apprenticeships, which are designed to instill discipline and respect, are the righteous way to begin a tattooing career, but they’re not mandatory. “The industry now is so overflooded with half-assed fucking half-witted fucking tattooers, man, who should not be in the fucking industry,” Bell said. But tattooing is now “the cool, in thing to do, because they saw a TV show about it.” They can stay in business, he suspects, because most people don’t know what a quality tattoo looks like.
After two years, Bell’s boss handed him the parts of a tattoo machine. “He dumped it out on the table in front of me and said ‘Make it work.’” Bell’s first customer was a brave guy named Lenny with a leg reserved for artists’ first tattoos. Bell did a vulture sitting on a stump with cherries in its mouth. (Described in writing, a lot of tattoos have a mix and match quality, as if they were ordered from Chipotle.) “I was so goddamn nervous that I took my time and made sure every little thing was perfect.”
Now based in Virginia, Bell is an entrepreneur with a wife and family, the very picture of a GOP patriarch, if that allows for face tattoos. “They’re real fucking nerdy girls,” he said fondly of his stepdaughters. “They’re all about school and grades and doing good and not cursing or swearing, the total opposite of me and mom.”
Tattoo enthusiasts are a more diverse group than they used to be, but a sign at one booth captured the craft’s profane, sentimental, and somewhat off-putting past: “To call one’s mother a whore is a lesser crime than to call the sacred instrument of tattooing a gun.”
The sign belonged to Mike Skiver, a well-known artist and former welder of about seventy (he claimed not to know) with a Gandalf beard. Skiver speaks at two volumes: loud and very loud. He wore a button down shirt and a “Tattoo Association of the Confederacy” belt buckle. Not a racist thing, he assured me.
As one artist put it, “I want to do tattooing ’cause I don’t want a legit fucking job.”
Skiver talked mainly about stuff he doesn’t like: Chinese-made tattoo supplies that are “cheap crap,” the younger folks who don’t show the proper respect, and rude visitors to the tattoo museum he keeps in Pennsylvania, not far from where the plane was “SHOT DOWN” on 9/11. At one point he pulled up a pant leg to show off a calf-piece of a rooster on the gallows. “I’ve got a cock that hangs below my knee!” he cackled. It was even funnier the next few times he said it.
Skiver’s aggression seemed exaggerated. To my eye, he’s the personification of a culture insecure about its place in the world. Are tattoos still for badasses when they’re common in malls and on elite campuses? Is he still a badass if he shouts loud enough?
Going straight has its benefits, though. No one complains that professional artists now take precautions against blood-borne disease. It can be easier for a tattoo shop to get a lease or insurance now since they’re more like any other small business. But there’s also a palpable fear of sliding towards normalcy. As the artist Christine Nelson put it, “I want to do tattooing ’cause I don’t want a legit fucking job.”
As some of the biggest names in tattooing have decided to promote themselves on national TV, it’s created a schism in this cottage industry which thinks of itself as a secret society. Reality television has done to tattooing what it does to everything else: amped up the fighting and shortened the wait. When producers approached Sunday Dawne-Marie, who now has a studio called Skinflower in the hippie town of Phoenecia, New York, she said, “You could feel them try to ferret out conflict, but the only thing we argued about was the music.”
Tattoos and tattoo artists have an undeniable power to attract, repulse, and intimidate. But when confronted with all this life and color, reality TV steamrolls it into the familiar “drama” of preening divas and wounded pride. “Everybody thinks they’re gonna change it,” said Anna Paige, an artist who said she’d turned down her chance at TV stardom. “Everybody thinks they’re gonna have some power.” But wait, isn’t she profiting from tattooing’s mass appeal? “I would have made money anyway.”
On the reality shows, customers cry and scream and pieces that take hours materialize onscreen in minutes. The programs squeeze tension from an artist picking a color scheme or office politics that aren’t any more interesting than your office politics. The tattooing sessions I watched at the convention were less suspenseful than getting a cavity filled and lasted much longer.
At the convention I spoke to James Vaughn, a taciturn, goateed artist who’s well regarded for his “neo-Japanese” style. It was a few days before Vaughn’s debut as a contestant on Ink Master, a reality show competition resembling Top Chef with a one hundred thousand dollar prize. (“Somewhat compelling” raved The Hollywood Reporter). Ink Master, which airs on Spike TV, strains as hard as any of them to invent plots where none exists. In one teaser video, an artist encounters, dumdumDUM psoriasis! Resolution: the afflicted customer doesn’t get tattooed.
“Anything to give yourself a little exposure in this business is a good thing,” Vaughn said as he filled in a totem pole on a customer’s leg. He didn’t pretend that the production staff behind Ink Master were his friends or had any appreciation for tattooing. “People have been tweeting saying the contestants have been selling out,” he said. “We had to take a month off work to film this. We had to sacrifice our business and time with our families. I wouldn’t call that selling out.”
A supportive bystander put it more succinctly, “It’s called doing what you gotta do.”
Booze flowed and soon enough Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom from Virginia, showed us her first tattoo, a blurry Scooby-Doo at the crease formed by her thigh and torso. She got it at eighteen, as “just a way to get away from my family, my life.”
On her lower back in the much-maligned “tramp stamp” zone she reported having a stargazer lily. “I was in the military when I got a lot of my bad tattoos,” she said. ”You’re with people and you want to share that connection at that time and you don’t care what they put on you.” The flower commemorates a night out with a guy who also got a stargazer, but on his arm with a bloody knife through it. “We were just drunk. We weren’t even sleeping together. I was just like ‘Let’s get tattoos.’”
“I’ve got one of those,” a guy named David, also ex-Navy, said knowingly. “Jacksonville.”
“I totally married my first tattoo artist,” Leila said. She was seventeen. She rolled down her waistband and displayed his work, a tribal strip on her belly at tramp stamp altitude. Her father forced her to get an annulment after one weekend. Her husband was a nice guy, she remembered, but he got a reptilian thing, a lizard or snake that “moved” onto his face “so the whole thing about being a banker didn’t work out.”
The moment I entered the convention, I knew that the pepperoncino would probably never happen. The first person I saw was a fat man convalescing on a padded bench, gripping a pillow to his ear as an artist worked on his leg. He reminded me of a dog being put to sleep.
By the last night of the convention I was eager to talk about something other than tattoos but I sat down with two artists, Anna Paige and Christine Nelson, and they launched into some of the familiar beefs about overexposure and reality TV. Among other things, now everyone who sits in the chair wants to tell you their whole goddamn life story.
The process of deciding on a tattoo is quite quick. A customer comes into the shop and says what she wants. The artist does some sketching, there’s some back and forth, and they get to it. Good artists have plenty of work and don’t want the prep to take all day. But these casual encounters lead to something that lasts forever.
“It’s so primal. It’s so intimate,” Nelson said. “As soon as you get tattooed you feel ten times tougher and badder.” “Since puberty,” she said, “I wanted the tattoos. I wanted the boys with the tattoos.”
The boys with the tattoos aren’t quite who they used to be. They’re the guy next to you at the gym and Ken in accounting. It used to be, she said, “you could tell who was who by who had the tattoos.”
I don’t feel the impulse to dig anyone’s name, face, or artwork into my skin. But I do understand Nelson’s nostalgia for how things were or are supposed to be. Even if I had a tattoo I wouldn’t be one of the boys who “had the tattoos.” And I have enough respect for the art to keep it that way.