Until the ink runs out

By Chase Straight, Red Pulse Writer

Tattooing is a very delicate art. Good tattoos will satisfy people for their entire lives, fulfilling whatever reasons they had for getting it and knowing they can show it off with pride. A bad tattoo is like getting an STD; it’s fun when it happens but the aftermath can be ugly and scarring. It’s hard to find the right tattoo artist to ensure you don’t spend your life with permanent regrets.

“The saddest thing is girls who have crappy tattoos,” said Sarah de Azevedo, a tattoo artist. “They know they’re crappy. It’s like a bad haircut. I’m going to have to enjoy it until I’m dead.”

Tattoos are often overlooked as a renegade form of art that’s cheaper than the classical forms. Jake Miller, co-owner of the award winning 11th Street Electric Gallery in Sugar House, said he feels that the stakes are much higher in the world of tattoo art.

“Tattooing is a lot more passionate than other art because you have to live it,” he said. “Every emotion is represented in this building. It’s hard to get that out of most other pieces of artwork.”

Although he does watercolor and oil paintings on the side, he believes that tattoos are the “ultimate form of self-expression.”

After working at another local shop, Miller and four others left to create 11th Street Electric Gallery so they could play by their own rules. Wanting to move in a different direction creatively, the new shop allowed the artists flexibility to pick their own schedules and work how they wanted. Miller believes the 11th Street business ethic gives their employees the ability to progress and live up to their artistic potential.

“It represents the progression of tattooing and the creation of new tradition,” Miller said. “We hold ourselves to a certain degree of artistry.”

Tattooing is not as simple as picking up pen and paper and drawing something out. The skin is a medium unlike any other in how it stretches and absorbs the ink.

There are many different factors that come into play when creating a tattoo. Rushed or inexperienced tattooing can lead to blurred images and permanent mess-ups. Learning to tattoo is a long process and requires a tremendous amount of practice. Aspiring artists usually go through an informal apprenticeship that can take more than a year.

Aaron Hunsacker, the front guy at 11th Street, said about three people come in every week looking for an apprenticeship and almost all of them are turned away. He said most of them are in it for the image and perks of the job.

“These artists devote their whole lives and spare time to doing this,” Hunsacker said. “You have to give it your entire life or don’t waste your time.”

De Azevedo realized she wanted to be a tattoo artist at the age of 16 after seeing a friend get “a really, really shitty one.” Now a full-time artist at Oni Tattoo, she has spent the past five years of her life making sure her customers are satisfied with what they get.

She said every artist has a day8212;hers was about a year into apprenticeship8212;where “something just clicks and it becomes ten times easier.” She describes the grueling process to become a tattoo artist: “It ruined my life at the time. But the payoff is having an awesome job8212;I get paid to draw on people all day.”

Even though she puts it lightly, true professionals take their craft very seriously. They won’t take drunk people who walk in and foolishly try to get their monthlong girlfriend’s name inked on themselves. At a good shop, that’s hard to do anyway as most artists are booked out months in advance. The artists want to give their customers time to think about what they want, and to make sure they are serious about the commitment. At Electric Gallery, they have a policy stating they won’t tattoo neck or hands unless the person is already heavily tattooed. With so many people rushing to get tattoos these days, it’s important they know what they are getting themselves into.

The case used to be that tattoos were the mark of outcasts, giving the finger to the codifications of respectable society. Today, with the help of reality TV shows such as “Miami Ink,” tattoo art has broken the counter-culture barrier and reached its way into the mainstream. A 2006 survey by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology concluded that about one out of every four Americans has had some tattoo work done.

Sitting at his desk, Hunsacker tried to remember the shop’s most unlikely customer.

“We had an ex-nun who came in to get a tattoo,” he said.

Minutes after he made this statement, Paige Paulsen, a 52-year-old accountant with the look of a sweet soccer mom, came in looking to get her first tattoo.

She said she decided to get a tattoo at this point in her life because her family was very judgmental about tattoos.

“I used to have the old attitudes but I don’t anymore,” Paulsen said.

Indeed, there is almost no limit to who is sporting tattoos these days. Hunsacker said everyone from stockbrokers to stoners come in to get some work done.

With the stigma beginning to lift, tattoo shops are finding themselves busier than ever. Miller said 11th Street has been booked solid despite the failing economy. He adds that nowadays there are more people wanting to get tattooed than there are tattoo artists available. With tattoos being so easy to screw up, it’s important to find a quality shop like 11th Street and Oni Tattoo. There’s no point in getting that gnarly “Sex Machine” piece inked across your chest if no one can read it.

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