It’s late on a Thursday afternoon at Thistle & Pearl Tattoo on Merrimon Avenue. Inside, The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” is playing on the stereo. Shop owner BB June dons a pair of black latex gloves as she prepares to start work on Marcus Silva, who’s getting a shoulder cap and half sleeve on his left arm.
The mechanical needle buzzes to life in June’s hand. It sounds like a colony of bees, the incessant drone slightly muted when it makes contact with Silva’s skin. But every so often, the full chorus of the machine’s metal teeth resounds as June briefly pulls away from the flesh before moving on to the next part of Silva’s bicep.
And all the while, The Human League continues its plaintive lament: “Don’t you want me baby? Don’t you want me, ohh?”
A growing industry
When it comes to tattoos, the answer to the 1981 pop hit’s essential question is a definite yes. According to the latest Harris Poll, three in 10 Americans surveyed said they had at least one tattoo.
Perhaps not surprisingly, millennials lead the pack: 47 percent of them sport ink. Generation X is next at 36 percent. The numbers fall off sharply after that, with just 13 percent of baby boomers so adorned and a mere 10 percent of “matures.”
In Asheville, meanwhile, the explosion of permitted shops and artists further underscores the art’s increasing popularity. According to Buncombe County Health & Human Services, which regulates all local tattoo establishments, the number of permitted artists has more than doubled in the last 10 years, from 49 in 2007 to 115 as of this writing. During the same period, the roster of Buncombe County parlors has mushroomed from 29 to 59.
Asheville-area artists credit television and social media with driving the industry’s growth, saying the ubiquity of body ink in today’s popular culture has made the practice more socially and professionally acceptable. But while this shift has been a boon for local shop owners, some now wonder whether the market here can really sustain them all.
Chasms of knowledge
Steeped in tradition, the tattoo industry strongly emphasizes respect: for the art itself, its history and its most skilled practitioners. Aspiring artists often learn the craft through apprenticeships. The details vary from shop to shop, but these are typically unpaid positions in which free labor is exchanged for education. Apprentices sometimes pay their mentor, though this is generally frowned upon.
Most apprenticeships last 1 1/2 to two years, during which the rookie picks up insights on the trade and gradually learns the mechanics. Apprentices also assist with day-to-day business operations: opening the shop, setting up appointments and keeping things in order. Eventually, the beginner starts working with clients, who tend to be either friends or people paying a discounted rate to get tattooed by a novice.
“You have to be willing to sacrifice everything,” says Megan McGonigle, who’s apprenticing with Rob Hunt of Forever Tattoo.
Early on in her training, McGonigle also worked full time as a baker, averaging 90 hours a week between the two gigs. As she picked up more clients over the past year, McGonigle decided to jettison her baking position. But until her apprenticeship is finished, she says, the income from tips won’t be enough to sustain her, so she plans to start looking for another day job soon.
“Sometimes I question it,” McGonigle reveals. “Should I still be doing this? That’s how difficult it is. But I genuinely want this in my heart.”
Self-doubt, however, is a constant in the field, and not just among apprentices. Many established artists say it took them anywhere from three to five years to feel truly comfortable behind the needle. “There are so many chasms of knowledge in the trade,” McGonigle observes. “There’s an infinite amount to learn. It’s always humbling.”
Kitty Love, who owns Sky People Tattoo, has been working in the industry in Asheville since 1994. Many people come to her shop seeking guidance, she says, often in the wake of an unsatisfactory apprenticeship elsewhere. Unstructured environments are a common complaint, Love reports; in response, she’s developed “an actual syllabus, broken down by month.”
To date, though, only one person has completed her program. Artistic talent and a resilient ego, she notes, are essential, but those who manage to make it in the industry end up with an ideal profession: “It’s the most flexible medium that I’ve ever touched. You can do a huge range of styles and techniques and achieve the same qualities as a photograph or a painting or line art.”
Robert Ashburn of Liquid Dragon Tattoo agrees, citing such styles as traditional, neotraditional, realism, tribal, new school, old school, Japanese, animation, blackwork, portraiture, watercolor — and the list goes on.
“Today’s client is an educated consumer,” says Ashburn, who ranks among the area’s pioneering tattoo artists. In the past, “tattoo flash” (the stereotypical hearts and daggers that still line the walls of many local parlor waiting rooms) dominated the menu, but prospective customers now tend to have elevated expectations and more individualized tastes. Because of this, he expains, “You have to be able to work in all areas of tattoo to be truly successful.”
The Rihanna effect
Local artists say the emergence of reality TV shows like Miami Ink and Ink Master sparked the birth of the modern-day tattoo industry. But it was the advent of Instagram and Pinterest in 2010 that triggered an explosion.
“Instagram changed tattooing 100 percent,” says Danny Reed, who owns Hot Stuff Tattoo. Hashtags and shared images helped propel individual practitioners to new levels while paving the way for tattoo collectors, who roam far and wide in search of something different. The added exposure also enables artists to make guest appearances at parlors around the globe. “You’re able to post, ‘Hey, I’ll be in NYC for these days,’ and you just book yourself up,” Reed explains.
Before social media, notes John Henry Gloyne, co-owner of Spiderweb Tattoo on Haywood Road, “If you wanted to see a cool tattoo, you had to go buy a magazine, and you got lucky if there were two or three cool pictures in the whole thing. With Instagram, you can see 200 amazing tattoos in five minutes, just scrolling.”
But if social media exposed millions to tattooing’s possibilities, these platforms have also given rise to a number of short-lived trends. Such “Pinterest tattoos,” as they’re known in the trade, have included bird silhouettes and white-ink designs.
Another case in point is what Gloyne calls “Rihanna tattoos.” Over a period of three to six months, the artist says, he saw an influx of clients seeking Roman numeral tattoos, inspired by the pop singer’s own shoulder-based design. “It is funny,” continues Gloyne. “The people who want the trend tattoo are usually the loudest about wanting to be original.”
Judged by the colors of your skin
Despite these seeming paradoxes, however, most local artists try to shy away from passing judgment.
“I don’t dictate taste,” says Ashburn. “It’s a mistake. My job is to make people happy; I don’t tell them what to get.”
In part, this philosophy may stem from the artists’ own painful experiences. Gloyne recalls his family’s disapproval and disbelief when, in the early 2000s, he announced that he intended to drop out of college to pursue a career in tattooing. Hunt tells a nearly identical tale that played out a decade earlier.
Indeed, these artists say, it’s only recently that those prejudices have started to shift.
According to the latest Harris Poll, 39 percent of respondents said they’d be “extremely comfortable” seeing visible tattoos on police officers. Other professions with significant approval ratings included real estate brokers (37 percent), bankers (36 percent), doctors (35 percent), judges (34 percent) and presidential candidates (32 percent).
And closer to home, at least some employers also seem to be following that trend. Buncombe County has no formal policy on tattoos, and city of Asheville employees enjoy a comparable freedom, though the Police Department does require officers to cover tattoos while in uniform. Mission Health, the area’s largest employer, similarly requires staffers to keep large, prominent tattoos covered up during work hours.
Nevertheless, many in the industry say there’s still a stigma associated with body art. Greg Phipps, the manager at Empire Tattoo, feels it when he visits his hometown of Johnson City, Tenn. “It’s only about 60 miles from here, but it might as well be 6 million, as far as that culture is concerned,” he says, adding that even in Asheville, he’ll sometimes get looks. “We still have people come by all the time and stare through our windows, like we’re animals in a cage.”
For all the benefits that online platforms and pop culture have given the industry, they’ve also brought their fair share of headaches.
“In today’s environment, people expect you to do what they see on TV,” says Ashburn. “And that is to paint a masterpiece in a moment’s notice, under pressure. … You would never do that: That’s like trying to hurry up your brain surgery. It’s not realistic.”
Doctored images have also helped give consumers a false sense of possibilities. These days, for example, shops across Asheville say they’re getting requests for tiny tattoos from folks who don’t realize the flat-out impossibility of such designs. “Your skin is a living, breathing canvas,” Phipps explains. “It’s constantly changing. If you get tattoos that are tiny, it does disperse underneath the skin over time. If they’re super small, it all bleeds together.”
There’s also a loss of creative interpretation and communication between client and artist. “Sometimes people misuse social media to window-shop for ideas,” says Kimi Leger of Sacred Lotus Tattoo, “whereas before they might have just described an idea and let the artist create a new vision for it.”
This, she says, can lead to ethical dilemmas for artists. Customers sometimes come in with a design they found online and ask for an exact copy. But while tattoo flash — say, a heart with “Mom” written across it — is intended as a kind of mass production, custom tattoos were never meant to be replicated. Ultimately, Leger maintains, it’s up to the individual artist’s integrity to refuse such requests.
Itching for ink
The first thing that anyone considering getting a tattoo needs to understand is that each artist’s oeuvre is unique. And while many of today’s practitioners are well-versed in a variety of styles, they all have their strengths — and weaknesses. So do your research, but remember that no one person’s portfolio can speak for the entire staff, even at the same shop.
Placement is also critical. “I encourage my clients to think of the body as architecture,” says Love. “You stand in front of the mirror naked and you envision shapes. That’s how tattoos should be planned.” This, she explains, helps the person avoid becoming a human patchwork quilt.
Other key considerations, of course, are money and time. And if you’re short on either one, why rush it?
“A huge percentage of what I do now is cover and repair,” says Ashburn. “I salvage something that was mediocre, done 20 years ago under a different thought process, on a limited budget, with limited time, by the wrong person.”
And then there’s the matter of courtesy. There’s nothing wrong with asking about costs, notes Phipps. But once you’ve heard the store’s minimum charge (which in Asheville is typically $60-$80) and hourly rate ($120-$160), at least have the decency to step outside before calling other stores to compare prices, he urges.
Perhaps most important of all, though, is making a good connection with your chosen shop. “If you’re not comfortable,” says McGonigle, “go somewhere else.”
How much is too much?
Despite tattooing’s rising popularity, however, local artists are split about the industry’s future prospects. Ashburn, for one, sees the proliferation of parlors as unsustainable. These days, he says, “Tattoo shops are like gas stations: They’re on every corner,” leading customers to choose convenience over quality. “Sadly, what happens is people are being served by their own Walmart mentality,” he observes. “I got [a tattoo parlor] down the street: Why would I drive past it to go somewhere else?”
Others, though, remain optimistic that their commitment to the city and the craft will be enough to ensure their continued success. “It’s just like restaurants,” says Hunt. “If you have a bad restaurant, it’s not going to stay in business.”
Love, meanwhile, thinks it’s a non-issue. “Everybody has always said that,” she points out, noting that when she first arrived in Asheville in the mid-’90s, there were only three or four shops in town, but people deemed the market oversaturated even then. “The more fantastic works that are coming out of tattoo shops in Asheville, the more people are going to get tattooed,” Love predicts.
No laughing matter
Back at the Thistle & Pearl, June is still working on Silva’s bicep. The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” has given way to Steve Winwood’s “Valerie.” Silva requests a break; his eyes are watering, and what begins as a giggle gradually becomes a full-blown fit of laughter.
Everyone reacts differently to the pain, notes June. But Silva’s response, she acknowledges — much to his seeming delight — is a bit unusual.
Like Love, though, June believes there’s enough local business to go around. “Shops can only do so many tattoos a day,” she points out. “It’s not like any one shop can take all the people that want to get tattooed.”
Silva, meanwhile, keeps laughing.
“If you’re treating your clients well and being professional and giving them tattoos that you’re happy with, people are going to remember that and come back,” June adds as the laughter gradually fades and the needle buzzes back to life.
But as the mother of two young children, she continues, “I do wonder if my kids are going to be anti-tattoo, because they’re everywhere.” Perhaps, she speculates, her kids “will rebel by not having them.”
And as Silva’s skin once again begins to muffle the needle’s buzz, June, still pondering the industry’s future, murmurs, “I don’t know,” all the while continuing to color her client’s flesh.