Tattoos inking It up from subculture to self-expression

    When the needles stabbed Tyler Kraus’ skin, they were etching into his body a permanent reminder of a past he’s left behind. His body art features a depiction of Icarus, who, according to Greek mythology, perished when his waxen wings melted as he flew too close to the sun.

    Amie Hrabak
    Guardian

    “”It’s there to remind me of the whole story behind him ‹ excessive pride, hubris. It kind of says, ŒKnow your limits in life,'”” said Kraus, a John Muir College freshman. “”Icarus challenged the gods, which is kind of what my personal history is ‹ I thought I was invincible, but I’m really not.””

    As a tribute to this epiphany, the skin on Kraus’ arm is now covered with an impressive ‹ and permanent ‹ rendition of the mythical Greek character, framed by Japanese-art-style clouds he designed himself.

    Tattooing has long served various purposes in cultures worldwide. It can be seen very early in ancient Egyptian artworks. The ornate, detailed tattooing commonly known as “”tribal,”” for example, is thought to have originated in ancient Polynesia, where it was continually revised over the course of a person’s life, eventually covering the entire body as a form of decoration. Native South Americans tattooed images of their gods on themselves, turning the art into a form of idol worship. In ancient Japan, tattooing evolved from decoration to punishment since criminals were sometimes tattooed as a penalty for their actions.

    Amie Hrabak
    Guardian

    It was primarily on sailors that tattooing first appeared in U.S. culture, adorning the Navy men who visited foreign ports. Tattoos eventually moved to land, but for a while stayed primarily on the streets. For years, tattooing carried negative connotations of vulgarity and crime. But a far cry from their yesteryear purpose of suggesting occupation or gang affiliation, tattoos today are considered a form of art and self-expression.

    Rapidly becoming prevalent in popular culture, tattoos are worn by a plethora of celebrity icons from Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath to actress Drew Barrymore. Before filming the “”Lord of the Rings”” trilogy, the nine actors playing the nine members in the fellowship of the rings got tattoos with elvish designs meaning “”The Nine.””

    “”Tattoos used to be really subculture ‹ only the deviants of society would get them,”” Kraus said. “”But nowadays, you see everyone running around with tattoos. You see teenage girls running around with tattoos. It’s become so mainstream that it’s lost its shock value aspect. It’s something that’s now accepted as body art.””

    Thomas Blessing, who works at Big City Tattoo, Inc. of San Diego, has noticed that customer preference today pays homage to ancient needlework. He has requests for all genres of tattoos, including tribal, Oriental, and 1940s-style anchors, crosses, roses and the like.

    “”It’s cool knowing that my art travels all over,”” said Blessing, who has been in the business for 10 years.

    However, Blessing pointed out that “”it’s not for everyone,”” and for a variety of reasons.

    “”Some people can’t make up their minds about getting a tattoo,”” he said. “”It’s a big decision. If you’re looking to get a tattoo, make sure it’s something you can live with for the rest of your life.””

    Kraus agreed that personal meaning is crucial to the process.

    “”You shouldn’t get a tattoo unless it means something to you,”” Kraus said. “”Because it’s something that’ll be on your body forever.””

    In addition to the permanency, some are deterred by the intense procedure.

    “”The customer has to do work, too,”” Blessing said. “”It isn’t just the artist.””

    The process is not easy, nor is it cheap. Prices range depending on such factors as size, color, artist and shop. Kraus’ black-and-white tattoo, which goes from shoulder to mid-bicep, totaled around $1,400.

    “”You really get what you pay for,”” Kraus said. “”If you go out and you look to spend $200 on a tattoo, it’s not going to work. You kind of negotiate a price with [the artist]. Of course, you don’t go in there with a sketch and then come back and say, ŒNo, do it for $200, not $300,’ because then you’re insulting the integrity of the art. What you do is you say, ŒI have so many dollars, what can you do to this piece so it can accommodate my price range?'””

    An artist can suggest ways to make a tattoo less costly, such as making it smaller or substituting black ink for color.

    “”A lot of times you’ll walk into a studio and they’ll have a lot of Œflash’ on the wall, which is pre-made art. They have a lot of hearts and knives and crosses and that sort of thing,”” Kraus said. “”But really what you should do is walk in there and have an idea of what you want. Talk to the artist, sit down, have a sketch session.””

    To Blessing, the relationship between himself as an artist and the customer is also a factor. A full sleeve of Asian art and a picture of a Hindu god are his two favorite creations.

    “”While I was really happy with how the tattoos themselves turned out,”” he said, “”I liked them so much because I really had a good time while doing them.””

    He also recommended finding an artist that fits your needs.

    “”A lot depends on the person’s personality and the artist’s personality,”” Blessing said. “”You may go to one shop where maybe an artist’s got great work, but you just don’t have a feeling for the artist, and that’s important. A lot of it is just the comfort between two people ‹ you’re working together to create this piece of art. When the two of you are on the same wavelength, if the person can laugh and have fun during the process, even though it’s not necessarily the most pleasant thing in the world, it’ll help make the work better quality.””

    Once a tattoo design is created, an artist will typically practice the sketch before putting it on a transfer paper, from which the art will be “”traced”” onto the skin with various needles hooked up to a machine that regulates voltage to control the speed and depth of the needles.

    “”If anyone says it’s not painful, they’re lying,”” said Kraus, who underwent the process without the aid of pain medication. His artist was forced to pause during the process, because Kraus was bleeding too much and the blood was mixing with the pigment.

    Despite the pain, tattooing is generally a safe practice, but nevertheless, there are inherent risks involved. The Food and Drug Administration warns of various infections or other medical complications, as they have not yet approved any forms of color ink for injection into human skin. Tattoo artists must be licensed and registered with the state of California and are subject to annual inspections.

    There are, however, a few basic precautions to look for. Blessing recommended that clients ask an artist whether he holds any professional affiliation (such as with the National Tattoo Association). Additionally, an artist should wash his hands with antibacterial soap and wear gloves during the procedure. The workspace should be clean and sterile as well, and, most importantly, needles should be disposable, not reused on clients, and should come in sterile bags to reduce the risk of blood-transmitted diseases.

    For Kraus, body art is worth the minor risk.

    “”A lot of my friends that have tattoos don’t just have one ‹ they go back and get more,”” he said. Kraus plans to finish his first one in the near future, and from there, is hoping to get at least one per year.

    “”They’re really cool in expressing myself, just something I like to have,”” he said. “”In a way, it’s an addiction.””

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