Getting inked up

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Chris Hester views his body as a canvas. The Cape Girardeau man isn't alone.

More than a third of 18- to 29-year-old Americans have at least one tattoo, according to a recent study.

Nearly a fourth of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 are decorated with tattoos, says the study released by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology earlier this summer.

The study suggests tattoos -- once taboo and largely the domain of bikers, carnival workers and sailors -- have become more mainstream.

"It used to be we were tattooed to be out. Now we're tattooed to be in," said Cape Girardeau tattoo artist Karl Ketchum whose arms are covered with tattoos. So, too, are his hands.

Local tattoo artists say the popularity of skin art has exploded over the past decade, sparked in part by the visibility of tattoos on athletes and musicians.

Ketchum, who owns Tatmandu Tattoo in Cape Girardeau, has inked tattoos for many Southeast Missouri State University football and basketball players. "Some of these guys I have tattooed for the fourth year," he said.

"Bikers used to be 80 percent of my business. Jocks now are 50 percent of my business," Ketchum said.

Professional athletes have helped market tattoos. "The NBA is heavily tattooed. The NFL is heavily tattooed," Ketchum said.

Ketchum, 45, got his first tattoo when he was 17. The tattoo artist views the skin art as signposts of a person's life. "Most of the tattoos I got to get over something or celebrate something," he said.

Hester, 26, got his first tattoo when he was 18. He has six tattoos and is in the process of having a seventh added on his right bicep to cover up an earlier tattoo.

"I look at it as art," said Hester whose lower legs are decorated with flames. On his chest he sports a colorful eye and the green cartoon-character dog, "Gir."

"Honestly, I just think it's a fad," said Chris Rose, owner of A Different Drummer Tattoo Studio in Cape Girardeau. "A lot of people have them because their friends have them."

Tattoos, he said, have become fashionable to many Americans. Like designer jeans, many people want the latest tattoos.

"People are going for larger color pieces. Design doesn't have a lot to do with it," said Rose who has worked at A Different Drummer for the past seven years. He has owned the tattoo studio for more than three years now.

"They don't feel they have to get the spider-web-on-the-back-of-the-elbow anymore," Rose said.

Barbed-wire tattoos, once common with men, have declined in popularity. "The arm-band thing has almost stopped," he said.

He recently did a tattoo of the Grim Reaper on a motorcycle. "That was really cool," he said.

Most of his clients are women, reflecting a growing trend, said Rose. Many of them want tattoos of flowers, butterflies, hearts and roses.

Most of his customers spend about $100 on average on a tattoo, he said. But it can range from as little as $30 for a couple initials to as much as $4,500 to do an entire back, Rose said.

It takes numerous sessions -- about 45 hours -- to tattoo an entire back, Rose said. Those with such tattoos often get inked with elaborate designs over a period of years.

Actors sporting tattoos in movies and National Basketball Association athletes who wear highly visible tattoos encourage others to get tattooed, said Rose.

The action movie "XXX" sparked a lot of interest in tattoos because of the large tattoo displayed on the neck of lead actor Vin Diesel.

"After the movie came out, I bet we did 100 of them," said the 39-year-old Rose. "Diesel was kind of a bad ass and it was a pretty cool tattoo." Fans of Diesel got similar tattoos on the back of their necks.

Tattoos used to be inked mostly on men but increasingly women are visiting tattoo parlors. Renee Gordon, owner of Fleshhound Tattoo Studio in Cape Girardeau, estimates that 60 percent of her customers are women.

She says women view tattoos as a fashion statement. "I think women are more prone to accentuating themselves than men. I think women are more prone to accessorizing," she said.

Gordon has tattooed a wide variety of people, including doctors, nurses, soccer moms and preachers. The popularity of the television reality show, "Miami Ink," which focuses on tattoos, has boosted business, she said.

Itinerant tattoo artists have been replaced by state-licensed tattoo parlors. Gordon has owned Fleshhound for about four years. When she began, no state license was required. But that changed shortly after she opened her studio.

Anyone under 18 has to have consent from a parent or guardian before he or she can get a tattoo in Missouri.

Ketchum remembers when tattoo artists were gypsies of sort, plying their craft without having to meet health or licensing codes. Today, tattoo studios have become legitimate businesses. "Now we are called an industry," the long-haired tattoo artist said.

Getting inked doesn't come without pain. "They do hurt," said Rose. "The skin is really irritated."

The amount of pain varies. It depends on where the tattoo is inked on the body and each individual's tolerance for pain, Chris Rose said.

"It subsides within a few days," he said.

Ketchum said a tattoo initially can make the skin peel like a sunburn.

Some people worry that tattoos pose a health risk. But the federal Centers for Disease Control say statistics suggest tattoos are relatively safe. During the past 20 years, less than 1 percent of persons with newly acquired hepatitis C reported having been tattooed, the CDC said on its Web site.

Tattoos would pose a risk only if contaminated needles were used, said Jane Wernsman, assistant director of the Cape Girardeau County Health Center.

She said the center hasn't seen a single case of hepatitis in Cape Girardeau County involving tattoos.

State health codes require tattoo parlors to use a new needle with each customer, Ketchum said.

Dr. Peter Hirschburg, associate professor of sociology at Southeast Missouri State University, said tattoos aren't embraced in much of the business world.

Many employers are reluctant to hire workers with visible tattoos, he said.

Young Americans often don't think about future employment when they get tattooed, the sociologist said.

Hirschburg said he regularly advises his students against getting tattoos.

Over the past decade, he's spotted tattoos on many of his female students. Lower-back tattoos are increasingly common, he said.

But Hirschburg said such tattoos are viewed in a negative way by many Americans. "My son-in-law calls them 'tramp stamps,'" Hirschburg said.

Hirschburg has a friend whose son-in-law is a tattoo artist in Kansas City. "He says the first thing he tries to do is talk young people out of it," Hirschburg said.

The sociologist said that makes sense. "The last thing you want is an unhappy person coming back," he said.

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