Lookings, Part 1 – Body Graphics, Pennsauken, New Jersey: Tom and Pixie
As I drove down Route 70 on my way to Body Graphics in Pennsauken, New Jersey, on Friday, April 18, 2014 around 12:30 P.M., I didn’t know what to expect. While I had attended the Skindustry Expo with Susette, I had never set foot into an actual tattoo parlor before. Horror stories of chintzy, Vegas-like neon signs flashing into a dark, leaky alleyway streaked through my mind.
When I entered the shop, a clean, tropical aroma draped itself around me and seemed to cast out any reservations I had. Hardwood floors gleamed up at me, and potted plants were speckled around the room. Around the walls of the front desk room were various forms of artwork. There was nobody else in the room, and I looked around, feeling suddenly comfortable.
Not long after I entered the shop, a man in a black shirt, dark hair and beard, and black glasses came around and walked behind the desk.
“Hi,” I said walking over to him. Then hesitantly, “Are you Tom?”
“Yes,” he said and sat down at one of the two empty chairs behind the front desk. Tom and I had been playing phone tag and trying to meet for about a month. When I originally called Body Graphics back in the beginning of March, Tom was all too happy to donate some of his time for walking me through what happens when a customer comes in looking to get a tattoo. Unfortunately, our schedules seemed to always conflict. Finally, the stars aligned, and Tom and I were both available on the same day at the same time.
“Hi, I’m Rachel,” I said.
We exchanged greetings, and I thanked him right away for taking the time to walk me through his experiences.
“I know that you don’t work every day, but on days that you are here, how many people would you say you get?” I asked, diving right in.
Tom indicated that it varies. “It could be one to two people, or it could be five to six.” It depends on the day.
Another woman came into the room and sat at the second chair. She had facial piercings, and when she spoke, I recognized her voice. I assumed she was Pixie, the woman who usually answered the phone at Body Graphics when I called (several times, thanks to my busy schedule) to work out a meeting with Tom.
Tom continued by informing me that when someone came in for a tattoo, he usually sets up a 30 minute consultation appointment first to go over what they are looking for. He said that he likes to find out “what they like and what they don’t like” in a tattoo.
Pixie indicated that some people come in expecting to get the entire consultation and tattoo done in one day. Both Tom and Pixie recapped a man who had come in expecting to get a rose on his torso, two roses on his chest, ivy vines connected them wrapping around his neck, and some lettering on it done in one day. Tom had compromised by simply tattooing one of the roses onto the man’s torso, and the man came back later to get the rest of the tattoo finished. However, Tom made a thought-provoking comment when he indicated that certain tattoos need more than one session. I knew that larger tattoos usually required more than one sitting, but what I hadn’t thought about, what Tom enlightened me with, was how much time in-between sessions there should be. Tattoos typically need at least three weeks to heal, and Tom said that he likes to wait at least that long to give the tattoo the necessary time to properly heal before adding to it.
“Your immune system can only take so much,” he said. And he raised a good point. If your immune system is working overtime trying to heal a tattoo, it would not be a good idea to take on more than it can handle.
I then asked Tom how he felt about customers who came in who had frivolous, non-committal ideas about a tattoo. Customers who wanted a tattoo just for the sake of getting one. Tom said that he gets customers like that and he does his best to work with them to get a good idea about what they are looking for. Pixie, who runs the front desk and is a piercer there, could attest to this, as well, since she sees all of the customers who enter the shop. She indicated that usually they look at the flashes but that generally they decide what they want and leave a large part of it up to the tattoo artist.
This idea of trust caused me to think about the other side of the spectrum: “What about people who come in knowing exactly what they want who don’t like to bend on ideas?” I asked.
Both Tom and Pixie were able to give me information about this. Pixie said that usually customers like that will come in to the shop with a print-out or a picture on their phone, and they want to stick pretty closely to it. Tom indicated that when customers don’t give a lot of freedom to the tattoo artist (“you know, like when they say they want this design and six leaves in the background”) it can weigh a toll on the tattoo overall. If the tattoo is spelled out to the “t,” it can often weaken the tattoo overall because there is less room for creativity. Pixie agreed with what Tom said.
I asked which they prefer: a customer who has no clue about what they want, or a customer who knows exactly what they are looking for and watches them like a hawk. Tom and Pixie agreed that a balance between the two is ideal. You want someone who knows what they want but can still give you some freedom with it. A happy medium is ideal.
I told both of them about Susette and how she had gotten a tattoo at the Skindustry Expo. I recalled a comment that Susette had made, noting how she likes giving the tattoo artist a lot of room to work in his own style and that each tattoo she gets is also a reflection of the tattoo artist and how he/she interprets the tattoo. When I relayed this to Tom, he was impressed and happy to hear that. I went on to say how the sketch of her tattoo included a quill, yet the quill appeared to be left uncolored in the sketch. When the tattoo was finished, the tattoo artist had filled in the quill with black shading. Tom indicated that that was all part of getting a tattoo, letting the tattoo artist take over. Susette was extremely pleased with the outcome of the tattoo, and when I had asked her about the quill, she expressed that she didn’t know he was going to do that but that she thought it looked great.
Thinking back on Susette’s experience, I asked Tom and Pixie how they usually decide on pricing for tattoos. I commented how, at the Skindustry Expo, there were no set prices, and the two tattoo artists were bouncing around pricing ideas before settling on a final price. Tom and Pixie agreed, saying that there is no set price for any given tattoo. Tom commented that a lot of it came down to how much you felt your time was worth. Pixie later clarified that much of the pricing is based on size, location, and how much time will be spent working on it. I had later asked if getting a tattoo with color was more expensive than just black and white. Tom said no, but threw in that color tattoos can be more bigger and more in-depth (even though black and white tattoos can be extremely intricate with the shading), and so if color indicates a bigger size, more time would mean the tattoo would be more expensive.
When I commented on how Susette’s tattoo was not large but was expensive because there was a lot of time involved, Tom nodded his head. “It’s a permanent thing on your body,” he said. He went on: It’s something you’re going to have for at least 30-40 years…that’s longer than a car.
I then asked Tom how he was able to choose his own tattoo artist. Though his black shirt almost touched his wrists, I could see he had a tattoo on each arm. He said mostly he sees tattoos on other people that he likes and asks where they went and who they had. Then he reviews the tattoo artist’s portfolio online, and if he likes it, he moves forward.
“So basically word of mouth,” I said, and he agreed. I told him how a colleague of mine with double sleeves did that to find her artist, as well, and while her first experience was a nightmare, her second outing was a much better experience.
Tom indicated that tattooing comes down to trust: how much you trust your tattoo artist can make a big difference in the tattoo. I asked if he noticed a difference in people’s trust based on how many tattoos they had gotten. Would a person getting their tattoo done for the first time struggle with trust? Pixie indicated that it really depends on the person. Some people are fine, and some people are very nervous. She said that in this job, you have to be a people person. You are dealing with all types of people, and you have to know how to work with them.
I agreed that their entire day is centered around people: some could be pleasant while others…not so much.
When I asked if anyone has passed out while getting a tattoo, Tom said that for awhile nobody had passed out, and that was one of the things he said when coming to this shop. He indicated that other tattoo artists told him to just wait, since he said it had never happened, he was going to jinx himself. And sure enough, he did. He said he had a man pass out on him, and I asked what happens when that happens. “Do you stop? Do you keep going?”
“No, you have to stop,” Tom said.
Pixie said that when someone passes out, they give them sugar and water to raise their blood sugar level. They try to talk to them and bring them back to feeling alright. She indicated that all of the workers at Body Graphics had to have their blood pathogen test done. I mentioned that at the Skindustry Expo when Susette and I were looking through some of the portfolios, a tattoo shop had their CPR and License certificates in their portfolio, and Pixie said that that was a good thing, since not everybody has to have that. They said that they find that sometimes, the “big, tough” guys are the ones to pass out while getting a tattoo. Not that it happens all the time to all “tough” guys, but Tom indicated how one man was getting four letterings done, and after the first lettering, he passed out. Tom had said that the man was even a military guy who once had his back cut up from razor wire.
Tom said that he came here from Oregon and that licensing from state to state is relatively simple. In fact, there are even temporary licenses for each state since so much of tattooing lends itself to travel during conventions, expos, etc. This raised a great point: at the Skindustry Expo, I had spoken with two tattoo artists from Cincinnati, and it hadn’t occurred to me, how are you tattooing in Pennsylvania when you are from Ohio? I told them how, with teaching, if you want to move from state to state, you have to check that the tests you have taken can transfer to another state. If not, you have to schedule the required test for that state.
When discussing after-care instructions, I remembered that in the past when I have given blood, I have been thoroughly instructed not to drink alcohol since there is less blood in the body. While getting a tattoo is clearly not the same as giving blood, I asked if people are allowed to drink after having a tattoo done. Tom indicated that it’s not generally a good idea because your immune system is trying to heal the tattoo, and alcohol can slow it down. One drink isn’t bad, but you don’t want to go partying that night. Pixie indicated that you also don’t want to show up to a tattoo session hungover, because the alcohol is still in your system, and that can affect how the tattoo turns out.
Occasionally, throughout the conversation, people who worked at Body Graphics walked through the front door, and it was clear that the atmosphere was pleasant. Tom and Pixie both waved and smiled at the men and women coming in, and they waved and smiled back. I continued to step aside incase any of the people entering were customers as I did not want to keep Tom or Pixie from business.
As the conversation was winding down, Pixie asked me if I wanted to see the rest of the shop. “That would be great,” I said.
She and Tom took me from where we had been, the room where the front desk, hardwood floors, and plants were, back to the next room, which serves as a type of waiting room. Flashes hung around the walls, and on a table in the center of the room lay a ton of flashes from which to choose. She then walked me back through nifty saloon-wooden doors to where each tattoo artist had his or her own room. A black-and-white checkered floor stretched out before me. Each tattoo artist had a great deal of space to work in, and the rooms smelled clean and sterile.
As we walked back to the front of the shop, I thanked Tom and Pixie again for taking the time to speak with me about their experiences. I shook both of their hands and exited the shop at 1:30, about an hour later. As I pushed open the tattoo parlor door, I stepped outside thinking, “I certainly learned a lot since the last time I was on the other side of these doors.”
Lookings, Part 2: Kim
Kim’s tattoo. Artist: Vicky Hunt. Shop: Got Ink? Burlington City, NJ
I entered Kim’s classroom around 9:45 on Tuesday, April 22nd after she previously agreed to discuss her tattoos and things related to it with me. Kim teaches 6th grade language arts and 7th grade math. Having worked with Kim for three years, I knew she had a tattoo of flowers on her right foot, but I wanted to know more. I wanted her to take me on a journey. During our common prep period, she did just that.
I sat at one of the empty student’s desks sitting sideways facing her. She was sitting in a chair facing me. I asked her to tell me about her tattoo, and she began by explaining that she had wanted a tattoo for a long time, one that would be discreet when necessary, but it took her a long time to decide what and where she got it.
Eventually, she decided to get a tattoo honoring her children: she has four flowers connected by vines. Two of the flowers are blue, honoring her two sons, one of the flowers is pink, honoring her daughter, and one flower is purple, honoring a miscarriage she had. I was surprised when she told me that the vines are actually initials for her children, woven and interconnected to look like vines. She indicated that, when deciding about what tattoo she would get honoring her children, she did not want something cliché like a footprint but that she wanted something “girly and feminine.”
Fieldnotes while talking with Kim, page 1
When I asked Kim where she got her tattoo done, she said Got Ink? in Burlington City, New Jersey. Her tattoo artist was Vicky Hunt. Kim then indicated that the experience of getting the tattoo was absolutely “nerve-wracking.” She does not like needles, and while she went to the tattoo shop dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, she had to take off her sweatshirt because she was getting hot from the intensity of the experience. She indicated that she felt a burning sensation that eventually went numb, but when her tattoo artist paused to situate things she necessary for the tattoo, the sensation came back. Three months after getting the tattoo, she went back for a touch-up, and that pain was worse than getting the initial tattoo. She speculated perhaps since she went deeper under the skin it was more painful.
I asked Kim if she had a consultation before getting the tattoo, and she answered that she did. At the consultation, Kim showed her artist various flowers of which she was thinking and explained that she wanted the tattoo to be about her children and on what area she was interested. It took her artist a few days to draw the tattoo.
Kim is currently thinking about getting a tattoo when she hits five years of being free of breast cancer. She is thinking of having the tattoo on her wrist and having it say “believe,” with the “L” in the symbol of a pink breast cancer ribbon. Kim indicated that the tattoo must be easily concealed. When I asked her why, she indicated that she wants her tattoo to have a purpose and a meaning. “To me, that meaning is for myself.” I had commented on Kim’s current flower tattoo, saying that upon looking at it, it was not obvious that the flowers were for her kids and that the vines were actually initials. She expressed that she liked that about the tattoo, that the meaning was for her. She continued, I don’t want people “stereotyping me for the artwork on my body,” so keeping the tattoo not overtly obvious is important.
Fieldnotes while talking with Kim, page 2
She then admitted that she may change her mind about the tattoo she gets. She tossed around the idea of having a butterfly with the body of the butterfly as the pink cancer ribbon. She indicated that butterflies were something her grandmother loved, and so whenever she sees a butterfly, it holds sentimental value for her, so incorporating the butterfly with the cancer ribbon might be an option, as well.
“But who knows,” she said. I might change my mind about that.
Kim had also indicated that many people become addicted to getting tattoos, and that this did not really happen to her, saying, If not for breast cancer, I don’t know if I would want another tattoo.
After speaking with Kim, I realized that I had no idea what her tattoo actually meant. After working with her for three years, I knew that she had a tattoo of flowers on her foot, but I did not understand that they were symbolic of her children and that the vines were actually initials of her kids. This experience made me wonder how many other tattoos I have seen thinking I knew what I was looking at when, in reality, the tattoo might have a completely different significance.