Charlotte Ink: Tattoos get bigger by the year

Try it, just for a day. In the summer is best.

Everywhere you go, all across Charlotte, glance at the skin of the people crossing your path – sides of the calves, backs of the shoulders, that slice of bicep where short sleeves end.

You’ll see them. Tattoos. Everywhere. Not just in the bohemian neighborhoods of Plaza Midwood and NoDa, but at country club pools and soccer fields, PTA meetings and boardrooms.

Even if you’re inked yourself, you may be impressed by the range you see. Skulls and angels, yes. But also impossibly delicate botanicals, detailed biomechanics, landscapes and portraiture and eclectic compositions that span pectorals or grace a single finger.

Nobody has taken a tattoo census in the Queen City, but if the national average is any indication (an April 2015 Pew Research study estimated 45 million Americans – and 40 percent of Americans ages 26-40 – have at least one), what was once a mode of expression for outlaws and inmates has long been mainstream.

So mainstream that Allure magazine recently titled a piece: “Are Tattoos Even Cool Anymore?”

Tattoo shops are sprouting so fast that in some neighborhoods, it’s easier to find a tattooist than a barista. Veteran Rodney Raines estimates there were eight shops in the city when he arrived 16 years ago; now there are at least eight within a mile of his studio. Mecklenburg County boasted 179 licensed tattooists at last count.

And the art form continues to gain mainstream legitimacy. Sarah Wolfe curated the tattoo portion of the “Body Embellishment” exhibit at uptown’s Mint Museum of Craft and Design (which ends Sept. 6).

She says she was blown away by the breadth and depth of the skin artwork she saw, both by internationally acclaimed artists she spotlighted and local tattooists she met while doing research. (In case you’re wondering, there are lots of dictionary-approved ways to refer to someone who does tattoos: tattooer, tattooist and tattoo artist are all acceptable.)

“It’s growing every day, from an art and design standpoint,” Wolfe said. “So many of the artists have amazing careers in graphic design, painting and illustration. ... Tattooing is very much an art form. The canvas happens to be skin and the medium happens to be ink.”

(Of course, the art-investment value becomes provocative. Model Kate Moss mused in 2012 that the birds tattooed on her by world-renowned artist Lucian Freud could be worth “a few million” if she’d allow a buyer to skin-graft them. At least two art museums, in London and Amsterdam, display preserved, tattooed skins.)

From generalists to specialists

Charlotte has a handful of veteran tattoo artists who’ve been here a decade or more and have seen a philosophical shift – and the spike in competition.

“The market is definitely oversaturated,” says a frustrated Raines, 17-year veteran of Charlotte’s tattoo scene and owner of Ace Custom Tattoo in Plaza Midwood.

He says he’s not having trouble filling his dance card, with bookings filling up months in advance. And he doesn’t bother to gather intelligence on the competition: Asked about a shop that opened this summer two blocks down, he claims to have never heard of it.

But he is aware of a new way of thinking among many on the local and national tattoo scenes: Increasing specialization (say, tattooists who revel in inking portraits of celebrities, or tribal patterns, or super-realism) and clients scouring Instagram accounts and website galleries for artists who do exactly the type of tattoo they’re after.

“The younger tattooers think you’re supposed to have a specialty,” Raines says, pouring ink into tiny cups as he prepares to tattoo the shoulder of 26-year-old Ana Gonzelez with a portrait of her late grandfather. Tomorrow, he may be inking someone with a geometric design or a pinup girl.

“Having a specialty? That’s weakness,” Raines says. “There’s too many people in this business that get so comfortable doing one thing.”

Should tattoos mark memories, or create them?

So more Charlotteans are getting tattooed – but have our stylistic choices changed?

Not really, says Steve Huntsberry, one of Charlotte’s longest-serving tattoo artists. His studio, Immortal Images, sits on an industrial stretch of Monroe Road in southeast Charlotte. Customers have come to him (some from out of state) since he arrived in Charlotte in 1994, a newly minted tattoo artist who opened his first shop on South Boulevard.

Huntsberry says he sees the same ratios in the mix, a fairly even split between men and women customers, and also a pretty even split between those who want a tattoo to represent something meaningful in their lives, and those who just want something that looks cool. Huntsberry says he prefers the meaningful ones. He enjoys hearing the stories that bubble up while he injects and wipes, injects and wipes.

“The cool thing about tattoos is collecting them and marking certain points of history with them,” Huntsberry says. “So you can look back and smile and think back.”

Raines disagrees, slightly.

He and Huntsberry are friends and trusted comrades – so trusted, in fact, that Huntsberry asked Raines to tattoo an immense skull on his back about five years ago.

But Raines doesn’t feel tattoos should be relegated to placeholders of time.

He looks at his own forearm, an image of a kid soap-box racer, which he recalls getting, with movie-quality playback, “in Baltimore, on a Wednesday in February 1998.”

He remembers what he ate for breakfast that day, and phone calls he made. Nothing about that day was remarkable, he says, except getting that tattoo.

“I documented something that was nothing. It doesn’t have to be something you’re putting down as a memory. It could be that you’re building a memory,” he says.

He points to the scores of TV shows that have emerged about tattooing – “LA Ink,” “Inked,” “Ink Master” – which he watches because he knows customers will want to talk about them. While they’ve certainly helped move tattooing from the back alley to the mainstream, Raines believes they’ve also given people the idea that all tattoos must have a deep story behind them.

“It can be esthetic, and that’s enough.”

Respect, respectability grow

President Barack Obama made headlines in 2013 when he joked he’d told his daughters that if they ever got a tattoo, he and his wife would get the same tattoo, in the same place.

But from the vantage point of Billy Harris, owner of Charlotte Tattoo Co. in Plaza Midwood, Obama is loosely describing a trend.

“The older generations grew up thinking that tattoos were rebellious,” Harris says. “Then they started seeing their kids and grandchildren getting tattooed.”

Harris spent years as a Web developer who moonlighted as a tattoo artist. Six years ago he made the leap to tattooing full time and last year opened his studio, where he works with four other artists. His own body holds the works of about 20 tattooists – images he describes the way a collector of paintings would describe his gallery.

Like Raines and Huntsberry, Harris and his colleagues focus on custom tattoos and avoid tattoo “flash” – prepared designs meant for rapid tattooing. But two decades ago, when he started tattooing? “I bought my motorcycle with the number of Mickey Mouse heads I did,” Harris says.

Art may hold pride of place ...

So recognized is the artistry of custom tattooing, says Charlotte tattooist Paris Pierides, that it got him his green card.

A Cyprus native who graduated from the Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, Pierides honed his craft, won recognition at international tattoo conventions and got an EB1 visa in 2008. That’s given to a person with “extraordinary ability” in one of an array of fields, including the arts, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and permits the holder to work here permanently.

Pierides and his wife, Alexandra, came to Charlotte in 2009 and opened the doors of Paris Tattoos the next year.

Three miles west of Harris’ place, this one sits in fashionable South End, just below the ever-bustling Tupelo Honey cafe and adjacent to the light rail.

Only the buzzing of tattoo machines (sort of a cross between a sewing machine and dentist’s drill) tells you what art Pierides and his crew are purveying. Framed, intricately detailed paintings line the walls separating each artist’s work space. The place is immaculate, the furniture stylish, some brought from overseas.

Pierides says he and Alexandra, who does permanent-makeup tattoos and helps run the studio, chose Charlotte on a friend’s recommendation. Business has been OK, but he sometimes struggles with how to temper his artistic sensibilities with a customer’s request for a tattoo he knows won’t age well or won’t flatter the customer’s body.

He lights up when he describes his approach, emphasizing how tattoos can flatter the body: Placing them high vertically on the upper legs, for example, creates the illusion of length and height. Using curves along the side of a mid-section makes a body appear narrower.

“If you do your planning correctly, you can make somebody look very beautiful and strong,” he says. “You’ve got to get the placement right.”

... or healing may be focus

If Pierides’ tattoo studio feels like a gallery, Hayley Moran’s Haylo Healing Arts Lounge in Plaza Midwood seems a retreat. Services range from tattooing and acupuncture to skincare and wellness coaching.

Moran, who spent the last decade tattooing at Immortal Images and Fu’s, went in a different direction when she opened this, on March 21 (to coincide with the spring equinox).

The all-female staff includes Cyrilla Lakeman, who specializes in permanent makeup and tattooing nipples and areolas on women who have had reconstructive surgery after breast cancer. Typical reconstruction doesn’t re-create the look of this area of the breast, so tattooing can add dramatically to the reconstruction, and to how a woman feels about her body after that surgery.

The customer base, which Moran says tilts more toward women but includes men, appreciates the emphasis on self-expression and self-discovery in her space.

Her experience underscores the more multifaceted nature of contemporary tattooing.

“I’m enjoying the conversations that we get to have here,” she says. “Everything isn’t just on the surface as much; we try to delve in.”

Is a tattoo for you?

Heed these tips from local tattoo pros:

▪ Do your research. Talk to friends who have tattoos and look at artists’ profiles on websites and social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. Schedule a consultation. Explain your vision and ask him or her to sketch ideas on paper or your skin so there aren’t surprises. If you have dark skin, be sure your tattoo artist has experience working with dark skin, and ask to see examples of work on skin tones like yours.

▪ Once you’re in the chair, be mindful of cleanliness. Tattoo artists should keep their hands gloved and instruments free of germs while they work, as a doctor would while performing a procedure. If you’re uncomfortable with the level of cleanliness, you have a right to leave the studio before the work is finished.

▪ Expect to pay for experience. The most highly trained tattoo artists often have art degrees and years of experience in the trade, so don’t expect bargain prices. It’s not uncommon for high-end custom tattooists to charge upwards of $150 per hour of tattooing. If you want a large tattoo but can’t afford to pay for it all upfront, many tattoo artists will be willing to do the project in phases, spreading out the cost over time.

▪ Sleep on it. And then sleep on it again. Picture looking at that image on your body 30 years from now. Will you like it as much as you would right now?

How do tattoos work?

If you thought tattoos were simply injections of pigment beneath the skin, think again.

During a tattoo, a tattoo artist dips his needles in ink as a painter would dip a paintbrush. The needles are in a mechanical gun that punctures the skin at a high rate (usually multiple needles at a time, more in the case of shading and fewer during outlining) and drive ink through the epidermis, or upper layer, into the dermis, or deeper layer of the skin that contains blood vessels and nerves. (Hence the pain and the blood the tattooist wipes away during the procedure.)

The wounds then cause immune system cells called macrophages to flood the site of the tattoo, and they eat up dye in an effort to control the inflammation. The dye that is left is soaked up by skin cells called fibroblasts. The dye in the trapped macrophages and fibroblasts remains in the skin permanently, showing through the skin.