These days, a tattoo isn’t just a stencil picked off a wall display. It’s real art created by wildly talented artists who have chosen the most intimate canvas possible for their work. The people who commission these artists don’t hang the pieces in rarely visited rooms of their homes and offices; they display the art on their bodies, where everyone they meet can see it and interpret it, and where they themselves can look upon it and remember the experience.
In Colorado, tattoos and the shops they’re created in are becoming increasingly popular. Today there are 66 licensed body art businesses in El Paso County, according to Marla Luckey, Director of Environmental Health. That’s up 18 percent from the 52 shops operating in the county in 2013. The number of shops across the state has been steadily on the rise over the last decade as tattoos continue to become more mainstream.
Scott Bachman remembers his mother yelling at him when she discovered he had a tattoo in the 1990s. Now, she has a few of her own. Aaron Moore remembers being kicked out of the house as a teenager for his tattoos. Today, he and his brother Brian run Westside Tattoo. “My parents are actually kind of proud of me now,” Moore said. “Crazy.”
A PICTURE IS WORTH 1,000 WORDS
“People want their tattoos to have meaning,” said Troy Sedlacek, co-owner of Premier Tattoo, so he tries to help people illustrate their ideas. When someone wants to list the names of fallen comrades or write out full Bible verses on their bodies, he discusses artistic ways of conveying the same meaning with them. The results are paintings and symbols that carry not only great significance, but also great beauty. Of course, Sedlacek also values the occasional tattoo without meaning. He has several himself that don’t tell a personal story, but that he loves simply because they’re beautiful.
One of his clients, Cassidy Hapke, has surrendered meaning to inspiration on several occasions. “I really love just letting the artist be an artist,” Hapke said. “Many of my tattoos are not at all what I expected or had in mind, but they’re amazing.” Hapke started out with meaningful tattoos. She inscribed the phrase “I never understood why when you die, you don’t just vanish” on her arm. It was a powerful reminder of her mother, who died when Hapke was a teenager. Hapke eventually grew weary of telling strangers about her mother. She wanted something artistic that wouldn’t take over the message, but that would make it less conspicuous. “I was in love with Day of the Dead,” she said, so she asked for something in that theme that would honor her mother. Sedlacek and Premier co-owner Steve Bower have both imprinted their work on Hapke. She loves every image and thinks not only about the story behind each piece but also about the experience of getting the tattoo every time she looks at her art and every time someone asks her about it.
Getting a tattoo wasn’t always an intimate, meaningful process. Back in the day, the “artist” and the experience were probably fairly
forgettable. Tattoos remain a marker for a time in the wearer’s life, but the modern day experience of getting a tattoo adds a new layer of significance to the art.
Today’s tattoos don’t take 20 minutes. People want elaborate artwork, Moore said. “What used to be a little badge is now a painting,” he said. It takes time to create the initial design and it takes even longer to realize it on the skin. It’s hard to sit in the chair for six to eight hours while the artist needles the skin, said TJ Dowling, who was in the process of having Moore tattoo a golfing squirrel on his forearm. “When you have a good session with your tattoo artist, you know that person and they know you—maybe better than anyone,” Moore said. “It’s uninterrupted time.”
When a client and a tattoo artist spend hours together, they form a bond—at least if it’s going well. “You have to look at this thing on your body for the rest of your life,” Moore said. “The experience is everything. I know people who wear tattoos that are great, but the experience was terrible and they hate the tattoo.”
The art of tattoos has evolved dramatically since “Mr. Scary” started in the business back in the early 1990s. Scary owns Nostalgia Tattoo in downtown Colorado Springs. The walls are lined with paintings in frames, and nearly all of the work in the shop-turned-gallery is that of the tattooists who work there. Visitors who walk into the shop when Scary isn’t painting on a human canvas will likely find him with a brush in hand in front of an easel. “In the good shops, you see more of an evolution toward fine artists and graphic artists working,” Scary said. “The tattoo world is advancing. You never used to see people with degrees in tattoo shops. Now, most of them studied art of some kind.”
And those artists strive to do really great work. Local, state, and national competitions reward and applaud the best tattooists for their work. Of course, being a great artist doesn’t always translate into being a great tattooist. It’s an art unto itself, Scary said. He doesn’t know of anyone really good who didn’t apprentice with a talented tattoo artist first. Scary’s mentor was the iconic Uncle Bud, who ran Pikes Peak Tattoo for decades. Several of today’s shop owners apprenticed under him. He was a mentor to many, including Moore. Uncle Bud helped to create regulations and standards so that the tattoo industry could blossom into the mainstream the way it has today.
“We are a very proud state,” Sedlacek said. “So, many people want Colorado-themed tattoos. They come in with Pinterest ideas and say they want to celebrate the Colorado lifestyle. They might want the C cast in a sun with woods and mountains.” Colorado-themed tattoos and Colorado flags are extremely popular in most shops, according to all of the artists. The challenge for an artist is putting a creative and individual spin on the pieces—giving each client a one of a kind art piece to celebrate their unique relationship with the state.
The Pikes Peak Region is home to multiple military bases. At any given time, at least 15,000 active-duty personnel are stationed here. These men and women often want to honor and commemorate their service and, in common with other customers, capture something of their families, remember lost loved ones, and note important life events. Sedlacek once believed that tribal tattoos were a thing of the past, but he has seen several military snipers come in requesting that style in order to follow in the footsteps of the older generation of snipers. Similarly, some hipsters are fascinated by vintage stencils and want to get tattoos designed in the 1920s or ‘30s.
One of the biggest changes in popularity is actually visibility: today’s tattooed want to show off their art, unlike past generations that kept tattoos below the collar and under shirtsleeves. “You can go to a water park and see people who are tattooed everywhere except for the places you wouldn’t see if they were fully dressed,” Sedlacek said.
The biggest overall tend, however, is art. People want something authentic and beautiful. They’re not afraid of covering large portions of their skin or to dedicating extensive amounts of time and money to a piece that will stay with them forever.