Take Five: The appeal of a tattoo

Just what a writer wants — a peek into a down-the-alley, out-of-the-way, parlor with the beads that swing aside when you enter the darkened room.

What I wanted was this: a tattoo parlor.

What is the appeal of a tattoo? What is compelling about painting your body? What are the owners like?

I interviewed three “tattooers,” as they call themselves. Each young man was nicer and more open than the last. All were well-dressed and friendly. They were enthusiastic and willing to share their ideas. The shops were clean, neat and inviting. Decorating the walls were tattoo patterns and dozens of photographs of men and women proudly showing off their signature tattoos.

The chairs were barber-shop-style, but they opened up almost to become beds so the customer can stretch out. The bright light coming from the overhead tracks and various other lamps proved that the shop areas were clean.

I’m listening to “Ted,” one of the tattoo artists.

“I think some people want tattoos so they can put themselves on a higher plane than the rest of the population. They want to be different. They like wearing the art on their body. Some say they are carrying on old tribal customs, and some just want to keep up with friends.

“People see athletes, mostly basketball players, who are covered with all kinds of beautiful art. Punk band members are good for my business.

“I’m proud of what I do. I want to please my people. My best customers keep coming back to me for more tattoos.”

I thought about the men I had met in the Marine Corps; while we were all in Asia, many of the servicemen found tattoo heaven. I managed to escape painting myself — at the time the practice was not totally acceptable.

In the business world that I came from, a visible tattoo would be a deal-breaker on the hiring line. I asked a few of my retired corporate friends if they would hire a tattooed person. The answer was a resounding no. I mentioned this to Ted.

He countered, “I’ve heard that a thousand times. Look, half of my customers are women, maybe even a bit more. Almost 100% of these women want their first tattoos to be put in the small of their back. You would never see it.”

Ted charges $150 per hour. The “average” fee adds up to $450. The day before Ted and I met, he worked on a customer for 13 hours. These are not pain-free applications.

Ted is a walking billboard for his profession, a word he used at least 10 times. He’s covered with tattoos —including on the palms of his hands. He’s proud of how he looks. He wouldn’t change one thing in building his career. He tells me there are no schools; it is on-the-job-training.

“I’m an artist, man. I work hard for my people. I want to show off how they look. I’ve got an established shop. We’re running a clean business. Each needle comes shrink-wrapped. I open them in front of my customers. They see me dispose of every needle when I’m done with the tattooing. They trust me.”

Admittedly, I expected something different — and was I wrong. According to the 2010 census, about 15% of the nation’s population wears tattoos.

When I think of custom painting, it is the walls of my home, not the skin of my body that comes to mind. But who is to say what kind of decoration pleases you?

GENE PEPPER is a published author and writer. Contact him by email at gpep@aol.com or phone (818) 790-1990.

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