Arts & Culture / Mosaic / May 20, 2010

Ink: art and meaning are skin deep

The stigma attached to people that have tattoos has been decreasing as tattoo artists and tattoos are being seen as true art. Now more people that break the stereotype are getting tattoos and are getting them for reasons other than showing they are tough. Knox students and members of the Galesburg community show how times are changing by sharing the reasons they are tattooed.

A.J. Marty, tattoo artist and owner of Phoenix Tattoo Studio and Ed Young, tattoo artist at Hawk’s Tattoos, were artists before deciding on tattooing professionally. Young said his art always looked like tattoos so being a tattoo artist seemed like the career for him. Marty pursued art though college, but as an art major her only options were teaching or being a freelance artist. She was not passionate about either. Marty is happy doing “immortal art”, that “is with people forever.” Since she started two and a half years ago, not one day has felt like actual work because she loves tattooing.

Marty said she fights for her career to be seen more as an art form instead of a “basement biker thing,” because “tattoos to me are a form of self-expression and that’s it.” She said the general population is starting to see that tattooing is art, not just something done by delinquents. Young’s family did not have much of a reaction to Young becoming a tattoo artist, but “meeting a girl’s parents for the first time, that is interesting,” said Young.

Marty’s customers DeAnna and Shelby Williams of Galesburg are a perfect example of the changing times. They are a mother and daughter pair that got matching palm trees on their feet. Mrs. Williams’ husband has a tattoo in commemoration of their dog that passed away. The shape of the tattoo is the actual paw print of the dog. He also had the ink infused with the dog’s ashes. The dog was so important to Williams that he wanted to have it with him forever and Marty is proud to have helped that happen.

Darin Wilson of Galesburg has been a customer of Young’s for all of his tattoos. Young has done all of Wilson’s tattoos and will continue to do them when Wilson moves from Galesburg to Peoria.

“He is the only one I trust,” said Wilson about Young. Wilson has Japanese kanji on his arm for “breathe,” “harmony” and “family” to remind himself of what is important. The tattoo Young was giving him on that day was Harry Caray, the late baseball announcer, because Wilson is a big fan of the Chicago Cubs. For Wilson, getting tattoos is like therapy. Marty said for some customers the actual application of the tattoo can be therapeutic because they relive the pain they have overcome.

Another major change in the tattooing industry is how female tattoo artists are viewed. Marty and her two associates are all young female tattoo artists. For years the industry was run by men, and if a woman was a tattoo artist 15 years ago then people thought that there was something wrong with her. Tattooing was thought to be “a badass thing, so women were not accepted in the industry,” said Marty.

Freshman Kelli Huebner has a tattoo on her chest that recognizes and commemorates the people in her life who have struggled with cancer. The pink ribbon that says “hope” is for breast cancer, which her mother overcame. All the other colors and small hearts represent a different form of cancer. The purple shadeing in “hope” is for pancreatic cancer, the white heart is lung and bone cancer and the lime is for lymphoma, all of which stand for a different family friend that had that form of cancer. The periwinkle heart is for her grandfather who had esophageal cancer.

She got the tattoo a year ago on her 18th birthday after planning it out for several years. She researched the color ribbon associated with each form of cancer and made those the colors in the tattoo. Huebner’s brother and sister got cancer related tattoos on the same day.

At first her mother questioned the size and placement of the tattoo, but she does feel what the tattoo stands for is important. One of Huebner’s family friends represented in the tattoo cried when he first saw it and still tears up every time he looks at the tattoo. Huebner is happy that he feels so honored.

Her philosophy on tattoos is, “to each his own.” She said some people get tattoos just to have the tattoo, some for art and expression while others have strong meaning attached to the tattoo. Since her one tattoo is so meaningful to her she will never get another tattoo because she wants nothing to take away from the significance.

She notices how stigma and views about tattoos have changed. Huebner works at a nursing home and does not see many tattoos on the patients, but sees a lot on many more people in the younger generations. Her theory is that, “as we age tattoos will not be such a big deal.”

When people first see her tattoo Huebner said they question it based on the placement. However, most people are amazed by her story and moved that she put so much thought into it.

Junior Jevin Lortie only has one tattoo now, but it is a very important tattoo that sums up who he is and what he believes. On his left shoulder blade is the Unitarian Universalist chalice, representative of the religion in which he was raised. Lortie’s dad is a Unitarian Universalist minister and the religion embodies all of Lortie’s beliefs so he feels this was the right tattoo for him. He thought about the tattoo for several years before getting it because he wanted to be sure he would not get tired of it.

Lortie’s parents didn’t believe he was getting a tattoo at first, but his dad said he could have gotten a worse tattoo, and in the end they were accepting.

Lortie believes that tattoos should reflect something that is important, but at the same time your body is “your own so you can do whatever you want.”

The stigma that is attached to tattoos depends on what the tattoo is, Lortie believes. “I don’t know if you can really stigmatize something if it is important to a person,” he said. Now that he has one he is thinking about getting another, even though it would be less meaningful. Lortie said, “Tattoos are like collecting; once you get one you want to get more.”

Senior Tasha Coryell has two tattoos. One is a star on her ankle and the other is the outline of Minnesota on her foot. The star tattoo was a spontaneous tattoo she got with her friend one day at the beach. They knew they wanted matching tattoos, but did not decide until that day.

Coryell’s other tattoo reminds her of where she is from and of her family. She got the tattoo on her foot so it was visible but not obvious. Her tattoos have helped her to break free of her comfort zone while still holding close to her what is important.

Her personal criteria for tattoos are that they should be aesthetically pleasing and represent something, whether fun or honorary. Also, it is important to only get a tattoo of someone else if they will always be important. She chooses to stick with black, white and gray tattoos because she only likes color tattoos until they fade.

One of Coryell’s favorite things about her tattoo is the bond she has with anyone from Minnesota. One day she met a man with a Minnesota tattoo on his arm and had a conversation with him even though they had never met before. Her tattoo means she has an “instant bond with people from Minnesota and a great conversation starter,” said Coryell.

There are certainly more tattoos in her future plans. Coryell doesn’t have any specifics yet, but she would love to have tattoos on her calf like the sleeves people get on their arms.

Sophomore Andrew Kunsak has seven tattoos, none of which hold much significance but rather express his philosophy about tattoos. “I don’t really think tattoos should stand for something,” said Kunsak.

He feels they should be for self-expression, fun and a form of art.

His first tattoo is the day his dog died, which he got on his wrist when he was 18. Scylla and Charybdis, monsters from Greek mythology, are the latest tattoos he got. Others include a junior sheriff badge, lyrics and a scene from his favorite children’s book.

Kunsak got the title of his favorite Conor Oberst CD, “Lifted,” tattooed on the inside of his lip. He said the longest he ever planned for a tattoo was three months. His only plan about tattoos is to avoid getting any on his arms since he wants to be a professor and needs to stay professional.

The tattoos Kunsak gets are for himself, even though he does not purposely get them where they are visible to him. He said the societal stigmas against tattoos are decreasing, but he does not care whether people have preconceptions about him based on his tattoos.

Kunsak, like many people with tattoos, is good friends with his regular tattoo artist. He only has two that were not done by the same man. They work on some ideas together and e-mail each other back and forth. His artist came up with the idea to move Scylla and Charybdis from his quadriceps to his calves, where they currently reside. Kunsak is considering a dinosaur on one of his quadriceps sometime in the future.

He views tattooing as an art and appreciates tattoo artists, like a Japanese artist he has heard of who does not use realism in her work. She feels realism is for other forms of art and Kunsak likes that view.

Kunsak said, “Tattoos have to come from somewhere but they don’t have to mean anything.”

Senior Molly Snook has one tattoo on her foot in memory of her father. When she was 16, she went with her sister, brother-in-law and cousin to get tattoos a month after her father died. She chose the foot so she could see it everyday and remember him.

“He would be with me forever,” said Snook of the placement.

He rubbed her feet when she was little so there was another tie to him. The tattoo itself is her dad’s initials. Although in pain during the tattooing she afterwards felt very emotional.

She feels her opinion on tattoos depends on what the tattoo depicts. Sometimes Snook is worried about the stigma of tattoos when applying for jobs, but she said, “This was something really important to me and if people can’t understand that, oh well.”

Snook wants another tattoo, but said it has to be just as meaningful as her current one so she has no ideas what it would be yet. She has never been for or against tattoos. This is because she feels people use them in so many different ways. Some people get them for the artistic aspect, others to express themselves, some because they want a tattoo and others as remembrance, like her.

Junior Aaron Palmer got his first tattoo of his family’s zodiac signs when he was 17 years old. His mom, who has a couple of tattoos herself, bought the first one for him as a graduation present. All of Palmer’s five tattoos represent him and his close family ties. He said, “I don’t get tattoos unless they have significance.” The zodiac symbols give him something to remember where he came from.

On Palmer’s left shoulder is the coat of arms from the first book that made him want to be a writer. He is not pursuing writing professionally anymore but still wants to be surrounded by books as a librarian.

Both the yin yang on his back and the motto under the coat of arms, “winter is coming,” remind him of the tough times he went through. The yin yang shows optimism for the future by combining the darkness of the past and the brightness of his future.

Cardinals always sat outside Palmer’s home growing up so he got a cardinal on his chest to stay connected to his home. He got the tattoo when he was really leaving home and becoming an adult after his sophomore year at Knox.

Palmer is not worried about the stigma attached to tattoos because they are becoming less stigmatized and more mainstream. Also, he said, “I think my personality should matter more than if I have some pictures on my body.”

Jennifer Lloyd


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