Tattoo Businesses Thrive

Neon Tattoo Parlor Sign

Neon Tattoo Parlor Sign

Source: Kansascity.comBy PATRICK MAY
San Jose Mercury News

Tattoo businesses thrive, despite recession, as more Americans accept body art. It started at the lower back. Angels and demons and shimmering koi were taking up residence on the exposed skin of college kids and soccer moms.

And from shoulder to ankle to chest and beyond, the tattoo industry has continued to surge atop the 21st century’s rising tide of ink.

Largely immune to the recession’s dead weight, surveys and personal stories indicate increasing acceptance for a practice once considered the domain of biker gangs and drunken sailors, and that’s meant thriving growth for tattoo parlors and the companies that serve them.

“This is a trend that feeds on itself,” says Ben “Monk” Valdez, owner of a San Jose, Calif., shop and veteran of Northern California’s thriving body-art scene. “One lady will see another lady with a tiny butterfly and say, ‘That’s cute. I want one of those, too.’ Next thing you know, you’ve got millions and millions of people doing the same thing.”

Nailing down the exact size of the trend is challenging, but by all accounts it has dramatically expanded in the last few years. A 2007 Pew Research Center study, the most recent available, found that 40 percent of Gen Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, and a third of Gen Nexters born after them are sporting a tattoo, while the Food and Drug Administration estimated 45 million Americans have at least one.

Previous studies show a continual up-tick in tattoo use since the mid-1990s, with some insiders claiming body art has become a billion-dollar business, with its own TV reality shows, weekend conventions, and as many as 35,000 shops nationwide.

Yet despite its growing popularity, the trade, like its history, still flies largely below the radar. Traditionally a sort of secret society where practitioners ferociously guarded their metier, many tattoo parlors are apprentice-based, cash-only businesses. Government oversight is meager, although health officials are working with lawmakers around the country to better regulate a business that’s both booming and potentially hazardous to public health.

As tattoo historian and author Vince Hemingson puts it, body art “is one of those classic industries where almost all the artists are self-employed. And since the cost of entry is so low, and anyone can call themselves a tattoo artist, it’s hard to precisely define how big it is.”

There are plenty of signs, though, that a sea change has occurred, moving this centuries-old discipline from the social fringe smack into the mainstream, much to the chagrin of oldtimers who fear popularization is killing the tradition. “As soon as tattoos started getting into the shopping mall,” says Hemingson, “it lost some of its roguish outsider image. Now you have families going in to get tattooed together.”

The trend certainly brings more opportunity for the tattooer and less stigma for the tattooed, although Americans still seem conflicted. One study this year showed the public almost evenly divided about the impact of so many people getting tattoos, with older Americans far more likely to look down on the trend while younger ones are more laissez-faire.

Sheila Roberts, a 45-year-old operations director in senior-care, is somewhere in the middle. Joining the fray, Roberts started getting tattoos a few years ago, but says “I want them in places only I can see because they can be offensive to other people and cause them to stereotype you. Having them on your head or neck makes you look like a gangster.”

Yet more Americans than ever seem ready for ink. Bob Baxter, former editor in chief of Skin & Ink magazine, says “new shops are opening every day, and professional artists can make anywhere from $125 to $200 an hour, while the true elite can make up to $300,000 a year and have waiting lists two years long. The newcomers are having a bit of a problem with the recession, but for the established artists business is very healthy.”

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