The 4-1-1 On Tattoo Culture In The (215)

Over the course of the past century tattoos have gone from taboo to on trend. Heart((beat)) offers a sneak peak into Philly’s flourishing community of the permanently inked.

5,200 years ago, an Iceman perished somewhere around the present-day Italian-Austrian border, leaving his tattooed body frozen until its re-discovery in 1991. The intervening history of tattooed humans features individuals marked with symbols communicating everything from status, love or religious conviction, to community affiliation, protection and even punishment.

Tattoos still serve diverse purposes today. While some adorn themselves with ink for the sake of art, others carefully select deeply meaningful designs.

Artist at Eddie’s tattoo parlor in Chinatown prepares to trace forearm piece on millennial client. Photo credit V. Marchiony.

Purpose aside, their pervasive presence in contemporary society has gradually brought tattoos from the countercultural fringes into the mainstream. In fact, tattoos are now so commonplace that in 2013 Forbes magazine declared that having a tattoo is no longer a “kiss of death” in the workplace.

Boasting a community of more than 45 million Americans, tattoo culture is thriving, particularly in urban centers like Philadelphia and especially among the young. With greater than 38 percent of millennials (individuals born between 1980 and 2000) sporting at least one tattoo, Generation Y is the most tattooed U.S. generation on record, according to a 2010 Pew Research study.

Philadelphia is home to dozens of top-notch shops, each of which is inspected annually by the Department of Public Health to help guarantee a sanitary, safe environment for delicate adornment procedures. Additionally, every artist is required to complete a three-year apprenticeship before receiving certification to practice, which must then be renewed bi-annually.

Though such standards of professionalism help to guard consumers against irreversible mistakes, they also come with a price. A small tattoo from a parlor will generally cost around $50, while rates for larger pieces can be as high as hundreds of dollars per hour from an accomplished artist.

The high demand for tattoos and the availability of equipment online has led to an increasing trend of “backyard tattooing,” which entails amateur independent artists offering tattoos at significantly lower rates. “You find a lot of people who aren’t licensed who do them either out of their house or they’ll make house calls. You never want to do that,” explained 21-year old Shannon Seonia, who learned this lesson the hard way.

Seonia’s backyard tattoo reads, “One day we will be old. Think of all the stories that we could have told.” Photo credit V. Marchiony.

Several years ago, Seonia opted for an inexpensive impulse tattoo when the service was offered to her at a party. “I’m not in love with it,” she said. “I think it’s done well [and] I won’t get it covered [but] I just regret the fact that i didn’t think about it more.” According to long-time artist at Eddie’s Tattoos in Chinatown David Steele, Seonia was fortune to only feel mild regret regarding her backyard ink. “People think going to a house and getting a $20 tattoo the size of Mt. Fuji on their ribs is awesome and then we have to go in and fix it and it never works out,” said Steele, who is regularly commissioned cover up such mistakes.  “You can only polish a turd so much.”

More problematic than the abrupt nature of the decision to get inked is the focus on cost. “If someone’s coming to get a tattoo because it’s $20, that’s a terrible idea,” Steele said. “It’s not about the money. Whether it’s cheap or it’s expensive it’s there forever.”

Seonia and Steele agree that the key to remaining satisfied with your tattoo is to thoroughly research which artist is best suited to bring your design to life. Professional artists have portfolios available both in house and online to give customers a sense of their style and specialty. “Find out what you want and who does it how you want it,” advised Steele.  “[Use] common sense. If you want color don’t go to a black and grey artist. If you want black and grey don’t go to a color artist.”

Luckily, talented and reputable tattoo artists abound in Philadelphia and finding the right one is just a matter of being willing to look. One rising star to emerge from the Philly scene is Tim Pangburn, owner of Art Machine Productions in Fishtown and cast member of TLC’s tattoo coverup reality show, “America’s Worst Tattoos.” If you’re interested in dropping in on Pangburn for an appointment, however, don’t get your hopes up- his waiting list has been temporarily closed due to excessive demand.

For those not patient enough to comb through artists’ individual portfolios, another option is to wait for the annual  Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention which draws tattooers from around the region as well as household names from shows like Oxygen network’s “Best Ink,” and Spike’s “Ink Master,” to the Pennsylvania Convention Center for a concentrated weekend of contests, entertainment, seminars and of course, opportunities to get inked.

Similar conventions take place worldwide. The tattoo industry rakes in an estimated $1.65 billion each year in the U.S. alone, but the growing number of body art enthusiasts is creating more than revenue. Conventions, social media, and mainstream recognition all help solidify the expanding community of tattoo lovers in which millennials are playing an integral role.

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