written by Anna Wright
photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Tattooing is one of the oldest art forms on the planet and there are so many options when it comes to getting inked. From intricate tribal designs to vibrant life-like portraits, the sky is truly the limit. The word tattoo originally comes from the Samoan word Tatau, which literally means “to mark the body.” It is an art form that has been practiced for centuries and continues to grow in popularity every year.
“Tattoos are getting more and more mainstream, thanks to television shows like Miami Ink,” explains Kaelyn Currow. Kaelyn has been tattooing for nine years and is the owner of Honest to Goodness tattoo studio in Grand Rapids. After only being open for six weeks, the average waiting time to get inked at her shop is over a month. “We’re really trying to make a difference in the tattoo community here in Grand Rapids through educating people about industry standards and proper practices.” She continues, “Grand Rapids has over twice the amount of tattoo studios than both Detroit and Lansing combined, and about half as many restrictions. It’s important that people know what they’re getting themselves into before going under the needle, and that the environment is clean and sterile.”
Her shop is open, airy and full of light in an effort to make people feel welcome. “We just want people to feel comfortable and are trying to change the stereotype that all tattoo shops are full of death-metal and bikers,” explains the entrepreneur. “We’re nice here.”
In addition to being a woman-owned business, the shop also has a strong female presence. “Three out of our five artists are female, and we try to keep our shop classy,” notes six-year tattoo veteran Stephanie Lene, another Honest to Goodness artist.
Tattoo artists love their craft for many different reasons. Though it’s an art form, working with people and skin is much different than canvases and easels. “I couldn’t pick a major in college so I dropped out and worked with a local artist for a while,” confesses Currow. “Tattooing is challenging because with other mediums you can more or less replicate things. With skin, every single tattoo is different and it really keeps you on your toes.” But everyone’s story is different. “I always did artwork and even went to school for it,” tells Lene. “When I turned 18 I got my first tattoo and was immediately sold. I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I loved it.”
If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, there are a couple important things to keep in mind.
First, it’s important to decide exactly what you want to get. The best tattoos are the ones that have some meaning to them, or are of something that you find particularly beautiful. “I got the tattoos under my eyes because I have a skin disease that makes the area unnaturally white. I decided to emphasize my freckles with ink,” explains Lene.
“I got the three stars on my lower back for each one of my three kids,” explains Ashley Lumpkin of Monroe, MI. Decide if you want color or grey scale, realistic or fantastical, and, of course, the size you want. “The biggest piece of advice I can give to a first timer is to start small,” explains Currow. “You can always add onto something but you can never take it away”.
Next, know what to avoid. Boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, and names of significant others in general should be ruled out. “Put your first tattoo somewhere hideable, especially if you’re young. Avoid the neck, hands, face, legs or upper back because it can potentially hinder you from getting a job,” warns Currow. Play around with the placement before you commit. Most studios offer stenciling, a method of tracing the tattoo into your skin temporarily, so you can wear it around for a couple days and decide if you truly like it.
Choose an artist and make sure to choose well. “Seek out a specific artist who has the style you like,” advises Tiffany Elmergreen, an apprentice tattoo artist at Honest to Goodness. For example, if you want a realistic portrait commemorating your dad, don’t go to someone who normally does cartoon characters or fairies. It’s important to look at an artists’ “book” (which showcases their work), either online or in person. Luckily, it’s the artist’s job to help you pick the right thing. “Every tattoo is different, the customer may pick out what they want, but we play with it a little to make sure that it works best,” says Lene. “We mold customers ideas to help refine and improve them”.
Be prepared to pay. Professional tattoos can be expensive, but it’s well worth every penny spent. “Lots of people walk into a shop just looking for cheap, but you can’t just be fly by the seat of your pants when you’re getting something as permanent as a tattoo,” says Lene. “At our shop there’s a $50 minimum. Shops have to pay for the sterilization of equipment used, the equipment itself, inks, and disposables,” notes Currow. “So, if you’re at a shop with a $20 minimum, it may not be not safe. They could potentially be reusing things they shouldn’t be, or have improper sterilization techniques.” Tattoo cost varies depending on size and intricacy, so plan on spending anywhere from $50 to $300 or more.
Last but not least, be prepared for the pain. “TV shows about tattoos give the wrong impression of how easy the process is,” notes Lene. “Anticipation is normally worse than the actual tattoo, but tattoos hurt bottom line. It’s important to just breathe and put yourself somewhere else. Mind over matter. Believe it or not, girls actually take the pain way better than guys!”
“Yeah,” agrees Currow. “Women have this special hormone that allows them to forget about how much pain they’re in at the moment, which is how we’re able to have kids…and it helps with tattoos.” Some people recommend running or yoga about an hour before you get inked, this helps release stress as well as feel-good hormones which can help with pain tolerance. Be prepared for how long a tattoo can take. The longest tattoo Currow ever completed took 86 hours, but the average time is about four.
By following these five easy steps, you can avoid having to potentially undergo tattoo removal: often much more painful than the tattoo itself. Also, remember that in the State of Michigan, you must be 18 years of age to get a tattoo, or 16 with parental consent. Happy inking!