At the age of 17, Mike Thompson-Hill dropped out of high school and began a career in tattooing. 16 years later he says he has seen the industry relocate from the fringes of society to the mainstream.
A couple decades ago, tattoos were still largely seen as the domain of sailors, bikers or prisoners. But from the hugely successful Miami Ink (and its spinoffs LA Ink, London Ink and NY Ink) to the recently released “Tattoo Barbie,” tattoos are now undeniably widespread.
“I don’t know what is making everyone go tattoo crazy,” said Thompson-Hill, who owns and operates Saskatoon’s Tantrix Body Art. “There has to be more to it than pop culture.”
Thompson-Hill has a theory as to why tattoos are growing in popularity, albeit a slightly morbid one.
He doesn’t think people are spending five hours getting injected with needles to be trendy, but rather doing it for the thrill. Years ago, he explained, people got hurt on a regular basis in their day-to-day lives. Now, everyone is so safety-conscious that we practically walk around with padding on. Pain from tattooing releases chemical endorphins in the body and he thinks people may just need that excitement.
Joel Hryniuk, manager of Ink Addiction, has a more optimistic take on the increasing popularity of tattoos.
“Hopefully we’re growing to a more accepting society where people don’t judge people for the way they might look, but accept them for who they might be,” he said.
However, Thompson-Hill and Hryniuk both admitted, a bit grudgingly perhaps, that pop culture played a role in people opening their eyes to the culture of tattooing.
Although Thompson-Hill had less than kind words to say about tattooing television shows, he said that because “they put the tattooer in everybody’s living room for an hour a week” the shows allow people to see that it is not all blood, gore and drugs, but actually a legitimate art form.
Whether or not this new societal acceptance and even obsession with getting inked is positive or negative depends on whom you ask. Some artists who have been around since before the craze might not be as happy about it as the younger ones.Because tattooing has become so trendy, people are not taking it seriously enough anymore, says Thompson-Hill. Kids younger than 16 are rushing in to get inked because they think it looks cool and they don’t understand the concept of permanency. He thinks people should wait until they are much older to get a tattoo.
“This is actually more serious than getting married. It’s more painful to get rid of a tattoo than it is to get a divorce these days. So treat it as such, but they don’t.”
Thompson-Hill relates this new trendiness to the once popular armband. When Pamela Anderson starred in the 1996 film Barb Wire, she got her now-iconic barbed wire armband tattoo. People rushed to get armbands of their own and soon regretted it.
Today he sees the same thing happening, but with the latest trend: script. Everyone is getting song lyrics, quotes or names marked into their skin, but Thompson-Hill thinks this too will become a source of regret when the trend is over.
Hryniuk, on the other hand, doesn’t think that trends are a problem anymore with new advances.
“Everything’s a possibility now with tattooing,” he said. People can get whatever design they want to express who they are as a person. He believes the public is now seeing the art behind tattooing and understands it more than in years prior.
This new understanding of tattoos has certainly made it easier to get a good job after getting inked. Although there are still places of business that frown on visible tattoos, they are becoming few and far between. In spite of that, face and hand tattoos can still cause some difficulty as they are the hardest to hide.
Tattoos are now so popular, even older people are getting their first tattoos. Thompson-Hill knows people as old as 83 getting tattooed who, years ago, would have feared public perception but now there is little to worry about.
The art of tattooing has definitely become something to admire. Long gone are the days of gang symbols and hearts with a name inside. Today’s artists are creating portraits that look incredibly realistic and are designed to fit each individual body.
Steve Moore of Get Moore Tattoos in Nanaimo, B.C. and James Tex from Deadly Tattoos in Calgary are among the prominent artists Hryniuk says are pushing the tattoo world forward. As they put out better and better work, other artists are striving to do the same.
But sadly, these artists don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Thompson-Hill says that too much focus is being put on celebrity artists who aren’t really that good and are in it for the money.
Because tattoos are so permanent, he says it isn’t right to focus on the money. Rather, artists should concentrate on doing the best they can do on each person.
The worst thing about celebrity tattoo artists these days is the beards, says Thompson-Hill. It has become trendy for tattooers to have a big beard to get that biker look, even though it’s grossly unsanitary.
Since the outbreak of mainstream tattoo popularity, doctors have become involved in making the process sanitary and safe. In the 1970s, the ink used was so toxic it’s surprising people didn’t get seriously sick. Advances have now been made to make the ink much less harmful.
New machines and models come out often, each promising to be just a little bit better than the last. The ink is able to be injected smoother and with less damage to the skin than ever before, helping tattooers create exceptional realism in their art.
Laser removal hasn’t become any easier however; in fact, it’s even worse. As the quality of the ink has improved, it has become more permanent. While this ensures tattoos won’t fade as much as they used to, removing one is as painful as ever.
The fear of permanency isn’t slowing people down though. Society seems to have officially moved past old stereotypes and is embracing a new culture.
Photos: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf