Chelsea Carlson flushes as the needle makes first contact with the delicate skin on her wrist. Jaw set and eyes locked straight ahead, she lies stiff as a board while artist Mary Joy Scott carefully sets the lines on Carlson’s first tattoo, an equestrian illustration from the late 1800s depicting a horse surrounded by a laurel, crop and horseshoe.
After the tattoo was completed, Carlson sat admiring her newly adorned forearm.
“The second she started tattooing me I realized that there’s no going back now. I’m going to be 85 years old with a tattoo on my wrist,” Carlson said.
Conservative, classy and a registered Republican, Carlson hardly fits the stereotypical image of someone who would choose to endure the pain and permanence required of a tattoo.
“I feel like I look really clean-cut and really all-American and that’s not necessarily who I am,” Carlson said. “I feel like (the tattoo) gives me that edge I’ve always wanted.”
Carlson’s decision is not an uncommon one. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimated more than 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo. Though far from the majority, the number of individuals choosing to go under the needle has continued to increase.
In 1936, Life Magazine estimated 6 percent of the population had at least one tattoo. Seventy years later in 2006, a survey by the Pew Research Center found an estimated 36 percent of Americans between 18 to 25 years old had at least one tattoo.
In the past few years, tattoo-based reality television shows have given the American public access to this previously underground culture and inspired many to obtain art of their own.
Michael Hare, founder of The Exotic Body in Sacramento, said while these shows have increased the demand for tattoos, they have also led to an increase in low-caliber, unethical shops.
“The worst thing that ever happened to our industry was ‘Miami Ink,’ ‘LA Ink’ (and) ‘New York Ink,’” Hare said. “We’ve seen a lot more non-tattooed, non-pierced people … open studios simply as a way to make money.”
Such shows have also given some would-be clients unrealistic expectations about the time, work and pain involved with creating many of the elaborate tattoos featured on the programs.
“These shows are not reality,” said Eric Mclachlan, a tattoo artist at The Exotic Body. “(Customers) get kind of disappointed when they have to wait … they want it right now.”
Scott, an artist at Tattoo City in San Francisco, said she has mixed feelings about the art form’s increased popularity. From a business standpoint, Scott said the increased interest means more clients but the loss of tattoos’ subculture status makes her nostalgic for the days when ink was intimidating instead of fashionable.
“I lament the loss of that sometimes,” Scott said. “Sometimes there are people who come and get tattoos because it’s trendy - they bother me.”
But Scott said no matter how popular tattoos become, she doubts a day will arrive when the majority of the public is sporting ink.
“It still hurts and I think that’s awesome,” Scott said. “It’s a rite of passage and you’re earning it in that way.”
For many people, tattoos serve as an outlet to express their beliefs and remember their history. Such is the case for Kourtney Twist, junior psychology major and Native American studies minor.
Depicted on Twist’s right shoulder blade is a tattoo of a wolf surrounded by a dream catcher with several eagle feathers hanging below. As a member of the Cherokee Nation, Twist is descended from the wolf clan, one of the seven clans in Cherokee society.
“(The tattoo) is a reminder of who I came from … and that I’m still on my journey of finding out more of who I am,” Twist said.
For Twist, the tattoo serves as an identifier of her Cherokee ancestry while also paying tribute to the family members who passed that identity down through the years.
“It reminds me of my grandpa and my great-grandpa when I look at it,” Twist said. “I know that they would be proud of me.”
With trends constantly changing, tattoos with strong personal ties will stand the test of time both in subject matter as well as sentiment. Even for more light-hearted subject matter, a personal connection to the tattoo is the most important factor and will ensure a lasting connection to the piece.
“It’s a form of expression and art,” Twist said. “I think you should get a tattoo that you know would be timeless, that you will never regret and that you’ll look at and always appreciate.”
With careful consideration a quality tattoo can give outsiders a glimpse of the individual beneath the artwork and tell a little more about his or her heritage, history and personality.
Jessica Scharff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org