Tattoo Nation

October 11, 1995|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

It's the old-timers who tell you how much the business has changed. The legendary Lyle Tuttle started tattooing professionally on the West Coast in 1949, when it was mostly drunken servicemen demanding screaming eagless. Then came the first wave of hippies, their heads full of acid and idealism. Mr. Tuttle did Janis Joplin ("Gave 'er a bracelet on her wrist and a rose on her [chest]") and Cher and the Allman Brothers, although a lot of good their tattoos did them.

Joplin OD'd on heroin and Duane Allman slammed his Harley into a produce truck, and both were gone from this world forever. Cher started dressing in bobcat vests and singing sappy love songs to a little guy named Sonny Bono, with a face like a basset hound.

Oh, it was a seedy business, all right.

You couldn't get much seedier than a tattoo parlor, unless maybe you ran a whorehouse. Even then it was a toss-up as to whose place they'd burn down first when the holy-rollers got it in their heads that the town was going to hell in a handbasket.

Now, a guy like Lyle Tuttle, who once spent umpteen hours having his back tattooed by hand by Samoan tribesmen and never even asked for a Tylenol, looks around and thinks: Good God almighty, what's happened to my world?!

The fact is, tattooing has gone positively mainstream in the last few years.

It even appears to be edging perilously close to -- steady now -- respectability.

Now there are movie stars (Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts), fashion models (Christy Turlington) and NBA players (Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman) showing off their tattoos. So is the pimply-faced 19-year-old economics major who lives next door to you, and that 29-year-old ad executive down the street, especially if she's a female. (Women now make up more than 50 percent of the customers in most tattoo studios.)

So is Norman Rifkin of Parkville. You can't get any more mainstream than Norman Rifkin. Norman Rifkin is 40 years old and works for the Internal Revenue Service. The government, for crying out loud!

Norman Rifkin never had a tattoo in his life. But a streak of wildness runs through all of us, and it turns out Norman Rifkin secretly lusted for a tattoo for years.

Anyway, on a sunny, crisp Saturday in the fall, something finally snaps inside him and he walks into Dragon Moon Tattoo Studio in Glen Burnie and has them etch a tribal sign on his bicep.

"I don't know . . . maybe this was a mid-life crisis," he says. "I was definitely anxious and at one point I thought: Am I really doing this? But I really like it."

To decorate the Norman Rifkins of this world, there are now some 10,000 tattooists nationwide, compared to only about 400 in 1965. Mick Beasley, 36, co-owner with her husband, Tom, of Dragon Moon and the founder of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, says there are 40 tattoo shops in the greater Baltimore area alone.

Perhaps the ultimate testimony to the mainstream inroads made by tattooing is this: No less than two tattoo studios are currently vying to open in the heart of staid Towson.

Just a few years ago, the locals would have treated this as something akin to devil-worshipers moving in with their portable altars and charred remains of small animals.

Now, a few town councilmen are in a lather over the tattoo crowd moving in, but to many in Towson, it's no big deal.

"To some people, it's like going to get your hair done," says Mick Beasley.

"Tattooing has really crossed this line with the public to become super-popular," Mr. Tuttle, now retired and the founder of the Tattoo Art Museum in San Francisco, is saying over the phone. "It's the whole body-decorating thing. Body-piercing has become [big] that now people are saying: 'Jesus Christ, a tattoo is nothing!' "

And yet the person who cheerfully shows off a 4-inch silver rod through her septum while passing the string beans at the dinner table is not necessarily the person who gets a tattoo.

"The whole business has changed dramatically," says Ed "Mouse" Massimiano, 38, owner of Main St. Tattoo Studios in Edgewood. "Four years ago, 70 percent of my customers were bikers, rock-and-rollers and good ol' country boys, and about 30 percent were middle class.

"Now it's 70 percent middle class, 20 percent upper class and maybe 10 percent bikers, rockers and country boys."

The fact is, modern tattooing, with its more efficient tattoo

"guns," brighter colors and autoclaves (steam-pressure sterilization units for needles) is appealing to a whole new demographic.

"Tattooing is definitely a middle-class thing now, and I think a lot of that is because of MTV," says Vincent Myers, 33, owner of Little Vinnie's Tattoos in Westminster. "MTV used a lot of creativity to display tattoos visually, and not just on the rock stars, but on everyday people in the [concert] crowds and videos."

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