Tattooing exists from an age when there was no training to have. Ötzi, “The Iceman,” was found in the Alps between Austria and Italy in 1991. He’s estimated to be 5300 years old, and sports more than fifty tattoos all over his body, created by cutting the skin and rubbing in charcoal. Some historians believe the practice dates back to Japan as far as 10,000 BCE.
Today, adorning our skin, like the time-consuming brush strokes on ancient scrolls, is a rite of passage–from scarring to piercing to cosmetic surgery. Look around Boulder County. We’re born with the body we have, but it doesn’t have to stop there.
Tattooist Phil Bartel makes slow deliberate pulls across the skin with a needle that chatters rapidly. Between strokes, he dabs and deftly spreads Vaseline on the shaved chest with his black-gloved hand, wiping blood and spilled ink away, stopping to wash the area. As recently as the 1970s, tattoos were unheard of for mainstream society. But at Boulder’s Rising Tide, owner Bartel continues the work of a few pioneers who changed that. Who knows? You’ve probably already met his signature work on people walking by.
“I always think [fresh tattoos] feel like a sunburn afterwards,” says Bartel as he buzzes black ink into the sternum of a shirtless client. “But during the process, it feels like a rug burn.” In the top drawer there are needles—hundreds of them—that he pulls from sterile packets and squints at through a loupe, turning them this way and that before threading each carefully into a tube. He dabs his machine into penny-wide capfuls of ink, and continues the act.
Bartel began tattooing when he was 13, pushing India ink by hand under his skin with a pen and a needle. Strangely, he frowns upon that today. “You know you have all these people tattooing at home and not really knowing that they’re kind of f*cking people up and doing really bad tattoos.”
Maybe that’s because he learned his lesson with that first machine when he saw the responsibility that comes with putting ink to skin. “I started tattooing some friends of mine,” Bartel recalls, “and I realized, ‘Oh, this is really difficult.’ ” He eventually went on to opening Rising Tide after training. Walk into Bartel’s studio today, and you’ll see walls covered in transparent paper carefully lined with black ink, tattoos finished, in progress, or just waiting for someone to point and ask.
It might surprise you to learn that Ed Hardy is one of the most important icons in American tattooing. Before the T-shirts or perfume—and before profiteers licensed his name out of relevance—he was the man who changed the game. “He really bridged the gap between East and West,” says Bartel. “He was the first to really go over there and learn Japanese style tattooing from the guys who were doing it, and bring it back to America.” Bartel has some interaction with Hardy himself. For their grand opening, Rising Tide hosted a show of his lithography work. (They continue to hold quarterly shows for Boulder artists.) It’s part of their dedication to art, as well as a way of giving back to the community.
Occasionally, customers will come in who have offered their skin for another kind of body art: piercings. To find the birthplace of body piercing in America, you don’t have to look far from Ed Hardy’s San Francisco. In fact, you don’t even have to leave the city. “It was called Gauntlet,” says Koko Vayedjian co-owner of K&K Piercings. “They were the pioneers of modern piercing, and the commercialization of the business.”
Pipes, barbells, and vaporizers line the walls of K&K Piercings, the first dedicated piercing shop in Boulder. Vayedjian sits behind a glass case of body jewelry. Since 1991, he and his brother have been putting metal into the bodies of Boulderites, watching the same transformation occur in piercing that happened with tattooing. They learned everything they know from Gauntlet.
“The owner was a jeweler that started in the ‘70s, from the back of a house,” says Vayedjian. “So we went to California, met them, and they gave us pointers. All of the sudden, we were popular.”
Michelle Hale, owner of the Beauty spot, offers a wide variety of ways for people to modify and adorn themselves, from affixing Swarovski crystals to their teeth or tying feathers into their hair. One of the most popular alterations for older people, however, is actually a tattoo masquerading under a different name: permanent makeup.
“It isn’t permanent, but it is the most permanent thing we have out there as far as cosmetics go,” says Hale. “I typically tell people it will last probably three to eight years, and then clients come in and they just get a quick touch-up.” The most popular procedures are permanent eyeliner and eyebrow color, but applications are about as diverse as tattoo designs. “People do lips, beauty marks, and camouflaging over scars,” remarks Hale. “Sometimes women who’ve had mastectomies will need to have total reconstruction of their breast and their nipples and therefore need color put back into it. Basically you’re tattooing that back on for them.” A tattoo repairing what a plastic surgeon has done. The irony is hard to escape—maybe even harder to escape than tattoos with the advent of laser removal.
“It’s like sticking a bumper sticker on your car. And now you can take it off if you really wanted to,” says Tobin Vosseger, founder of the Boulder Facial Hair Club. Growing a hefty beard is a different animal in terms of adornment. “You can throw your razor away, grow and craft a beard to whatever you want it to be.” But there are still the comments, and the way you broadcast something to the world, and bravely say that you are different from the rest.
Which brings us to the final question: Why would you do these things to yourself?
From pure artistic interest to the camaraderie felt between drinking buddies, the answers can be as varied as the people undergoing the change: Because of a great painting of Clint Eastwood. Because photography is my profession. Because of the infant that died hours after a car accident led to her birth. Because of California. Or because for no reason at all.
“Aaron tattooed a woman last year who was in her 80s, and was blind,” Phil Bartel says with a gleam in his eye. She came in and she got a hummingbird on her forearm and we’re like, ‘Wow, you can’t see… No offense, but why are you getting a tattoo?’ ” Bartel reminisces. The lady responded: “I just want to freak my family out.”
The truth is, every person is striving for the ideal image of themselves. For some, that means wearing makeup or cutting their hair. For others it’s a beard or a piercing or a tattoo. Deep down, every human being is trying to tell the world who they are. Some, however, louder than others.
Paul R. Byrne has written for Huffington Post and can be reached at www.paulrbyrne.com