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Culture of Adornment

Published on: January 3rd, 2014

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.

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