The tattoo – and this should come as no surprise to any contemporary with working eyeballs – is not what it once was, or where it once was in days of yore, when it was commonly seen on the arms of toughs, desperadoes or old salts.
Or whereever that one was on the dude wasting away again in Margaritaville.
Indeed, so mainstream has the tattoo become today that even otherwise button-down Auburn bigwigs have gotten themselves inked up, said Rich White, owner of Action Tattoo at 225 Auburn Way North.
“I’ve tattooed teachers, police officers, grandpas and grandmas and great grandmas, pretty much everyone in this community,” White said. “I’ve been tattooing since 1999. I’ve pretty much tattooed ’em all.”
Of course, some tattoos cannot be properly described in a family newspaper without inducing various shades of blushing in readers, and White is not a man to tell tales.. And his own high standards demand he refuse tattoos of swastikas or any other emblems of hate or violence.
But gross and evil is not where most folks are at. Turns out, what’s in “is a lot of sleeve work, a lot of total- arm-coverage. That’s probably the most popular these days,” White said.
In his time, White said, he has seen trends come and trends go.
“I started getting tattooed right when I turned 18, and so did my friends,” said White, whose arms and ankles provide a lavish display of the art, right down to Boba Fett, the bounty hunter of Star Wars fame peering up from his right shin. “Being the artistic one, I was drawing everybody else’s tattoos for them and then going with the designs to the local tattooer, who offered me an apprenticeship. And at the time, I scoffed, thinking, ‘What a silly job that would be!’ ”
A few years later, White recalled, he stumbled across equipment of the trade and started dabbling. Fast forward from his dabbling days to the afternoon a friend, whom he had tattooed, strolled into a tattoo shop where the proprietors found the embellishment the stuff of admiration.
“They asked who did his work, I let ’em know my name, and they offered me a job,” White said. “That first day, I worked half a day, and I made a good pile of money. Then, when I went to my bar-tending job that night, I made about half as much there for twice the work. That’s when I realized tattooing was a credible job, and I could have a lot of fun doing it. So, basically, I just quit my job that night, and I’ve never looked back.”
When he was 24, White opened his shop on East Main Street a few doors down from Zola’s. Since then, everything, including Action Tattoo’s reputation, has spread.
“We’ve got people who come to Auburn from all over the world. Someone from Ireland came here to get tattooed after seeing our work online. Often, we get people from California, Idaho, they come from all over the place,” White said.
Why? For one thing, White is a skilled and imaginative artist, with high standards.
“The state of Washington requires that you obtain a tattooer’s license, and it requires training in blood-born pathogens, and you pay a fee to the state to get your license, and you are legit from there. But it would be nice to have stricter laws as far as location, so you can’t just tattoo out of a kitchen or a garage somewhere. That’s where you see a lot of bad work and infections,” White said.
“The ones who just want a cheap tattoo, they go to another shop or to somebody’s house,” White said. “I can spot them; I do it all the time. Typically, they come in here with a really bad tattoo, and I say, ‘Ah, I know exactly what local shop you got that at!.’ There’s a saying: good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good.
“We have put a lot of time and energy into making sure this is a clean, safe environment to get tattooed. People know that, they choose wisely, and the ones who understand cleanliness and want to avoid risk show up at our shop,” White says.
Sometimes customers arrive with a design carefully laid out, and sometimes they come in with a rough idea they put it in the hands of the artist. At that point, the artist renders his or her version of what the client wants.
“We’ll draw it up and take a deposit to start the ball rolling, and then the client comes in, and if they like what they see, they get what they want,” White said. “I would say 90 percent of the people who come in here have no artistic skills, so they leave it in the hands of the artist.
“Right now, I specialize in photo realism. I do a lot of portrait work, a lot of duplication of existing photography, so there’s really very little drawing with that. I also do a lot of freehand work. I tattoo pretty much anything and everything in every color in the rainbow. The supplies and equipment have come so far, it’s really limitless, the amount of colors you can put in. There’s no color we can’t apply,” White said.
Sure, White concedes, getting tattooed is an ordeal by ink, but if it didn’t hurt, everyone would have ‘em, and that would cheapen their value in the eyes of true aficionados.
“Pain is part of the process, and going through a painful, well, almost a ceremony to get this beautiful piece of art, that’s the appeal to a lot of people; you really earn your art. Everyone can buy a painting or poster, but to sit through it, to suffer for your art, that’s another thing,” White said.
A question White hears a lot from critics of the art: how you gonna feel about that tattoo when you’re older?
“Thing is, I look at my old tattoos as sort of a passage in time. Sure, I’m not into the things I was when I was 18, but I have this reminder of where I was at, and what I was thinking, and the person I was back then. And what I appreciate, more than the art itself, is really this timeline.
“Yes, mistakes happen. I’ve lasered away all the tattoos on my right arm to restart it because it was just a collection of mistakes,” White said. “We have friends that are in the laser-removal industry, and we refer people to them daily to get their tattoos removed. It’s affordable now, and it’s an easy way to correct a mistake.”
These days, White is not looking back, he’s looking ahead, to the annual Seattle Tattoo Expo on Aug. 17-19, where he and his tattooing brethren and sistren set up booths and live-demonstrate in contests and seminars some of the jaw-dropping advances in tattooing.
Now in its 18th year in the Exhibition Hall at the Seattle Center, the convention is a rollicking, bodacious – yet at the same time, public and family-welcoming – celebration of the art, to which flock tattoo artists from all over the world – think Australia, Europe and Asia – to sell their merchandise, enjoy burlesque shows, feast, sip microbrews in a beer garden and just, well, whoop it up.