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Grab some ink
Tattoo is becoming a lot less taboo

Date: 03/19/2008

From tribal villages to American streets, tattoos are a way to display rites of passage, status, and religious or spiritual sentiment. The markings can memorialize someone or, simply put, just make a statement.

In the United States, the tattoo has become more of an accepted form of self-expression with everyone from rebellious youths to middle-class soccer moms.

Mainstream ink

Sentimental journey:
Toby Newell recently got a portrait tattoo of his parents on his back. Tattoo portraits are becoming a trend in tattoo art, Newell said.
At Ink Headz tattoo shop in Santa Maria, a funky beat fills the room as tattooed 30-somethings tap their feet on a black-and-white tiled floor and ink clients. Art fills the walls--some of it is stenciled drawing, some is illustration, and some is portfolio work.

The energy in the shop definitely feels youthful, but as clients work their way in and out, it's apparent that the people getting tattoos are as varied as the art.

Toby Newell sits in one chair, his tank top taped to the side, as Ink Headz owner Jason Bettencourt traces a stenciled portrait on his back with a tattoo gun. The portrait is of Newell's parents, copied from a black-and-white picture that Bettencourt uses as reference.

"This is going to be a surprise for my parents. They don't know that I'm doing this. I thought it would be a great surprise," Newell said. "It's something that most people will do after their parents are gone, but it made more sense to get it now while they're still around."

Newell has other tattoos--some he's proud of and others he isn't. With a freshly shorn head and exposed tattoos, he almost invites tough-guy stereotyping. But appearances can deceive. Newell is a husband and a father. He has worked as an illustrator in the movie industry. On a recent weekend, a buttoned down Newell in a dress shirt and slacks fit anonymously into an audience at a local production of a Broadway show.

And he's not the only one combining the traditional "rebellious" act of getting a tattoo with normal, everyday life.

"Overall, the standard populace is taking [tattooing] more serious now," he said. "A whole lot more people recognize the artistic talent in it."

The look of business

Major buzz:
The Electric Ink Tattoo Festival will be held in Santa Maria this year. Pictured are scenes from last year's event in Paso Robles. Organizers and tattoo artists say the event has a broad appeal that reaches a diverse group of people.
Trace Edwards, owner, partner, and producer of the Electric Ink Tattoo Festival, has tattoos up and down his neck and arms. Those are the visible ones, anyway. Years ago, the ink designs might have clashed with his business suit, but today not so much. Back then, Edwards himself might have clashed with business-suit-clad councilmen and Long Beach city authorities, but nowadays the tattoo artist/promoter and city executives have a lot more in common.

Every year, Edwards puts on the Ink-n-Iron Festival aboard the Queen Mary. It's one of the largest tattoo festivals in the state and an event that attracts some colorful characters--and also a lot of green. For the last five years, Edwards has hosted a similar event in Paso Robles. This year, however, it's moving to the Santa Maria Fairpark.

But whether he's doing business in the large city or the Central Coast, Edwards' appearance hasn't hindered his business dealings.

"I have tattoos on my hands, portraits on my neck," he said. "I have visible ink, which I said I'd never do. I have meetings in three-piece business suits.

"At the end of the day, America is built on commerce," he noted. "If you add to the commerce of a local city, you're legitimate."


Despite the bottom-line attraction of profits, however, Edwards said that tattoos' increased acceptance in society has made the marriage of his business transactions and appearance more acceptable.

"Could I be doing this 10 years ago?" he asked. "I don't think so."

Paula Fisher, owner of Electric Rose on Broadway in Santa Maria, agreed that tattoos have become more acceptable to the mainstream.

"There are few jobs where they can say, "No, you can't have a tattoo showing," Fisher said.

Edwards said in the last five years, large-panel and full-sleeve tattoos have grown in popularity.

"What it becomes is you get to create your own suit of personality," Edwards said.

Newell agreed.

"I would say it's probably more accepted, but it depends on who you are looking for acceptance from," he said. "If you're looking for acceptance from an older crowd, you're not always going to get acceptance."

The media has had a lot to do with an increasing awareness and acceptance of tattoos. TV shows like A&E's Inked or TLC's Miami Ink and L.A. Ink, have not only made the practice more mainstream but also have shown what can be done with tattoos.

"They're artwork," Newell said.


Edwards explained that the shows have exposed the realities of the industry to people who may have had a predisposed idea of what tattoos are all about. They can be more than just a tribal arm band or basic four-color stamp.

"What you can create on a canvas, piece of rock, rice paper--no matter what the medium is--you can recreate it on the flesh," Edwards said. "And when people saw that, they saw the potential."

Some of that potential has been realized in a trend toward more portraits, such as Newell's picture of his parents. People with portrait tattoos--Newell and Edwards among them--have said that they often get admiring comments from non-tattooed people, even soccer moms.

"They can appreciate it because it's not a dream catcher or wolf head," Edwards said.

Though portraits, in general, are becoming increasingly popular, they're also difficult to get right. Ink Headz specializes in portraits, but Newell said that many artists won't attempt them.

"Most people who want a portrait done think they have to go to L.A.," he said. "They don't think they can get it done here."

Electric Rose's Fisher explained that, like fashions, trends in tattoos continually change.

"For a long time it was stars, stars, stars, and more stars," she said. "We still have dragons, roses, and skulls--those are the top three and will probably always be popular."

She also said that there are more people wanting to make a statement with their tattoos these days: "There are tons of people wanting the names of their kids.

"People realize that a husband, wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend [doesn't] last," Fisher said. "I call that job security, because I eventually have to cover the name up. But family is a different matter."

Newell said that he's seen an increase in not just certain types of tattoos, like portraits, but also in a certain demographic: middle-aged women.

"Older women are taking charge of their bodies and having them done," he said.

Recent popular media attention has also opened the door for people who had maybe been on the fence about getting a tattoo, he said.


"My dad offered to be one of my first customers," he said. "Then he got the bug, and now he is coming in for his third."

A family event

"A lot of taboos about tattoos are related to ignorance," Newell said, noting that such stigma fades as shops become cleaner and fewer people associate ink with gang culture. "Also, as people with tattoos have kids, the kids grow up accepting tattoos more."

The Electric Ink Tattoo Festival, in fact, is being touted as a family affair. In addition to food vendors, a full bar, and, of course, tattoo artists, there will be an Easter Egg hunt, free for the first 300 children.

"We're trying to make it a real family-friendly affair," Edwards said. "It's going to be like a big backyard barbecue, except people will be getting tattooed."

In the past, the festival has seen as many as 8,000 attendees at the two-day Paso Robles event, but the average is about 5,000 people. Edwards expects the same for Santa Maria, based on the welcome the festival has received so far.

"It seems the city's ripe for it," he said. "We're getting a lot of interest. We're seeing nice local acceptance."

Ink Headz will have a booth at the festival. Newell said that they often see regulars who come specifically to get tattooed by artists from their shop.

"A lot of people are just looking for the right moment to get tattooed," he said. "[At the festival], you start seeing good artists and talking to people, and suddenly it becomes the right time."

And here's some advice for first-timers who cave in to the temptation at the event:

"When you pick your artist, don't pick by price, pick by the art," Fisher said. "It's a lifetime commitment."

Newell suggests having a clear idea of what type of art you want, and reminds people to eat something prior to getting inked. A surge of endorphins produced by the body as the needle pierces the skin could cause someone with a low blood sugar level to pass out.

Newell also said to anticipate the tattoo to hurt--but to know it won't hurt as much as most people think. He stressed the importance of getting to know the artist: Study his or her portfolio and make sure you hit it off.

"A lot of times, one tattoo leads to another," he said, "so if you hit it off with them, you're more likely to go back for more."


INFO BOX: Get inked

The Electric Ink Tattoo Festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on March 22 and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on March 23. Cost is $15 for adults, $7 for children 13 to 17, and free for children 12 and younger. For more information, visit

Arts Editor Shelly Cone uses ink every week. Send comments or suggestions to

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