Whether you’re a ‘collector’ or just looking for one permanent piece, Chico has the body art for you
Ronita Yvarra, owner of New Creation Tattoo, may seem tough with her confident tone and artistic tattoos covering much of her body. But, like any mom, she softens and beams with pride when she talks about her kids.
One of her two sons, at age 20, last Christmas decided to get his first tattoo—a Spider-Man symbol on his arm. Yvarra did the honors. “I was very proud to be able to do it,” she said. Her 25-year-old, the “rebel,” is also well-loved but ended up a computer geek with no desire for body art.
For tattoo artists and the clients they serve, body art can become a way of life. And the Chico tattoo scene mirrors that of the nation at large: artistic, trendy and here to stay.
People with tattoos fall into a couple of categories: “collectors,” who have many tattoos, often with the ultimate goal of covering their entire body, and those who just want one small tattoo in a discreet location.
Kip Delaney, who opened Victory Tattoo on Mangrove Avenue in 2001, acknowledges that he probably falls into the category of collector. He long ago lost track of how many designs he has inked across his body.
“I never envisioned myself with so many tattoos, but it’s kind of an evolving thing.”
Yvarra points to a spot on her ankle, about 3 inches of bare skin between her tattooed foot and calf. “I don’t have any sentimental tattoos,” she said. “Now I’m going for coverage and space.”
Tattoos are no longer the domain of sailors, bikers and the military. Middle-class college girls are as likely to have a tiny tattoo on the smalls of their back as they are to pledge a sorority or wear a tennis skirt.
“It’s not really stereotypical anymore,” Delaney said. “If anything, it’s getting so mainstream that I feel like the bottom is going to drop out.”
“It’s like that Dr. Seuss book, The Sneetches, where everyone started getting stars on their bellies,” he said. “People [used to be] doing it to be different.”
Some estimates tab the number of tattoo shops nationally at 4,000, with one in seven Americans having one or more tattoos.
Tattoos as body art date back to early Egyptian times and perhaps even earlier. Ancient Greeks, Germans and Britons are also said to have decorated their bodies with imbedded inks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Westerners came to circuses and fairs to view the marked skin of “exotic” natives of the South Pacific.
In some cultures, tattooing has a spiritual component, marking a rite of passage or status in a tribe. In the far East, Delaney said, a person may go to a Japanese master for a tattoo—perhaps of a dragon or koi fish—and see himself as “giving” his skin over to the artist.
But in the West it’s usually just for the memories.
Matt Ellington, a 23-year-old economics major at Chico State University, has a tattooed armband resembling fragmented barbed wire on his left arm. “I only regret that I did not have it wrap all the way around my arm,” he said.
His friend did the two-hour tattoo job for free because he needed the hours for practice.
But all were not happy. When Ellington’s parents heard of this new addition to his arm they had no real objections. But his grandfather continues to give him grief about the whole thing, asking, “What is that? What do you call that crap on your arm?”
Ellington also is not worried about what people will think of his tattoo in 30 years. “I believe that by that time we will live in a much more tolerant society.”
Delaney said that, while tattoos have gotten bigger over the years, they’ve paradoxically gotten more discreet.
“Generally, when people come in they say, ‘I want to get a tattoo but I want to be able to cover it.” Bottom line, Delaney said, “I don’t want to ruin anybody’s life job-wise or anything like that.”
Sometimes, people will find that a visible, especially controversial tattoo can impede their ability to get a job.
According to dermatologists, trouble getting a job is a common reason people give for wanting to remove tattoos—especially controversial ones—on their hands, faces or necks.
Scott Huber, a real estate agent and Chico school board member, gets some comments about a tattoo on his hand, but doesn’t feel the small moon and stars compromise his professionalism.
“There are times when I am sensitive to someone looking at it when I am at a business meeting. It’s a part of who I am, I guess,” he said. “I figure, take me as I am, and if not, go see somebody else. I give people credit for at least giving somebody the benefit of the doubt.”
Huber, now 47, got the tattoo when he was 17. “I wanted to be the only kid in my high school with one. I was sort of a lone rebel,” he said. “My dad didn’t talk to me for about a month afterward.”
But Huber said he has no regrets and went on to get a tattoo of a sun ("the yin and yang with the moon on my left hand") on his right foot and, just a couple of years ago, a calla lily on his chest, which has “a lot of deep meaning—too deep for me to go into here.” He might get another some day, Huber said, “if the mood were to strike me.”
Terri Elliott, a professor of philosophy at Chico State University, describes her tattoos as being her own evolutionary art representing who she is and who she has become.
The Hegelian dialectic is an idealistic concept of a universal mind that, through evolution and experience, seeks to arrive at the highest level of self-awareness and freedom. This is the basic idea behind the art portrayed on her right and left forearms, which consists of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (E=MC2) and the complete one-word sentence, “Breathe.”
Although Elliott is not the type of person who would fail to remember her ideals, she is constantly reminded of who she is and who she would like to become every time she glances at her wrists. [page]
The tattoos, she said, “are a part of who I am and who I have become in my developmental process.”
While she was visiting Africa, members of one tribe became fascinated by her tattoos, curious because they had never seen anyone with permanent body art like hers. Using a Magic Marker, she was able to appease many them by providing them with their own, less painful body art.
For tattoo artists, some jobs are more sought-after than others.
Asian characters and small, simple tattoos are probably the sign-lettering gig of the tattoo world. Still, someone who makes his or her living off of tattoos would never bash the simple.
That ubiquitous solid-black, interlocking design is called “tribal.” They’re not disrespected, but, “those are always kind of boring to do,” Delaney said. “Every day you constantly want to evolve.”
“Butterflies are always the bread-and-butter of tattooing,” Delaney said. “You can always feed yourself off of butterflies.” (The economic downturn, he said, has impacted the tattoo industry somewhat, “because it’s a luxury.")
“I like to build off whatever somebody brings,” he said. “That way, it’s their original idea. It’s not like I’m talking them into anything.”
When you walk into a tattoo parlor, the walls are most often covered with small examples of work that’s been done in the shop. That’s called “flash,” and it’s an old circus term. The flash is meant to show the artists’ range of styles and skills, but picking your tattoo straight off the wall is considered unimaginative.
The flash, Yvarra said, “is more for inspiration.”
“I like to have an opportunity to do something way more artistic,” she said. Clients bring in sketches or lists of ideas, and Yvarra goes from that. She spoke excitedly about a recent project: a man who wanted a large piece on his back including pyramids, an Aztec warrior and other elements. Yvarra enjoys doing tattoos that flow into one another, along with photorealistic portraits (she has one of Jesus at the Last Supper on her own arm) and Japanese themes such as koi fish or ocean waves—"anything I can personally create for the customer.”
“I’m not in it for the money,” Yvarra said. “There was a point in time when the responsibility of the shop and the drama were getting me down.” She prayed about it, and all of a sudden, “I was flooded with all of these artistic, wonderful, colorful pieces. It was so cool.”
In her three decades in the business, she’s seen tattooing go through all kinds of trends. “We did dolphins like crazy back in ‘94, ‘95, ‘96,” she said. “Sunflowers went through a phase of popularity.”
“Right now, every chick in town has a lower back piece,” Yvarra said. “I, personally, would never want one there because I can’t see it. I think it’s slowing down. I haven’t done a lower back piece in about a month.”
Lately, she said, “I’m getting to do much bigger pieces. Most of it is custom, and they are serious about it. They’ve done sketches and research. They’ve been to the library and downloaded pictures.” A $500 tattoo is not uncommon.
“I really like the direction that it has taken,” said Yvarra, who credits the late singer Janis Joplin with bringing tattoos from the military to the mainstream in the late 1960s. In earlier days, “all you had to do was follow the lines.”
Even the weird and extreme can be fun, said Delaney, showing off a recent photo of a tattoo he did of a set of cow udders on a woman’s stomach. “She was kind of punk-rock,” he said. “She just always thought it would be cool to get them.”
Another client requested a string of Christmas lights around her arm.
A common question tattoo parlors get is about price—somewhat frustrating, since one might assume such a permanent commitment would be worth the investment. Most small tattoos start at $40 and go up from there, depending on the design and time involved. If a project will take more than three hours or so, the artist may require multiple sittings.
Chico State student Brandon Smith hopes to get more tattoos as soon as he can afford them. He has his middle name etched across his upper back and his sister’s initials on his right tricep. “I would like to add more, but they are expensive,” he said.
Many tattoo artists start out casually, “apprenticing” under a more-experienced mentor.
Delaney was always an artsy type, so the transition from paper to skin came naturally for him. “I have drawings from since I was 5 that my mom saved for me,” said Delaney, who went to high school in Ridgecrest and started tattooing at a young age.
“I can pretty much get into anything I do,” he said, but his favorite pieces to create are large, flowing designs or concepts. Fortunately, that’s what many of his clients want. “I’ve been blessed that way because it’s really allowed me to expand my knowledge.”
There are many people doing tattoos out of their houses—a tattoo underground of sorts. Some are skilled and safe; others are sketchy “scratchers” with little training or safety precautions.
A newcomer to the tattoo scene is Smokey Bones Tattoos, which opened just a couple of weeks ago on Highway 32 near East Avenue.
The owner, Troy Howe, said business has been good, with clients who “range in age from 18 to 80.”
Back pieces and tribal art are popular, of course, but Howe describes his shop as “old school.” His favorite pieces are done in blacks and grays, with challenging shading.
Yvarra first opened in Paradise in 1991, moving her shop to Chico in 1993.
At first, New Creation was located on Flume between Fifth and Sixth streets. In 1999, once the city rezoned the downtown to allow for tattooing as “personal services"—partly at the urging of Dave Singletary of Sacred Art tattoo studio on Main Street—Yvarra moved to the corner of First and Salem. In 2002, she moved to East Avenue.
She started her apprenticeship when she was pregnant with her first child and realized that she didn’t want to go back to work on the semi-conductor production line in San Jose.
Yvarra, after 30 years in the business, has decided to retire as of Oct. 23. [page]
“I want to travel,” she said. “I’m so done.”
A local plastic surgeon, Daniel Thomas, has contracted with her to work on women who have had reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy. Yvarra tattoos realistic-looking areolas around the woman’s new nipples. “It’s still artistic; you’ve got to do color and texture.”
She’ll also continue to do some tattoo work. “People will be able to find me,” Yvarra said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the tattoo industry isn’t much regulated. There are fewer rules governing someone sticking a tattoo needle in your arm than there are over the person cutting your hair.
“We’re not regulated at all,” Yvarra said. “There’s a bill that’s been on someone’s desk at the county for six or seven years.
“Less regulations are better if you have an honest, moral studio owner where it’s important for them to protect the public,” she added.
Reputable tattoo parlors now use an autoclave to sterilize equipment, and most customers know to ask about it—and even when it was last tested for efficiency.
Ethics play a large role in how most tattoo shop owners do business. Everything from gauging whether a potential client is in the right mental state to make such a commitment to ferreting out relationship problems falls upon the artists.
Reputable tattoo shops won’t ink someone who’s drunk, in part because they can’t legally give consent.
Delaney chooses not to tattoo faces and will do hands only “if you’re already fully tattooed.” He said that after more than a decade in the business, “nothing’s really too shocking to me.” But he was surprised to see one young guy’s face that had been tattooed to look like cut marks—some kind of punk rock imagery, he figured.
“Tattoos already have a bad stigma,” he said, and, “to see someone with their face tattooed is a shock, even to people who are already tattooed.”
Delaney refuses to do gang tattoos. “It’s like perpetuating hate,” he said. “Rebel flags, swastikas—all that hate stuff we don’t do.”
Yvarra also refuses to do swastikas or other Nazi insignia, and because of her religion she won’t tattoo astrological symbols or anything considered satanic.
However, she said, “I’ll tattoo your hands, your feet, your face—I’ll even tattoo rebel flags because I don’t believe it’s a racial-hatred thing.”
But the big no-no for almost all tattoo artists is names. Most won’t do them, unless they’re of the person’s child or a deceased relative.
“When it’s a husband or boyfriend, they usually end up getting it covered up later,” Delaney said. “You want to make sure people are doing it for the right reasons and not to prove how much they love somebody. If you have to go to such an extreme to prove it, usually their relationship is ending.”
In fact, some even believe in a name tattoo “curse": Get your sweetie’s name inked on your bod, and you’re sure to split soon.
The American Society of Dermatology says breakups are the No. 1 reason for wanting a tattoo removed, and as many as half of Americans with tattoos wish they could have them off. (See sidebar, page 19.)
“I don’t do names, unless they’re your children,” Yvarra said. Tattooing a spouse or partner’s name, she said, “dooms the relationship.”
If she suspects someone is getting pressured to get a particular tattoo, Yvarra will step in. “I’ll say, ‘Excuse me, she’s the one who’s getting the tattoo.'”
She worries about people who come in saying, “I have to get a tattoo today because if I don’t get it today I’m gonna chicken out. They’ll pick something neutral because they’re afraid.”
Joey DeBiasio, a public-accounting major at Chico State, regrets only one of his seven tattoos. He was persuaded by a friend to get a lizard appearing to climb out of his armpit. Unlike the lizard, his most meaningful tattoo is undoubtedly the one in remembrance of his cousin who died when DeBiasio was 16. He had to wait until he was 18 in order to get the tattoo. “My parents understood what it meant to me, so they had no problem with it at all,” he said.
That wasn’t the case for Sarah Aikin, a 22-year-old student of philosophy at Chico State, who has incorporated an assortment of five colorful butterflies that run up the right side of her back. They represent knowledge, wisdom, happiness, compassion and enlightenment. These were not the sentiments her mother experienced upon first glance. “My mom cried. She asked, ‘Why couldn’t you just get one?'”
Still, Aikin is pleased with her tattoos—even the four-leaf clover she acquired on St. Patrick’s Day on sale for $25.
Rachael Kotar, 22, a journalism major at Chico State, has a design of a crescent moon and two shooting stars—in the middle of her lower back, of course.
Kotar said she’s confident she’ll still like her 4-by-2-inch tattoo many years from now, and even if she doesn’t, she would more than likely leave it and keep it covered up. “I don’t see it, so it doesn’t make much of a difference to me anyway.”
According to several online sources, the most painful places to get a tattoo are, for men, the abdomen, spine or chest. For women, it really stings on the ankle, spine and ribcage. If you want to minimize your pain, go for the buttocks, arm or back if you’re a guy or the abdomen, buttocks, thigh or shoulder for women.
We’re coming up on tattoo season: Winter is said to be the best time to get a tattoo, mostly because the cooler weather and less sun exposure promote healing and ink absorption.
The most important thing for those considering a tattoo, said Yvarra, is to make sure it’s their personal choice to get body art, and what design to get.
Not only does that approach lead to fewer regrets, she said, but also, “They’re personally invested in their tattoos so they’re more bonded to it.”
Intern Corey O’Neil contributed to this story.