Tattoo you

Mayor Cashell’s proposed moratorium on tattoo shops prompted a discussion of what it means to be inked in Reno

Photo By amy beck

Back in March, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell proposed a six-month moratorium on new bars, liquor stores and tattoo shops. Several local sources quoted him as saying, “Downtown has turned in tattoo shops, bars and liquor stores in every building. I want a six-month moratorium to see what we can do. … We’ve got to come up with some rules and regulations.” He described the scene downtown, where such businesses are ubiquitous, as “pathetic.”

The City Council quickly rejected his proposal, but the mayor’s suggestion prompted a lot of conversations in local bars, restaurants and dining rooms. Most Reno residents are aware that the current global recession—which is starting to recover in many places around the world—has hit Reno particularly hard. The two big industries upon which Reno has long relied, gambling and construction, have dwindled to standstill. Reno’s appeal as a tourist destination has lessened, not just since its mid-century heyday, but significantly even in the last 10 years.

So, there is an image problem, and debate rages about how to attract tourists to Reno: Is it an outdoorsy, family-friendly “adventure place”? Or a debauched, Vegas-style bachelor party attraction? What makes Reno, Reno? Is it the sage and the pine? Or the slot machines and 24-hour alcohol?

And where do tattoo parlors fit into this schism? Are tattoos a sinful pleasure, along the lines of gambling and drinking all night, or driving out to one of the brothels? Or have tattoos lost that stigma (pun intended)?

It’s possible that Reno could become known as a cultural arts mecca, like some other smaller towns, say, Ashland, Ore., or Athens, Ga. Increasingly, Reno is gaining international attention as the gateway city for Burning Man, arguably the largest annual art gathering in the world. Public sculptures like the “Tree Spire” in Whitaker Park or the “Guardian of Eden” outside the Nevada Museum of Art are direct benefits of Reno’s association with the festival, which attracted more than 50,000 people in 2010.

Reno’s art and music scenes have long operated on boom-and-bust cycles, and though the city might still be depressed economically, the local art and music scenes have, in the last six months or so, started to swing up. There’s currently a great diversity of local music acts, and a decent assortment of venues. There are new art galleries, like Hobson Gallery and Artist’s Workshop at 836, and homegrown annual art events, like Nada Dada and the Reno Bike Project’s Bike Art Show.

Whatever final form Reno’s image rehabilitation takes, it seems inevitable—hopefully—the arts will be part of it.

So why would the mayor, or anyone else, naysay tattoo artists, who are working artists, gainfully employed in Reno? For that matter, why would anyone criticize any industry that’s actually doing well in this town, in this economy?

Illustrated point

Interestingly, many local tattoo artists are actually sympathetic to the mayor’s comments.

“I don’t blame the mayor,” says Jill “Apache Jil” Tong, a tattoo artist and the proprietor of Pirate Tattoo on Virginia Street in midtown Reno. “It has gotten out of hand.”

The Washoe County Health Department currently lists 45 invasive body decorating (IBD) establishments, which includes tattoo parlors as well as shops that do piercings and permanent makeup.

“I will say I actually like Mayor Cashell’s comment,” says Chris Arredondo, a tattoo artist and co-owner of Absolute Tattoo on Mill Street. “There are so many tattoo shops, the quality isn’t what they should be.”

Of course, the owners of popular and well-established local tattoo shops would stand to benefit from a moratorium on new shops—no new competition—but they have some valid points about how the oversaturated market has negatively impacted the industry.

“The first question people ask is, ‘How much?’ when it should be, ‘Let me see your work,’” says Tong.

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“Shop around,” says Byron Collins, a registered environmental health specialist with the Health Department. “Don’t just go for the cheap price.”

Tattoo parlors are subject to regular, unannounced health inspections in much the same way as restaurants. Because of the high risk of blood-borne pathogens, like Hepatitis B or HIV/AIDS, proper sterilization is especially important at tattoo parlors. All IBD establishments are subject to strict regulations regarding sanitation, sterilization and proper disposal of waste. Shops that violate the regulations are subject to reprimands, possibly including the suspension of business licenses. Past health inspections are available by request for public viewing at the Health Department.

There are no national or state codes for regulation of tattoo shops, and Washoe County’s regulations are unusually complex. David Kelly, another registered environmental health specialist, says that many of the sterilization and cleanliness regulations are industry-driven. Reputable tattoo parlors stand to benefit from tight regulations—any health problems would be a detriment to the whole industry, regardless of where they might originate.

That’s one reason that the well-established tattoo shops might be disdainful of fly-by-night tattoo artists, especially the ones who work out of their homes and advertise online on websites like Craig’s List. These artists are operating illegally and are not inspected by the health department.

“If they’re tattooing out of their house, it’s probably because they’re not good enough to be in a shop—with some exceptions,” says Arredondo. “They could ruin people, ruin their skin, maybe ruin their lives by giving them some blood-borne disease.”

And they could damage the reputation of the art of tattooing.

“It’s your choice, but if you decide to be tattooed, you deserve to be tattooed by an artist someplace where you’re not going to get an infection or horrible art,” says Tong.

For the most part, according to Arredondo, the atmosphere among local tattoo shops is an environment of serious but friendly competition. However, without naming names, he says, “There are shops that aren’t quite up to snuff. We don’t associate with them.”

“There’s not enough business for this many shops,” says Tong. “It’s like if you had 10 coffee shops on one block, who’s going to stay in business? The one with the best coffee.”

So, though some tattoo artists agree that the ubiquity of tattoo parlors is a blight, it might be a problem best remedied not by a new law, but by time and the natural functions of the free market.

Mainstream values

In the last 10 years, the prestige of tattoo art has grown by leaps and bounds.

“It’s more diverse now,” says Josh Corlin, an artist at Pirate Tattoo. “As more artists get better at it, they’re able to incorporate more different styles.”

“There’s amazing art,” agrees Tong. “The sky’s the limit. … When I started tattooing, there were very few artists. There were basically technicians. It’s a craft passed down through apprenticeship.”

She says that many younger artists now learn to tattoo, not through an apprenticeship with an established artist, but they learn it—or try to—by watching YouTube videos and reality TV shows. So even though there are more artists bringing unprecedented levels of detail, realism and sophistication to tattooing, there’s also an ever increasing number of hacks doing work that’s mediocre or worse.

Tong recently helped organize a convention of the National Tattoo Association, which was held at John Ascuaga's Nugget in mid April. The annual convention, which is often held in the Reno area, attracted visitors from as far away as China and Europe. It’s one of several annual or semi-annual tattoo conventions held in the area. The work on display at the NTA convention ranged from movie monster mayhem to intricate, delicate floral patterns.

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Flo Makofske, the treasurer and convention coordinator of the NTA says that the convention returns to Reno because of what she perceives as the city’s tattoo-friendly culture—at least within the confines of the casinos. Since the NTA formed more than 30 years ago, it has held conventions in the Nugget and the Peppermill and in former properties like the Sundowner and the Reno Hilton.

“Everybody likes it here,” says Makofske.

Tattoo art, in Reno and across the country, has gone through a fundamental shift within the last few years: a move into the mainstream of American culture.

“I’ve tattooed lawyers, police officers, everybody!” says Tong.

The trends in tattoos have also changed over the years. The artwork has gotten more personally meaningful. Tribal arm bands, for example, are less popular. Customers usually have specific, autobiographical things they want tattooed—pictures of pets or family members, for example—rather than getting tattoos of the stock sample images along the walls in the shop. Trends in locations on the body have changed, as well. Ribcage tattoos are more popular, and lower back tattoos are less popular.

“Fortunately, the days of the tramp stamp are coming to an end,” says Tong.

Long, text-heavy tattoos have gotten more popular. Twenty years ago, somebody might have gotten a tattoo that read, for example, “John 3:16.” Now they’re more likely to get: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

It’s a growing industry. More people are getting more tattoos more often, and the tattoos are getting more and more complex.

“Tattoo culture, in the last 10 years, has gone from the perimeter to totally accepted—so accepted that it’s falling back into ignorance,” says Tim Corley, a tattoo artist from Fort Collins, Colo., who was in town for the convention. “Everybody thinks they know something about tattoo culture. They show up and expect instant gratification, and television has really perpetuated that. It’s a boon and a bane.”

“It’s lost that seedy, outlaw thing,” says Arredondo. “It’s for the better, sometimes. It’s for the worse sometimes. It’s cool, because it means more business, obviously, but it means more demanding customers.”

Tattoos used to be something that either you were into or you weren’t. Now, it’s more possible to be a casual tattoo enthusiast. This means that more people get tattoos without fully exploring all the implications: That it’ll be a lifetime commitment or that there are potential health risks to getting a tattoo from a random stranger you met online. But the demanding customers Arredondo mentions are those who think they know what they want, without fully considering how it’ll look on the body or as a work of art.

“If it’s totally going to look bad, we’ll tell you to go somewhere else,” says Tong. “We’re not going to ruin your life if you come here. People will say, ‘You can’t tell me what I can’t do!’ and I’ll say, ‘That’s right. I’m not saying you can’t do that. I’m saying that we won’t do that for you here.’”

The bottom line is that tattoos are now mainstream. If the basis of a potential ban is simply a question of civic image, we might just as well impose a moratorium on barbershops or ice cream parlors.

“Now, you hear kids say, ‘I want to be a tattoo artist when I grow up,’” says Arredondo. “You never used to hear that.”

One plus side to the current prevalence of tattoo shops is the freedom of consumer choice. You can visit a few shops and review the work of different artists before committing to getting inked.

Be mindful of health concerns: “Ask the artists themselves about sanitation,” says Collins. “Does it look clean? Are they wearing gloves?”

“Go to a few different shops,” says Arredondo. “Ask friends where they’d recommend. Look at the artwork, look at the work environment. Take your time with it, because it’s forever.”