Acceptance of tattoos grows among Americans, leading some to new careers

Posted March 23, 2016

Tattoos have become more commonplace among people of all ages, especially among those in college or recent graduates, and for some people in western Wisconsin body art has become not only a form of personal expression, but also a career choice.

According to a recent national study by The Harris Poll, 47 percent of this spring’s graduating class, most of whom are Millennials, have tattoos. In addition, 37 percent have more than one. This is in stark contrast to the Baby Boom generation: Just 13 percent of people aged 51-69 have gotten inked.

The number of people with tattoos is on the rise in all demographics, though. Overall, three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo. Because of this, The Harris Poll’s survey shows that people have become more accepting of tattoos. For example, 58 percent of people polled in October said they would be comfortable voting for a presidential candidate with tattoos. Millennials by and large are the most accepting of the body art, though, especially regarding professionals; 71 percent of parents with children under 10 said they’d be “extremely comfortable” with both primary teachers and pediatricians with tattoos working with their kids.

Ann Lawton is an example of this change. She has been a member of the art faculty at UW-River Falls for about five years. Before that, while pursuing her art therapy master’s degree, she had a clinical internship working on the oncology floor at a large hospital in Milwaukee.

She also has tattoos covering both arms.

While working in the medical field, she was encouraged to cover them, Lawton said, although she never had problems landing a job. Since entering academia, she’s experienced even less adverse consequences of deciding to get visible tattoos.

“The fact that I have tattoos doesn’t hinder my excellence as an educator,” Lawton said. “Rather, it shows that I’m human, that I make choices, and that I’m an individual. They’re really a visual journey. I think that so many young people have them is a great opportunity to start a public dialogue about appearances.”

She added, “It’s almost unique not to have tattoos these days. It wasn’t that way when I was in school 10 years ago. Employers will really have to accommodate, since so many people entering the workforce nowadays have them.”

This sway towards a wider social acceptance of tattoos and other body modification is beneficial to businesses like The Vault and Third Eye Tattoo in River Falls. Though the tattoo parlors offer a very different commodity in terms of design, artists at both establishments said they have definitely noticed the stigma around tattoos changing.

Greg Ellyson, an artist at The Vault, has been tattooing professionally for about five years. He became an apprentice after realizing that tattoos can be considered art by some people, just like paintings or sculptures.

“I always drew but never thought to be a tattoo artist. It just kind of happened,” he said. “I love art, but never realized that tattooing is an art, too.”

He’s noticed that younger people just don’t seem to think about tattoos the way older generations do.

“People think about it as art rather than as something criminals do,” he said. “They kind of tell a story these days, and it’s easy to read people by their tattoos. They’re definitely a conversation starter.”

Mike Latessa of Third Eye Tattoo was always into drawing as well, but realized there was a market for his talent after picking up a tattoo gun.

“I was always into drawing as a kid, especially in my early 20s, but nothing more than that,” he said. “Eventually some cats asked me if I would do a tattoo, but I wasn’t really hip to that at first, but eventually I just said what the hell and gave it a try… The first time on that home rig just felt like everything in the universe came to me after I drew that first line. Almost like having a spiritual awakening or something.”

He expressed similar sentiments to Ellyson’s.

“It’s an ancient thing that’s been going on for thousands of years, and it’s really popular right now, but eventually that bubble will pop,” Latessa said.

“I think it’s getting more acceptable probably just because of the ’80s babies coming up now. They’ve seen tattoos their whole lives, and also just because the technology is better and looks better on skin,” he said. “Twenty years ago, they were OK. They were only as good as the technology allowed, but now we can do so much grander pieces. You’re getting real art tattooed on you these days. It would still be very sub-sub culture if it weren’t for that.”

It could seem like competition would be fierce between the two shops in a town like River Falls, but artists at both places had nothing but praise for the other shop. The artists described the other as “cool guys” and “best buds,” and said that their shops really offer different products in the end.

“It’s like having a Wal-Mart and a Target across the street from each other. It’s essentially just good for commerce,” Latessa said. “And they have their niche, I have mine. We don’t overlap too much. They do a lot more traditional tattoo inspired work, and I’m a solid black-and-grey artist. I try to keep it beautiful but creepy at the same time.”

Because of the changing cultural perceptions, younger art students at UWRF are able to consider tattooing a much more realistic career choice. Olivia Lambert, a freshman studying art, got her foot in the door to the industry last fall.

She accompanied her sister to a tattoo appointment at Impulse Ink in Hudson, and asked the artist a lot of questions.

“I’d been considering an apprenticeship for about two years, and so finally I just showed her some of my artwork and she said if she ever needed help she’d let me know,” Lambert said. “Then she had a special on Halloween and asked if I’d helped out, and then she hired me as an apprentice.”

At first, Lambert did the dirty work any newbie goes through — answering the phone, sweeping floors, setting up appointments — but eventually she proved herself committed enough to start doing some real work.

“You start just tracing lines,” Lambert said. “You have to be very exact, because you can’t mess up tattoos, you know, they’re so permanent.”

Eventually apprentices will design their own ready-to-go, or “flash” tattoos, and practice those for weeks on squash and fruits or pig skin before offering very cheap sales of these designs, she said.

Because she jumped into the industry so quickly, Lambert said she learned a lot during her time of just five months working as an apprentice.

“I was so surprised at how customers would really open up to the artist. They really have to trust the artist, and she could ask them very personal questions and it didn’t seem out of place, and they were all willing to talk. It was almost like a therapist’s office,” Lambert said.

She said she won’t be able to commit fully again to an apprenticeship until after graduating, just because of time restrictions. She does plan to, though. As she looks towards the future of her possible career field, she too is hopeful about how it is changing.

“My grandpa for example only associates tattoos with sailors, prisoners and bikers,” Lambert said. “Older people think they mean you’re irresponsible, reckless, and risky. They just associate tattoos with people who aren’t responsible, when that’s the furthest thing from the truth. They’re simply a form of art. And I think they can be very gentle and feminine, too. Younger people really get that, I think.”