In Great Bend, 2012 might be called the year of the Tattoo. Within six months, the city of nearly 16,000 has gone from a tattoo-parlor free zone, to the home of two start-up licensed tattoo artists. Tattoos have gone from taboo to acceptable. At one time associated only with sailors, bikers, hoodlums and gang-bangers, they now decorate the hides of lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers. While there are still those who choose to get a tattoo on a whim, perhaps after an evening of libations and poor judgement, many more take months or even years to consider and finally commit to the process. They have evolved to become for some meaningful pieces of art that reflect deeply personal convictions, self expression and memoriams of loved ones. The reasons for choosing to get a tattoo are as varied as the people who get them, and the people who create them.
Lafe Kern, a 20-something man from Great Bend, asked Lee Smith of Tattoo Revolution to rework an existing tattoo on his shoulder. A friend created the original tattoo, but Kern wanted more detail and to add color--something his friend wasn’t ready to tackle. After his boss had a the same sort of work done by Smith earlier, Kern consulted with him and made the decision to move ahead on the tattoo upgrade.
Smith says he does quite a bit of tattoo fixing. With so many people getting into the tattoo market, it’s not uncommon for people to have varying degrees of disappointment with their tattoo, he said. Instead of going to the pain and expense of getting a tattoo removed with lasers, they opt for having their old tattoos transformed into something more pleasing.
“It’s kind of like bringing an old car back to life,” he said. “I’ll go back through, pound out the fenders, put a new paint job on it, redo the motor, and next thing you know, badda-bing, badda-boom, you got yourself a hot rod.”
Smith cleans and shaves the skin around the tattoo so it is free of hair, and expresses blemishes that could cause irregularities with the pigmentation later. After allowing Kern to inspect each disposable component that will be used in the process before he removes it from its sterile packaging, he attaches them to the tattoo gun, which will pierce Kern’s skin to a level below the surface where skin pigmentation occurs, and deposit tiny droplets of ink which, once healed over, will remain a part of Kern’s skin forever.
They’ve discussed what the final product should look like prior to today’s appointment, so when the gun is ready, and Smith has loaded it with imported Japanese true black ink, he gives Kern one last chance to back out. Kern makes himself comfortable, leaning forward on his stool, resting his arms on the padded bar.
“Are you ready? Three-two-one,” and he begins working on Lafe.
Smith begins to rework the outline of the hands holding the earth under a banner that says “Save us”. As his needle works across Kern’s skin, tiny droplets of blood surface, and every so often, he pauses to wipe away the blood and rub a fine coating of Vaseline over the surface before he resumes his work.
Smith opened Tattoo Revolution on July 4 after building a clientele in Hays over the past 13 years. Five of those years, he worked as a k-12 art teacher for Palco USD 269 while apprenticing under Art Gregory, a long time tattoo artist in Hays. Getting his first tattoo during the summer following his first year of teaching ultimately led him to choose tattooing over teaching for his career.
“I didn’t really respect tattooing,” he recalled. “At the time, to me it was a bunch of dirty old grungy old pirate looking folk drawing on each other, and not a legitimate art form at all, but I wanted a tattoo.”
He remembers from the second he sat down in the chair,
“It was like magic,” he said. “There was something about the sound of the machines and the smell of the place and the inks, and this old pirate guy with this long grey beard that was like a cross between a wizard and an old swashbuckling guy, and here I was, ready to make a decision to accept pain-so that I could express myself.”
That whole idea of not only accepting, but requesting pain to express himself transformed him.
Smith said he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the piece. As he looked at it, he thought about how he could do it better. At first, he really only wanted to learn to work on himself. Over the course of a year, he worked on Gregory until finally he agreed to allow him to apprentice.
“He was like, ‘Okay fine, you show up tomorrow morning with $2,000 cash, and I’ll front you. If not, then go away.’” Smith arrived the next morning with a cashiers check, and later learned Gregory never expected him to actually show up.
Compare the shop where Smith learned his craft to the shop he runs today, and you discover one of the changes that have helped to increase the industry’s appeal over the past decade.
“I began training with Gregory before the tattoo shows, when everything was still old time, old style,” he said. The shop was an old, basement hole-in-the-wall. Now, expectations have changed.
“People don’t want to get their tattoo from that hole in the wall,” he said. “Tattooing has become a legitimate art form.”
Smith considers himself an artist first, with a bachelors of fine arts degree, a couple of minors in design and sculpture. His passion for art and self expression overflows when he talks about the concept behind Tattoo Revolution. It is his attempt at bringing an industry compromised by the spotlight of reality-show television into balance, he said.
“I’m not about being some rock-star tattoo artist that makes the customer pay homage and take what I give them. I want them to be completely satisfied--more than satisfied in fact, when they walk out of my shop,” he said. “Instead of acting like they are lucky to have me as their artist, I’m grateful to them. Because of them, I can make a living drawing pictures and creating art every day.”
Still, he admits he still finds himself ill-prepared at times because tattooing is always a challenge. “There is never a day that goes by that something new doesn’t pop up,”
Disdain for the guru mentality is echoed over at Inksane Tattoos, owned and operated by Chancy Schmidt, long-time Great Bender.
“So called Rock-star tattoo artists think they’re better than everybody else, are a joke,” he said. “As a business owner, I want to give my client exactly what they want.”
While he’ll offer suggestion, if a client wants something done exactly as drawn, he’s fine with that. For example, signatures or handprints done by loved ones are something clients do not want altered. A popular tattoo is a signature from a card. Memoriam tattoos like these help some people to gain closure after losing someone.
“It shows that they think about them every day,” he said.
Schmidt grew up in Great Bend, played football here, and attended Barton County Community College for a year. He served in the military, and was deployed overseas. When he completed his tour, he also apprenticed under Art Gregory in Hays three years ago, and opened his shop in March.
“I’ve always had a passion for drawing, and I saw the popularity in tattooing, and thought it would be a good business to get into,” he said.
Most of the time, he can be seen driving around town on his motorcycle, his two full “sleeves” of tattoos showing. One side depicts a life of faith, while the other side depicts the opposite. He’s aware that he fits the vision of the stereotype most people over the age of 40 think of when they hear the word tattoo. However, he still considers himself a military man. When he has been spotted in uniform, ready for reserve activities,he says people have a hard time reconciling him with his other persona.
“Tattoos used to be taboo,” he said. “The trend is changing---Its not so taboo. They used to be just for bikers, outlaws, gangsters and thugs did them. During my apprenticeship in Hays, I did tattoos on doctors, lawyers, and even judges. People have different ways of expressing themselves. Its a new era. Its bigger and bigger every day. You need to get to know me before you judge me.”
His shop is clean and bright, resembling a cross between a hair salon and a dentist’s office. As a relative newcomer, he feels he has some fresh ideas, and is confident his skill will only continue to grow.
“I’m always learning something new every day,” he said. After reading the recent story about contaminated ink that recently ran in the The Great Bend Tribune, it prompted him to look into his own inks and to call his suppliers and ask questions to ensure his customers would be safe, he said.
Schmidt says about half of his customers are looking for something with meaning when they come into his shop, while the other half are just looking for something. Whether they want a handprint of their daughter or simply a cartoon character, he doesn’t judge them. And customers come to him from all age groups.
The youngest person he’s ever tattooed is 16, he said. He won’t go younger than 15, and for anyone under age 18, he requires the presence of a parent and a signed consent form.
The oldest person was a 77 year old woman. “She was a blast to work on,” he said. “I enjoyed that one a lot.”
From Taboo to Acceptance
The taboo hasn’t completely faded, however. Tattoo artist websites and social media pages contain chat conversations that show that there is still a good percentage of people that still associate tattoos with blue-collar, frayed-collar and no-collar workers. The urban slang for common tattoos carry a sting of raunch, with terms like “scum stamp”, “tramp stamp”, and “shankle tattoo”. Acceptance in the workplace is varied, largely depending on the level of professionalism expected from clients.
“Edgy looks, especially those involving the baring of cleavage, skin or tattoos, rarely cut it at the office, unless you happen to work in a trend-conscious field like advertising or fashion,” according to a Monster.com article, The Rules of Workplace Style. “The “baseline” look starts with three no-nos -- no flip-flops, no jeans and no visible tattoos -- and calls for tailored trousers and long-sleeve shirts or tops for men and women.”
While those in creative professions may not have any issues with ink, while lawyers and public officials tend to keep their canvases pristine, or at the very least, keep them covered.
Still, the tide is turning. Tattoos carry different meanings for the 20 and 30 year-old set compared to the 40 to 50 year-old set. The younger group sees tattooing as a means of self expression, while the more mature still tend to attribute more radical qualities to those displaying ink.
Cristy Yancey is Kern’s mother, and is dating Kern’s boss. She witnessed Smith’s transformation of her boyfriend’s tattoo, and realized her search for an artist that could bring a long-time tattoo dream to life had ended.
“I wanted him to totally do an art project on me, and we brainstormed for so long because I wanted to make sure he saw my vision” she said.
The tattoo she has had in mind for the past 10 years is a set of angel wings that fill her entire back. She wants the design to be something that from a distance is hard to make out, but as people come near, they will begin to make it out. To do this, Smith will be using sepia-toned inks. They have collaborated on the design over several sessions, and spent the first hour and a half discussing some of the fine points before Smith ever began applying ink, she said.
“There’s great meaning behind my tattoo. It’s not something I thought lightly about. It needs to be something personal, something that speaks to you, something that speaks of you.”
A suggestion of peacock feathers will be woven into the design as a tribute to Yancey’s grandparents who raised peacocks on their farm.
Yancey, who came of age in the 1980s, struggled with the taboo of tattooing for a long time before ultimately deciding to move forward. A nurse by trade, she says many of her coworkers would never know that she has a tattoo. For her, it is a very personal expression of who she is, one she knows she will not regret as she ages.
Yancey said she went through a period of questioning. She knew it would look good now, but would it look good when she is 90 years old? Ultimately, she determined that when she is 90, she won’t care.
Kristen Boker, in her mid 20s, is a Great Bend hairstylist. She has several tattoos, both on display and hidden at work. To her, tattoos should carry meaning, she said. Schmidt and Boker have been friends since Schmidt began his apprenticeship in Hays. When considering her latest tattoo, she also interviewed Smith, but ultimately returned to Schmidt.
On her forearm is a tattoo of a comb and shears. While it is common for tattoos to depict the tools of someone’s trade, Boker’s aren’t average.
“She wanted more of a stone, rock and bone kind of look,” Schmidt said.
The result is a comb that looks like it could bite, and a set of shears that appear almost skull-like. “Sometimes people think it looks like dinosaur bones until they look closely,” Boker said.
Boker also has a tattoo she had done following the death of her grandmother. It’s a way of carrying a piece of her loved one with her always, she said. When asked if she thinks she may ever regret getting tattoos later in life, she becomes philosophical.
“It’s a way of expressing who I am, and it has a lot of meaning for me,” she said. “If you are the type of person who regrets things, you really shouldn’t get a tattoo. If you pick something that has personal meaning. you won’t end up regretting it later.”