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Seasons Magazines

Skin Deep

Now that 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo, getting inked has gone mainstream, with more people of all ages collaborating with artists to create masterworks of self-expression. Here are some of their stories.

When I first held my baby girl, more than 22 years ago, the last thing I ever imagined was that my sweet Sophie Jane would some day have a tattoo. Or four. Of course, it never occurred to me that I would ever get a tattoo, either. But now, at age 55, I have not one but two inky images on my skin. Whereas tattoos were once largely consigned to a fairly limited sector of society, they’ve become – thanks, in part to reality TV shows such as “LA Ink” and “Ink Master” – so socially acceptable now that they risk losing their cool factor.

According to Pew Research Center, 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo; 36 percent of those ages 18 to 25 have ink, and 40 percent of those ages 26 to 40. (In Connecticut, minors under the age of 18 can get tattoos if they have parental or guardian’s permission; those 18 and older can “sign for themselves.”) And while until a couple of decades ago people most commonly got tattooed while on leave in the military, in prison, or in seedy backroom parlors, tattooing has gone mainstream in a big way. Liz King, 31, of West Hartford, waited till this year to get her first, and thus far only, tattoo. “I wanted one for a long time, but I never felt strongly about something I wanted on my body for the rest of my life.” But when her grandmother died at age 90, King found her inspiration. “Yellow roses were her signature thing,” she says. “Toward the end of her life she became an avid watcher of “LA Ink.” She thought some of the artwork was so great!”

King is pleased with the three yellow roses she now has on the top of her left leg. “My dad still hasn’t seen it,” she says, “but my mom loves it. It is a beautiful work of art. I get lots of compliments. I don’t regret getting it. I only regret waiting for so many years.”

Larry Macari, 49, of West Suffield, has three sets of tattoos. His first, an octopus on his right arm, is a tribute to his long-time partner, who died last year. “When she passed, I felt it was important to honor her by putting a memorial on my arm,” he explains. “The octopus was drawn by her son, and the eye is an image of her actual eye.” His second features the phrase “A reason for being.” And with his latest, Macari pays tribute to his four children, who now range in age from 20 to 27. Four turtles, rendered in the style of Japanese art, reflect not only his love for his kids but his affinity for the Japanese way of life. “If I had the means to move to Japan, I’d like to try that way of life. Living with dignity and respect.” At age 53, Billy Mulville of Winsted has no idea how many tattoos he has. “I really have no clue. They all run together. One arm is almost all sleeve. The other arm? Some bare spots.”

Mulville got his first tattoo, a tiny cross with flames behind it, on his upper arm in the mid-1980s while traveling with a carnival “down south.” Some of his tattoos are meant to mask damage from an early childhood burn on one arm, others to mask scars from an accident involving a gravel-chopping machine on the other. Many of his designs incorporate skulls, with flames “here and there.” “I let the artist go crazy and do what he wants,” Mulville says. But some tattoos are better planned than others. Adding his sons’ names – Conor and Ryder – to his arm was, for instance, a deliberate design decision, executed in a reputable parlor. “It’s come a long way since I started getting tattoos,” he notes. “I once even got a tattoo in a carnival lot. I was so nervous [about the prospect of having contracted a disease] that I got tested.” His pirate-ship tattoo was also thoughtfully planned. “I always thought I was a pirate in a past life.”Sophie Huget (my 22-year-old, who lives in West Hartford) was, with her brother, shocked when I came home and showed her the tattoo of the Ouija board crescent moon flanked by three simple stars – meant to represent my husband and two kids—nestled in the hollow of my left hipbone. But shock soon gave way to a kind of bemused admiration. Soon the kids had conspired to each get a tattoo that incorporated a star, in one way or another, so the three of us would be forever linked by those five-pointed figures.

Huget’s first tattoo skipped the star; it’s the word “Hummm,” written in the handwriting of Harriet Beecher Stowe. An interpreter at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Huget was enchanted to read Stowe’s account of her pet hummingbird, whose name, recorded in a journal, was “Hummm.” But tattoo number two, replicating the Girl Scout Active Citizen badge from the 1950s, is star-shaped. “I strive to be an active citizen,” says Huget, a former Girl Scout. A third image is of the lyre—the symbol of storytelling–that is part of the library mantelpiece at The Mark Twain House and Museum, where she also works as an interpreter. She got all three tattoos at Green Man Tattoo in West Hartford; her fourth, a red capital M representing the University of Maryland, was done in College Park, Maryland, on the occasion of her graduation in May.

“I really thought I would never get any tattoos because I thought they were indicative of deeper character flaws,” Huget says. “They amplify character traits whether they are good or not good.” But she’s come to embrace ink in a big way. “I choose symbols of things I love and put them in places on my body that I love the least,” she says, “so when I look at those parts I see something I love.” As many people who’ve got tattoos will attest, they can be addictive; 32 percent of those with tattoos say they are addicted to ink, according to Pew Research Center, and a number of people I interviewed at Green Man said the same. As for me, last year I got a second tattoo, this one on my right shoulder blade, where people can see it. A gold star to any reader who can tell me what it represents. Share your thoughts on Seasons’ Facebook page (SeasonsMedia).

Jennifer LaRue Huget is a freelance writer, editor, children’s book author and yoga teacher. She lives in East Granby.Photographer Amber Jones owns Studio Pura in West Hartford; studiopura.comTattoo Tips

Ken Adams and Jon Elliott, co-owners of Green Man Tattoo, in West Hartford, since it opened in 1995, offer these tips for those considering tattoos:

Do your homework: Check the Web sites of tattoo parlors to look at the various artists’ portfolios and choose one whose style you like. “You’ve got to connect with your artist,” Adams says. “You can’t get much more intimate a relationship.”

Think hard about the design, because it’s going to be with you for a long time. And think twice about emblazoning a name on your body. “The only names you should put on yourself are those of your children, your grandparents, and dead people,” Adams cautions.

Carefully consider placement. Is it okay for your tattoo to be on public view all the time? Does the design you’ve chosen “fit” better on one part of your body than on others? And be aware of such conditions as sun damage and psoriasis that may make your tattoo less attractive and readable than it might in an area where the skin is undamaged.What’s your threshold for pain? Some areas – such as the ribs, torso, feet, and inner wrist are more sensitive than others. The outer arm is widely considered to be the least painful site for a tattoo.

Safety first. When checking out a studio, look around for general signs of cleanliness. Ask whether they use one-time sterile needles. (Most do.) And check for up-to-date licenses: Tattoo licenses need to be renewed every two years, Elliott explains; a bloodborne-pathogen certificate needs renewing every year, and a first-aid certificate every two years.

Know the lingo: “Don’t refer to ‘tats’ or ‘tatties,’” as those are not terms used in the tattoo community, Adams says. “Ink” and “getting inked” are fine.

Photography by Studio Pura, LLC