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Originally published in The California Aggie

If there’s one thing you learn when talking to a tattoo artist, it’s that people want some very unique drawings on their bodies. Very, very unique.

“I did one of Wolverine riding My Little Pony,” said Urban Body Body Piercing and Tattoo artist Chris Yoakum as he carefully inked a horse and horseshoe on a young woman’s shoulder. “That seems random but it’s much less interesting if you know the story – the guy got it to commemorate his kids.”

Judging by the steady stream of customers that filled the colorful Davis shop last Saturday, it would seem that lots of people have a story they want to commemorate. Tattooing is more popular than ever, with kids as young as 18 and adults as old as 70 choosing to get inked. And that isn’t likely to change anytime soon, said Sacred Tiger Tattoo owner George Hernandez.

“It’s something that human nature wants to do. It probably goes back to the first people who drew on caves,” Hernandez said. “It could be illegal and I’d still have plenty of business.”

While licensing laws vary from state to state, many tattoo artists begin their careers after discovering their passion for art and subsequently become apprentices to established artists.

For Hernandez, getting his first tattoo of a small black dragon was enough to realize that he had found his passion. After earning a degree in art and apprenticing in the Bay Area, he tattooed his first customer.

“It’s a very scary thing,” Hernandez said. “I did a simple tribal drawing for a friend, but my first walk-in customer wanted the Grim Reaper.”

Most people come in with an idea of what design they would like to use, but it is also typical for customers to allow their artist to put his or her own spin on it.

Words on the ribs and horseshoes are currently popular, Yoakum said. Past trends include stars, Chinese characters and tribal armbands. It is even possible to identify when a person got his or her tattoo based on its design – Norcal stars reached their heyday in 2000, while Tasmanian devils were the rage in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Eventually, they reach a point where they become clichéd,” Yoakum said.

Take the ubiquitous “tramp stamp,” or lower back tattoo popular with women, said Urban Body tattoo artist Jordan Mitchell.

“As soon as people started calling it that, it moved. Or people only wanted it because it was called a tramp stamp,” Mitchell said.

Senior human development and nutrition science double major Alison Foster got her first tattoo, an infinity symbol with a heart on her right wrist, with her twin sister in 2009. For her second tattoo, she worked with an artist at Davis’ Primary Concepts Tattoo to create an image of a circular tree on her upper back.

“The back tattoo is related to my love of science and, of course, trees. It combines evolution with an actual tree. It’s perfect for me!” said Foster in an e-mail interview.

Mitchell cautioned against letting friends and family influence your decision. It is important to stay away from designs that seem funny at the time or aren’t meaningful to you. After all, it is permanent.

“Sometimes a person will come in and like the drawing but the girlfriend doesn’t like it, so it becomes a control issue,” Mitchell said. “Or if the wife is getting a tattoo, the husband will get really involved.”

After deciding on a design, the artist makes a stencil, which is then placed on the body, and the tattoo is inked over it. Small designs can be completed in one appointment, but large tattoos often take several hours and multiple appointments.

The pain of a vibrating needle doesn’t deter tattoo enthusiasts. But make no mistake – it does hurt.

“She thinks it feels great,” joked Yoakum, putting the finishing touches on his client’s tattoo. “For me, it’s an annoying pain, like a burn or electricity.”

“It feels like nails are stretching my skin,” the client replied, face down into the table.

After the tattoo is completed, Mitchell recommended gently cleaning the skin with antibacterial soap and using Aquaphor healing ointment to keep the skin moist. Thanks to improvements in technology, colored ink lasts forever and multiple touch-ups are often not needed.

Despite their growing popularity and acceptability, tattoos are still a cause for concern, especially among parents and the more conservative community. Foster’s family and friends were generally supportive, though most expressed at least some negative reactions.

“People often prefaced or concluded their opinion with ‘It’s your body, your decision’ or ‘That’s just what I think, it’s not my decision.’ [My] dad brought up mostly health and financial aspects, more so for the tree since tattoos can get quite expensive as they get larger,” Foster said. “[My] mom brought up job issues, as well as the permanence factor.”

Still, Mitchell, Yoakum and Hernandez agreed that after getting their first tattoo, many people come back for more. The desire to fill the body with art can become almost addicting.

“It’s like decorating a Christmas tree,” Mitchell said. “You see an area that’s not decorated, a space where nothing’s there, and people just like to keep going.”

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