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The Decorated Body: Are Tattoos Sexy, Rebellious, or Just Cool?

A Maryland crab crawls on Rudi Tosti. The crab’s shiny blue-gray shell glistens with tiny water bubbles. The delicate feathery scales lining the crab’s legs lay gently on Tosti’s left shoulder.

Glance quickly at the handsome 25-year-old and the crab almost appears real, which is exactly the effect that Carroll County tattooist Vinnie Myers was hoping for. Myers - known to many by his nickname “Little Vinnie” - has earned a global reputation for his realistic, three-dimensional tattoos.

Want to wear a permanent portrait of a person or animal? Myers is your man. Although he is adept at tribal, American traditional, fantasy and other genres of tattooing, realism is where Myers’ talents as an artist really shine.

And artist is the correct word. From a multicolored butterfly that spans a woman’s back to a stern Uncle Sam, pointing his finger from someone’s calf, Myers’ tattoos all reflect his signature style of blending color and shadow to make an image “pop” from the body part where it was permanently inscribed.

Brought up in Baltimore, Myers began tattooing in 1984 while he was a medic in the U.S. Army. After leaving the service, he opened his first tattoo studio in Westminster in 1991.

The timing was perfect. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, tattooing in this country and around the world was surging in popularity as it never had before. As older tattooists retired, Myers explained, an influx of new, younger artists entered the business and brought their peers along as clients.

Piercing, of everything from tongues to belly buttons, started to grow about the same time. The only barrier to piercing a body part was whether the piercer could hold a piece of skin out far enough to get a stud, ring or small metal bar into it.

How prevalent are tattoos and piercings today? Look around in a grocery store, bank or even a place of worship. There are young men with double-pierced ears and young women with tattoos peeking out of the top of their low-rise jeans. Even the most staid-looking matrons often sport flowers, butterflies or other tattoos on their ankles or wrists. And who knows what is hiding under their clothes.

According to “The Vanishing Tattoo,” which claims to be “the world’s largest online tattoo museum,” a Harris poll conducted in 2003 estimated that 16 percent of Americans have one or more tattoos. In 1936, Life magazine estimated the tattooed percentage of the population at just six percent.

A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 36 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 had at least one tattoo. For respondents between 26 and 40, the number rose to 40 percent.

The Vanishing Tattoo website quotes a Harris Interactive online poll which found that 34percent of respondents said their tattoo(s) made them feel sexy. This was true for 42 percent of the women who were polled. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said their tattoo(s) made them feel more rebellious. And 26 percent said their tattoo(s) made them feel more attractive.

Myers said even after 17 years of professional experience in the tattoo business, he cannot honestly say why people get tattooed.

“I think there is something to it that’s kind of unexplainable until you have a tattoo,” he said. “When you get a good tattoo that you really like, there’s absolutely a strong desire to get another good tattoo.”

Myers did his first tattoos as a child, drawing intricate designs on other kids with magic marker. Later he designed a tattoo for an Army buddy and that’s when a hobby and eventually his business was born. In 1999, Myers moved his studio to its present location in the Tower Center along Route 140 in Finksburg. The second Little Vinnie’s, called Westside, is on Liberty Road in Baltimore.

From the beginning, hygiene and safety have been as important to Myers as his art. As a founding member of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, Myers said that all tattoo artists should learn proper sterilization techniques. To that end, the APT teaches seminars on “Prevention of Disease Transmission in Tattooing,” “Advanced Workstation Setup Technique” and even CPR and first aid at locations around the country each year.

“In the old days, tattoo artists used to have a bucket of water they’d use to clean their equipment. When the sponge sank, that was when they’d change the water,” Myers said. “They also used to say if you haven’t used a needle for 30 days, it’s not broken in yet.”

That is a far cry from tattooing practices today. “Now we use a fresh needle every time and you should see the tattooist open the package,” Myers advised.

He said that reputable tattoo studios should also be willing to show potential clients their sterilization equipment and how it works. Myers said piercing and tattooing instruments used at Little Vinnie’s locations are sterilized at extremely high temperatures in an autoclave just like the one dentists use. Instruments are cleaned after every use and inks, needles and other items are used one-time only and then discarded. Work stations are wiped down between customers with a disinfectant that kills surface bacteria and viruses.

Dave, who said he does not use a last name, does piercings at Little Vinnie’s. He said piercing jewelry is presoaked in an alcohol bath and then individually packaged with piercing tools so that each customer gets their own sterile pack. Like the tattoo artists, Dave dons a new pair of surgical gloves before he touches the equipment or a customer. And he gives each newly-pierced client strict cleaning instructions as well as the friendly admonishment “If something looks funny to you, call us before it gets worse.”

Needles used for tattooing and piercing at Little Vinnie’s are disposed of in “sharps” containers - just like in hospitals - and then regularly picked up by a company that disposes of medical waste, Dave said.

Currently there is no local, state or federal regulatory body in Maryland that regularly inspects tattoo and piercing shops, so potential customers have to take each establishment at its word.

Myers said cutting corners on hygiene is one way some tattooists increase their profit. He believes “tattoo parties” fall into this category.

At a tattoo party, the tattooist brings his or her equipment to someone’s home and tattoos willing guests. Myers said the conditions are usually not as clean as they should be nor is the equipment properly sterilized. Often, the tattooist has not completed the three-year apprenticeship recommended by the APT.

In states where tattooists are required to be licensed, those that work tattoo parties are usually “underground.” Tattoo parties are often held so that minors can get tattooed without parental permission. Most states require anyone under 18 to have in-person parental consent before they can be tattooed or pierced.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, risks associated with improper tattooing include hepatitis, HIV, tetanus and other blood-borne pathogens. The CDC has also found links between antibiotic resistant skin infections like MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococus aureus) and tattooists who don’t follow proper procedures. Since 2004, there have been incidents of tattoo-related MRSA in Ohio, Vermont, Kentucky and other states.  

Not everyone believes tattoo parties are unsafe, however. Tattoo enthusiasts Hayleigh Buck and Mary Werner said they both have been to tattoo parties where none of these risks were realized.

This past spring, Werner and her mother got matching Mickey Mouse outline tattoos at a tattoo party Werner hosted. Werner said tattoos done at tattoo parties tend to be a little less expensive. The parties are also a way for tattooists who don’t have their own studio to begin building a clientele.

Werner, 24, of Manchester, has 21 tattoos. They include the word “Always” tattooed on her left ring finger. (Her husband Josh has “Forever” tattooed as his wedding band.)

Werner also has her first name tattooed in multiple languages in various spots on her body as well as the quote “Well behaved women rarely made history.” “Joshua,” inscribed in script on her right breast, often peeks out from her shirt.

And in keeping with a recent tattoo trend, an imprint of their daughter Kira’s feet from her birth certificate is tattooed on the top of Werner’s right foot. She is due to have the couple’s second child in February. His or her baby feet will go on top of the other foot, Mary said.

Buck, 21, of Lineboro, looks like a petite punk rock pixie. Tattoos in various states of completion crawl up her arms and legs. She also sports a lip ring as well as a nose stud.

Buck plans to complete the tattooed “sleeves” on her body, including a Halloween scene she designed that has been outlined but not colored on her right leg. As evidenced by her tattoos, which include Blinky the three-eyed fish from “The Simpsons” and Princess Peach from Super Mario Brothers, Buck enjoys cartoons and video games.

Like many other people with tattoos, Buck had a tattoo done to memorialize a loved one. In Buck’s case, it is a large rendition on her thigh of the Playskool kiddie guitar that her niece Lily liked to play with. A lily and another half-opened blossom peek out from the guitar to mark the 18 months Lily lived, Buck explained.

According to The Vanishing Tattoo, memorial tattoos are almost as old as tattooing itself. Particularly popular in wartime, tattoos were a visible mark of what soldiers were fighting for (like mom, their girl or a pinup girl), as well as a way to remember those who had gone before them. In recent times, many of the firefighters and military personnel who were called out on Sept. 11, 2001 later got tattoos to memorialize the event and those who died there.

The Vanishing Tattoo recommends that those who decide to get a tattoo while still grieving give themselves time to think over what they want. Myers said it’s important for anyone considering a tattoo to remember that they are making is “a lifetime decision.”

Dave, who does piercings at both Little Vinnie’s locations, describes piercing and tattooing this way: “Tattooing is like a marriage. You can get rid of it. But it’s going to be really expensive and it’s going to hurt a lot worse than the first time. Piercings are like boyfriends. They might leave a little mark, but you can get rid of them if you want to.”

Still Not Socially Acceptable, But in a Few Years, Who Knows?

In view of the growing popularity of tattooing, is there still a stigma associated with it?

Absolutely, said the tattoo artist and the tattooed people I spoke to.

Vinnie Myers, owner of two tattoo studios bearing his name, said it used to be that if you had a tattoo, you were “a biker, a sailor or the dregs of society.” Although that image does not ring as true today, many members of the older generation still believe it, he said.

Myers, who operates the oldest tattoo business in Carroll County, originally opened for business in downtown Westminster. When the building he was renting was sold, the new owner told Myers he couldn’t qualify for a low-income business loan from the state if a tattoo parlor was operating in the building.

Myers never bothered to check the veracity of the owners’ story. He felt there was no point.

“They didn’t want us because of the stigma and the fact that some tattoo places do attract an unsavory clientele,” Myers said.

He said that Little Vinnie’s was never cited for bringing a criminal element downtown. But Myers moved his studio out of town in 1999.   

Eight years later, the Westminster City Council banned tattoo shops from historic downtown. At the time, council members were quoted as saying that tattoo and body piercing establishments did not fit with the long-term plans for the city’s downtown business district. Tattoo studios are still allowed in locations outside of downtown.

A quick Internet search indicates that for every city that bans tattoo studios, another allows them in. Indeed, New York City, which had banned tattoo businesses for years, finally agreed to allow them in 1997. Today there are probably more than 1,000 tattoo studios in the Big Apple, Myers said.

Mary Werner said she rarely receives negative comments about her 21 tattoos, although she admitted that she hides her visible decorations with specially-formulated tattoo cover-up before she goes to work at a Westminster liquor store. Werner even wears real rings over the “rings” she had permanently tattooed on her hands.

Hayleigh Buck was working at a Westminster hardware and lumber chain at the time she was interviewed. She said that when she was hired she was told to cover her tattoos and remove her lip ring and nose stud while at work.

Myers said that without a doubt, if two equally-qualified candidates are being considered for the same job, the person without tattoos is the person who will be hired.

Rudi Tosti, who has had many of his tattoos done at Little Vinnie’s, said he has always tried to be respectful of those who dislike them. “I cover ‘em up at my own discretion,” Tosti explained. This includes weddings, funerals, corporate events and fundraisers. And even on a hot summer day as he runs errands, Tosti wears long shorts and a long-sleeved shirt that covers most of his tattoos..

In spite of the stigma, Tosti, Werner, Myers and Buck said they have no regrets about their tattoos.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to regret it,” Buck said. “Because I think when I’m in my 90s there’s going to be a lot more people in their 90s with tattoos.” – J.M.W.

A Rite of Passage?

What does a teenage girl want for her milestone 16th birthday?

If that girl is Elizabeth Kirschner of Finksburg or Meghan Bean of Westminster, what they really want is to get their belly buttons pierced.

Which is how the two teens, their moms, a friend and Meghan’s little brother found themselves at Little Vinnie’s in Finksburg on a summer afternoon.

The mothers, Lisa Kirschner and Diane Bean, had to sign the consent forms in person, which means they actually had to consent before the group got as far as Little Vinnie’s.

Diane Bean said Meghan had been asking to pierce her belly button since she was 10. Since Diane had her own belly button pierced (“during a mini mid-life crisis,” she said) she did not see how she could keep telling Meghan no.

Lisa Kirschner said getting her belly button pierced “was the one thing Elizabeth really wanted.” Though her husband was not in favor of the idea, Lisa and Elizabeth outvoted him.

“They’re good kids,” Lisa Kirschner said.“ If that’s the worst thing they do, I can live with that.”

Both mothers were adamant that there be no more piercings after the belly buttons.

Signing the consent forms and viewing the information on the girls’ provisional drivers licenses took longer than the actual piercings.

Meghan went first. Dave, who does the piercings at Little Vinnie’s, opened a package of sterile equipment and lined it up on a surgical tray. He cleaned off Meghan’s stomach, marked the spot and had Meghan lie back on a padded table similar to the ones in physicians’ offices.

With an exhale and an inhale, the stud was in.

“It didn’t hurt at all,” Meghan said with a grin.

After the room was wiped down and dried, Dave started over, this time with Elizabeth. Not quite as calm as Meghan, Elizabeth flashed a nervous smile as the moms and her friend looked on. Before Dave put the final piece of her piercing in, Elizabeth snuck a peek at her stomach.

“Oh my God,” she said weakly.

But in two seconds, the piercing was complete. And Elizabeth’s nerves were calmed.

Lisa Kirschner paid the $40 for Elizabeth’s piercing. Meghan was treated to the procedure by her older brother, who has a few tattoos and piercings of his own.

What motivated the girls to get their belly buttons pierced? They said it was not peer pressure, since most of their friends lack piercings.

And they are not into any kind of gothic or alternative lifestyle. In truth, the duo and their friend Alyssa Sproat of Westminster looked like the kind of girls you’d want to come babysit your children or date your teenage son.

So where did the urge to pierce come from?

“We just think it’s cool,” said Elizabeth.

And they don’t plan on wearing one-piece bathing suits ever again. – J.M.W.

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