Tattoo. Taboo. In days of old, those two concepts used to go together, and frankly, that was fine by me.
Now everyone's got a little heart somewhere — or skull, or symbol that they dearly hope means "strength" but may, in fact, mean "dried string beans." Tattoos have gone mainstream and we're all getting used to that, right? I, for instance, no longer automatically think anyone who gets one is going to regret it for the rest of his or her sad, cigarette-filled, low-paid, heavy-drinking life.
But upscale tattoos? Tattoos that scream "I Am Rich And Discriminating" rather than "Buy Me A Beer"? Must we adjust to tattoo culture yet again?
We must — because it's here. If you need proof, just head to the 10th annual New York City Tattoo Convention at the Roseland Ballroom this weekend. There, in addition to the usual bikers and bikettes, you will find people like Marisa DiMattia, an international lawyer who, in her spare time, blogs on the subject of "fine art" tattoos (see needled.com).
"We're not talking about a spring break mistake," Ms. DiMattia said. Fine art tattoos are tattoos created by bona fide artists (including her husband), many of whom boast art school pedigrees and months-long waiting lists for their services. "Just as you would go to Christie's and purchase a very expensive painting, you are purchasing your very own personal art work," Ms. DiMattia said, "for about the same amount of money."
The most sought after artists charge anywhere from $150 to $500 an hour for their services, the owner of Fairlawn, N.J.'s Screamin' Ink, Billy Monroe, said. A large tattoo can take up to 50 hours.
"Now that people realize how expensive tattooing has become, it's almost a status symbol," Ms. DiMattia said. Years ago when she'd enter an upscale boutique with her inked arms, security would follow her around. Now, she said, the shopkeepers understand: Her arms cost more than their handbags.
And so, the people buying these works of art tend to be pretty well off — and professional. "My husband, for example, is tattooing a high-level officer of NATO," Ms. DiMattia said, "in a full body suit."
A full body suit is … well, it ain't flannel. Neither is a "sleeve." As for a "back piece" — you can figure that one out, too. Tattoos aren't just getting better, they're getting bigger, too.
At the convention — this year celebrating the 10th anniversary of the legalization of tattooing in New York City — there are contests in all of these categories, as well as contests for the best color tattoo, best tribal art, and so on.
Not that all the artists are Picassos of the pinprick. Many are happy to slap on a good ol' "I Love Mom" (the one tattoo I heartily approve of ). Michelle Myles, coowner of Daredevil Tattoo on Ludlow Street and Fun City Studio on St. Marks, is from the old school. She specializes in flags and snakes and the kind of Betty Boop your daughter wants for her sweet 16. On her breast.
"When I was a kid, you had to sneak out, pay for your tattoo, and come home to face your parents' wrath," Ms. Myles recalled. "Nowadays the parents pay."
You'll see soccer moms and daughters getting tattoos together at the convention, Ms. Myles promised, and grizzled vets, and grannies in bikinis showing off what they've got.
"I've been to all these conventions all over the world – China, Japan," tattoo legend Spider Webb said. "This is the real deal."
It's also the real world – the 2007 one, filled with NATO officers tattooed to their toes.
Get used to it.