The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 1st

A Permanent Mark

But in 1951 while writing about the illustration of the flesh, author Ray Bradbury looked past the typicalities and saw an often overlooked facet of tattoos -- art.

The placement of ink on tissue is escaping from the margins of American culture as the artistry of the tattoo industry becomes more and more evident.

"Like art, you let the whole world see (your tattoo), and you may or may not have to explain it to them," said Glenn Wilson, tattoo artist and owner of Glenn's Tattoo Service.

In one of the shop's side rooms, more reminiscent of an art studio than a tattoo parlor, Wilson spoke of the walls of painted artwork which filled his shop.

"Basically every painting in the shop was painted here -- except the Dali," Wilson joked while sketching out a design for a waiting customer. "We tried to get him to work here ... something about the whole dead thing."

Wilson and with fellow tattoo artist Tom Michael spend the slow episodes of the day painting their own canvases, which add decorative character to their respective work areas.

"This room basically sums up my tastes -- bright and colorful," Wilson said. "If you go into Tom's room, you'll see what he likes. Not much color."

Artists themselves, both Wilson and Michael encourage everyone to at least consider designing their own tattoos.

"About 50 percent of (our clients) come in with something they've drawn or seen and want us to make it come alive," Wilson said.

Mark Van Ness, a shop regular, proudly sports a couple of flamingos with breasts. Drawing the sketch himself, he said he summoned the idea from his childhood.

"As a kid, I grew up with those little white trash birds you see out in front of trailers," Van Ness said. "One of mine has on a black leather bra; the other is holding a beer."

Van Ness understood his original sketch would be altered by the artist drawing the finalized tattoo, which is a common practice. While the design on paper looks different than it would on skin, the artist, by definition, has the authority to modify the design and style. Those opposed to a slightly modified design might spark friction with the artist.

"(Those people) that won't let their design be changed aren't looking for a nice piece of art," Van Ness said.

The ability to produce pigmented art comes from within -- or, if you please, from a wide range of publications, including Tattoo Review, Skin and Ink and Skin Art. Like a college art student, tattoo artists use such sources as picture books to hone their skills to a point where they can comfortably tackle most jobs, which vary widely.

The most complex designs in the tattoo industry are called "body suits," or full-body tattoos. Like any major work of art, body suits can take up to a year to complete, Wilson said. These complex tattoos, along with full chest and back motifs, are either acquired over time or done as a whole, in which case most people come in with their design completely thought out.

Tattoos are to personality changes as whales are to oceans -- shop artists and patrons alike said tattoos only complement people, not change who they are.

"A lot of people think that when you get a tattoo you become this weird 'tattoo' person," Wilson said. "That's not it. You're still you."

Like art, these extensions of the self might not change a person but might allow a little piece of the soul out for a swim.

Junior communications major Meredith Perry agrees, saying that her tattoo of the Chinese character for "dream" is only an addition to her personality.

"'Dream' really is a characteristic of me," Perry said.

In most cases, the art represents the wearer.

"It's totally a personal thing," Wilson said. "Some people like Dali; some people like Norman Rockwell."

While tattoos vary like graffiti in Wal-Mart bathrooms, the old favorites remain -- naked women, skulls and hearts run rampant among most shops' pre-drawn art.

Michael attributed nude tattoos to classic art's fascination with the female form. "It's the same reason so many artists draw portraits of naked women," he said. "Art is about shape. And women have a beautiful shape."

He added that skull iconography has ties to the permanence of tattoos. "The appeal and feel of a tattoo is that it's with you until you die," Michael said. "They're a strong representation of mortality. Skulls are the ultimate reminder of life, and death."

And because of these symbolic qualities, tattoos spark a compulsory addition in some.

"It's kind of like hanging a painting on your wall -- after you hang one, why not hang another?" Wilson said.

The art of tattooing is certainly alive in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and like other forms of art, tattoos don't have to be a perfect representation of the figurative "you" forever. Body art is an often overlooked option for those looking to preserve their present thoughts and image. And like other forms of art, tattoos are permanent -- to be seen not as a stain, but within the ranks of an old picture of yourself.

"When you see (a tattoo) you got when you were 18," Wilson said, "you can remember what a little kid you were then and see how much you've changed."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at

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