Though I remember most things from childhood as being disproportionately important, I remember my cousin Kim’s new tattoo of a fish as a particularly epic event. Kim went to great lengths to hide her ankle from my grandparents at our family reunion, fearing it would lead to a heart attack. I was probably nine at the time, but despite my innocence and the innocence of an ankle fish, Kim was the only one of my fifty-something cousins with a tattoo at the time and that made her completely rebellious.
Now, I don’t think twice when I see a tattoo on the street, and Milwaukee is home to a growing number of tattoo shops. “Miami Ink” used to be the only reality TV show about tattooing, but now there are too many to watch faithfully.
It’s pretty apparent that the societal view of tattooing is changing, and while it’s nice to have greater freedom of expression, I don’t mean to imply that greater acceptance necessarily leads to greater creativity or responsibility.
Custom Tattoo, 1956 N. Farwell Ave., opened in 2007, although owner Greg Foster has been tattooing on the East Side since 1998.
“Because we are a custom tattoo shop, it is more of an art shop than a tattoo parlor,” Foster said. “It’s very sterile, very clean, and a very comfortable environment. It’s good to feel as comfortable as possible when you’re getting a pretty uncomfortable thing done.”
Foster said he has noticed the increased popularity of tattooing among all ages and walks of life. He said there has been a definite shift in the notion that only vagrants and criminals get tattoos, and now it’s more about individuality.
“I’ve tattooed judges and police officers,” Foster said. “The oldest lady I’ve tattooed was 80 years old. She was a widow and said she’d always wanted a tattoo but her husband never wanted her to get one.”
Foster said the biggest misconception people have is that whatever can be drawn on paper can also be tattooed on skin. But skin is an organ that lives, breathes and grows. If details are drawn too close together, the ink can bleed together on the skin. He said depth can be accomplished in different ways to compensate, like with shading.
Ben Murnane is a tattoo artist from Skin Tattoo & Design, 3483 N. Oakland Ave. The shop will soon change names to Pape’s Blue Ribbon Tattoo after owner Craig Pape.
With the increase in the public’s exposure to tattooing, more and more people are coming to Skin with clear ideas of what they want, Murnane said. Customers are researching more thoroughly and are less likely to come in and pick something off the walls, he said.
“My best advice for people would be to look to the future a bit,” Murnane said. “A lot of people, especially college-aged girls, are coming in for small things on their fingers, for example, that might not look good in 5 years.”
Pape’s has only a few artists, but those artists pride themselves on quality over quantity and there is someone there to cover everything, Murnane said. Pape’s expects to open an art studio in the space next door in late October.
Brian Kiesner of Cutthroat Tattoo, 1415 E. Brady St., said the tattoo field is constantly growing and entering the mainstream. He said he is curious to see the future of tattooing, especially with so many shops opening up in Milwaukee.
Kiesner advises those getting tattoos remember that skin is not fade-free and it does age with time. He said artists oftentimes have to simplify sketches to make them tattooable.
He also advised potential customers to shop around and do the research, though he considers Cutthroat to be one of the better tattoo shops in the area.
As Greg Foster of Custom Tattoo said, his artists are there to put art on people, which is really what the hype is all about.