Family and human development junior Amanda Gwilliam watches as a tattoo gun pricks her friend and fellow ASU student, Brent Wilson, a business senior. “I know it hurts. I can tell when you twitch your foot like that,” she says. Wilson smiles.
The buzz of the needle is interrupted only as the artist returns to his wells of ink to reload. As Wilson’s skin turns a cherry red, the black outlines of his new fishhook tattoo take form on his skin.
Wilson patiently lies on his side, gripping his arms over his head while he gets the newest addition of art to his body.
Wilson recalls what the artist of his first tattoo told him years ago — “Welcome to your new addiction.”
Tattoos have long been a way of life in different cultures. The inked art creates a visual language communicating everything from marital status to accomplishments and rites of passage.
Lars Krutak, an anthropology Ph.D. student at ASU, has studied indigenous cultures and their tattoos. Tattoos can mean a variety of things — among men of the Maori in New Zealand, certain facial tattoos show how many men they killed in battle, Krutak says.
Modern tattooing in the United States was introduced by sailors who received them as they served.
Samuel O’Reilly created the machine that is the basis for tattooing in 1891. It was an adaptation of Thomas Edison’s autographic printing machine.
For over a century, tattoos have been considered the domain of criminals and sailors, but much of that attitude has changed over the past ten years according to Bob Baxter, editor of Skin and Ink magazine.
“Television shows have a lot to do with it. You can’t pick up a copy of a magazine without someone having a tattoo. Some models are heavily tattooed, showing the general population that it is an acceptable thing to do, but that can be deceiving,” he says.
Baxter recognizes that urban areas are more accepting of tattoos, but that attitudes towards them can differ from the big city to small towns and outside the United States.
This hasn’t deterred Wilson or many other ASU students from decorating their own bodies.
Fine arts senior Wesley Hamilton has spent $1,550 on his own tattoo work and has a rule about getting a new tattoo each semester.
His chest has two phrases in Latin, while his back is decorated with an ornate spade and a comic-looking skull on his left side. His legs are covered with a variety of tattoos, the right with thick, black tribal bands and a pin-up girl from the comic Doll and Creature alongside the Swamp Thing covering the left leg.
For Hamilton, a deeper meaning is not necessary for the tattoos.
“It’s graffiti on my body. I am changing the landscape of it and it makes me feel better about myself without paying thousands of dollars on a new nose,” Hamilton says. “I am adding to myself.”
For supply chain management senior Daniel Martinez, tattoos are about identity.
“I have ‘Martinez’ tattooed on my back because I take pride in my family and where we come from in Mexico,” Martinez says.
His dark brown skin is decorated with thin, ornate black details over his chest and a scriptful “mi amor” over the left. The message is one of safeguard for Martinez, meant to make sure he protects himself after a past heartbreak. On his back is his family’s name in old English letters atop a cross made of wings.
Martinez has always taken care to choose places where his tattoos will not affect his future career.
“Being a business major at ASU and going into the professional world, I have to maintain a level of professionalism. It is not necessarily that tattoos are looked upon as bad, but for some people it does change their views of you,” Martinez says.
Other students take a more humorous approach to their tattoos. Sociology senior James Long had two stars tattooed on his back shoulders, one for each of his parents.
“It’s an inside joke, one for my mother and one for my father. They’re always on my back,” Long says with a smile.
Others, like ASU alumni Erika Jayne, find tattoos as an emotional release. She is small with a thin figure, a bright smile and over a dozen tattoos from her shins to her back.
When Jaynes broke up with a boyfriend of three years, she had a broken heart tattooed on her chest as a release.
After getting the tattoo, Jaynes found herself drawn to tattooing and became an apprentice of the man who had tattooed her broken heart.
“I can honestly say that my tattoo apprenticeship saved my life … it gave me something to focus on and taught me how to become more confident in my abilities as an artist,” Jaynes says.
Jaynes’ shins are decorated with religious sculptures, her thighs with stylized eyes and her back with scorpions and owl feathers.
For one professor, a tattoo can be something regretful.
Linda Chattin, a lecturer in the industrial engineering department, has a small butterfly tattooed on her arm and one on her heel. She also has a small vine with two hearts on her chest that she is no longer fond of today.
Chattin got the tattoo in her twenties when it was an edgy thing to do. When it comes to the small vine with hearts, Chattin doesn’t want to remove the tattoo, but if given the chance to do it over, she says she wouldn’t have it done.
Every tattoo has a different significance for the owner, and while tattoos have developed into a more individual expression, the act of tattooing still remains strong.