“You ready?” he said.
Yep, go for it.
“Here we go.”
Laying on my side I hear the electric hum of the artist’s needle come to life behind me. I settle in for what comes next. Some find it intoxicating. Some find it terrifying. To me it’s just part of the experience. Over the past couple of years I’ve wanted to get this tattoo and tonight is the night.
And that’s when I feel the needle hit my skin.
The earliest known record of tattooing dates back over 5,000 years on the body of the famous “Ice Man” found along the Italian/Austrian border in 1991. From there, female Egyptian mummies dating back to 2000 B.C. have been discovered with tattoos as well. In Japan the practice dates back to the fifth century B.C. In 1821, New York inventor Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine and the popularity of the tattoo has only grown from there.
Though often associated with rebellion, from the beginning until today, the reasons people choose to get tattooed vary. For some it’s viewed as medicinal. For others it’s symbolic with religious or deep personal meaning or it’s art with their skin as a canvas. And for others it’s simply an impulse. But the one thing tattoos are not is temporary. Tattoos are never ever temporary. You take them to the grave. And that permanence of ink imbedded within the skin is what makes them so desirable for some and questionable for others. But over the past hundred years in American culture, tattoos and public perception of them have changed. They’ve become more complex, more colorful and moved from the realm of sailors, prison, and outlaw bikers to white-collar workplaces and college campuses.
Richard Moore has been a tattoo artist in Russellville since he opened BackRoads Tattoo in 1994. Seventeen years ago, Michael Norris joined him, and in that time they’ve watched the craft and public perception change.
“It’s a whole different world,” said Norris. “The people who are getting into them now are not the outlaws. Whereas before the bikers and stuff like that was about it. Nowadays there are some really phenomenal artists that are getting into it. And the quality of work has gone through the roof. The only downside of that is that kind of stuff costs a lot money and not a lot of people in small towns can afford that kind of thing.”
And he’s right. There’s a saying that cheap tattoos aren’t good and good tattoos aren’t cheap. On average, artists charge $100 or more per hour, and in this world you get what you pay for. From blurry lines to serious infections, bargain shopping for ink is hazardous.
If you ask Richard he’ll be quick to tell you. “Don’t settle. Get what you want, but if you can’t afford it don’t just settle for just anything else. Start saving your money and then get it. No one needs a tattoo. You gotta have your car fixed, you gotta have your house worked on, whatever, no one needs a tattoo. This is an ultimate luxury and that’s how you need to look at it. If you want it, get the best. Go where you feel comfortable. Go where you know these people and they’ve been there for a while and they’re not going to be gone if your tattoo goes to crap in a year.
Billy: I had a roommate in college who got the barcode off a Mickey Mouse coloring book tattooed on his ankle. I have a feeling he’s not too proud of it now. What should someone consider when getting a tattoo?
Richard: All tattoos don’t have to have a meaning, but I wish people would think a little more about the tattoo work that they’re wanting. A lot of the spur of the moment tattoos they’re going to regret later. I like doing tattoos that represent an accomplishment in life that you’re proud of. I like positive tattoos. We do memorial tattoos, but don’t put dates on it because it’s going to remind you of losing somebody on a certain date or a certain year. Or you’re going to be reminded of something that’s going to drag you down.
The biggest mistake they make is that they need to talk to the tattooer — somebody who’s been doing it for more than two months, somebody who’s been around long enough to see how long they hold up and see what happens over time. There’s some stuff on the internet that should have never been done because it’s going to look like junk in no time. They’re paying us to do it and we’ll do it, but we’re going to give you our opinion.
The tree I’m getting on my arm and shoulder is fairly complex. It’s a gnarly old oak tree with the roots reaching down to just above my elbow and its limbs reaching over my shoulder blade. In terms of skin, it’s going to cover a lot of real estate. Tonight we’re only doing the tree. In a few months I’ll come back and add the leaves. The tree alone is going to take about three hours to complete.
Billy: Do you prefer it when someone brings in a picture, or for them to just tell you to do what you want?
Michael: If someone has a real strong image in their head of what they want their tattoo to look like, they’re going to have to have some reference for it.
Richard: I’d like to at least see somewhat of an angle of what they see. The closer you can get me to what you want the better. I want to put my own twist on it, but I can’t sit here and draw it fifteen times and you go that ain’t it. We can’t read their mind.
Billy: How do you help people overcome their fear of getting a tattoo?
Michael: While you’re setting up, talking to them is the most important thing. A lot of times if somebody is getting their first tattoo, and they’re acting nervous, I won’t let anyone come back with them because it’s a lot easier to get somebody back here where I can talk to them one-on-one and answer any questions and tell them what to expect without someone sitting over there telling them this part hurt or this part didn’t because it doesn’t really matter. Everybody is different and what hurts me doesn’t bother him a lot of times.
I’m about an hour and a half in and the needle isn’t what’s bothering me anymore. My back is aching and I can’t seem to get comfortable. Laying perfectly still and trying to ignore the needle is starting to wear on me. People without tattoos always want to know what it feels like to get one. Specifically they want to know if it hurts. And let’s be honest, it does. How much depends on a lot of factors like where on your body it’s being placed, how sensitive someone is to pain and the complexity of the tattoo. The closest way I can describe the feeling is to imagine you have a really bad sunburn and then somebody decides to come along and scratch their fingernail around it for an hour or more. It’s painful but tolerable. It’s not hard to stay still, but it’s hard not to be tense. After a while the combination of the two starts to wear you down. We take a break for a few minutes. I get up to stretch and look at the progress.
From a single tattoo shop in the early 90s, Russellville now has four in the community. Big Country Tattoos, located on Main Street in downtown Russellville, isn’t the grungy hole-in-the-wall many might think of when they think of a tattoo parlor. Just the opposite. It’s almost clinical in appearance. If it wasn’t for the artwork hanging on the wall and the copies of Inked Magazine in the waiting room, this could almost be mistaken for a doctor’s office. Everything is ultra clean and tidy. The artists conduct themselves like professionals because in this day and age that’s exactly what they are. These guys take pride in their craft and it shows. I came here specifically because I’d seen the work Chris Tyler had done and I really liked his style. I’d put a lot of thought into the tattoo and I wanted to make sure I connected with an artist whose style matched my vision.
But that’s just my vision. What about other people?
I sat down with some tatted up Russellville locals and asked them about their tattoos and what went through their heads before the ink went down.
Billy: It’s pretty much required for a Marine to get a USMC tattoo isn’t it?
Shane: You gotta have a Marine Corp tattoo. If you’re going to earn the title you’ve at least got to get that tattoo. Straight out of boot camp that’s the first thing you go do. Right when I graduated from infantry school I went and got mine.
Billy: But it’s more than just the one tattoo. Tats are part of that culture.
Shane: All mine have come from Masters Tattoo in San Diego or in Okinawa, Japan.
We’d be sitting around the barracks and people would be, “So and so is going to go get a tattoo, you want a ride?” And that’s how it starts. The military in general, it seems like the Army and the Marine Corp in the infantry units about everybody is tattooed. It’s not just the one on my arm. It’s extensive. And then the military cracked down on tattoos and got strict with their policies. I’m in the Army now and had to go get each one of mine photographed and they had to be documented. And then they pulled back on the tattoo policy because it was a little too strict. Now they’ve changed it again where they can’t show in the PT uniform, shorts and T-shirt. So they basically have to stop at your shirt line. And then they don’t want anything on your legs past where your shorts would be.
Billy: Tell me about the Grasshopper. That one is for your daughter right?
Shane: That one is Addison. Her nickname is Grasshopper. Three years ago, when she was four, I went to California. I had the grasshopper done. But before I went I had her write her name on me so when I got there they put it on.
Billy: Have they ever caused you any problems?
Shane: I’ve never had a roadblock or barrier before because of my tattoos. The only thing I always wanted to do after the military was that I wanted to be a state trooper, but the Arkansas State Police have a tattoo policy. There are other agencies, too, but they’re not as strict or they’ve lifted their policies because you have a lot of guys in the military that are very qualified to be police officers.
I remember when my mom got one. She was in her 50s. Never had a tattoo in her life. She got a big butterfly across her back. In Russellville I would have never dreamed that we’d have four different tattoo shops.
Billy: Tell me about your first tattoo.
Travis: I think I was around twenty when I got my first one. I always thought they were cool, and I was intrigued by them. I had gone through a rough break up period and I was like, you know what? I want to get a tattoo. So I did. I went to see Richard at BackRoads and I talked to him and he did my first one. It sounds cheesy, you know let’s get a phoenix because my life is changing, you know what I mean? But in all reality that’s why I chose it just because that’s what I had going on. It was more than just a break up with a girlfriend. It was kind of like my life shifted.
The next session was after I joined the Air Force. It’s two sugar skulls and a hibiscus flower and it’s the only one that I’d consider super sentimental. I got it for my family. I have three siblings. There are only three jewels in the eyes of the skulls and they’re colored for their birthstones. And the hibiscus flower is a mom thing.
Billy: Your tattoos are a very traditional style.
Travis: I like the traditional style. It just makes me think of classic American things. Once I started looking at tattoos and thinking about what I liked, that’s what I was drawn to. The third artist I worked with, we’re on the same wavelength. And that’s her style and she really likes to do it.
Billy: Do you think you’ll ever regret any of them?
Travis: People ask what are you going to do when you’re really old? And I’m like, that’s probably going to be the least of my worries when I’m really old. By the time I’m old and wrinkly and it starts to look bad, it’s really not going to be the biggest part of my life.
Billy: You have quite a lot of tattoos. How do people react when they see them?
Travis: There are still some people who are very put off by them. They just don’t know how to judge a person who has them. They see people with tattoos and they see them all the same. They don’t see the difference between a good tattoo and a bad tattoo. Art versus somebody got ink on their arm.
More times than not I’m surprised by the people who are interested in them. Especially older ladies like my grandma’s age. I’ve had several ladies just touch my arm and want to feel it. And I’m like, it’s just my skin, there’s nothing there.
I think that it’s cool that they’re becoming more of a nonissue. I feel bad for people who get really bad ones, people who just don’t think about it. You got to think about it.
I’m doing an internship at Baptist Health right now and I have to wear a long sleeve button down and slacks. It’s kind of cool knowing I have all these tattoos and nobody can see them. So it’s kind of cool to be that professional and nobody knows what’s hiding beneath my sleeves.
Billy: Tell me about your first tattoo.
Larissa: There’s this children’s book called The Phantom Tollbooth and in it is a character named Tock the Watchdog. And Tock’s job is to make sure you don’t waste time. Tock was the first one I got because my mother had passed and I was considering dropping out of school. And I was wondering what I’m going to do with myself and I was letting my grief waste time. And I was like, I don’t want to sit and be sad. And out of nostalgia I picked up my Phantom Tollbooth copy and saw Tock the Watchdog, and make sure you don’t waste time, so that was the first one I got.
Billy: Sometimes tattoos don’t necessarily have to have a deep meaning. You have one that looks like an old boom box.
Larissa: This one is the one I thought was the funniest. There’s a small, independent book press called Two Dollar Radio. And if you tattoo their logo you get 10 free books and I thought what a sweet deal. You have to take a picture of it in process, then another after it’s healed and include a little note saying why you got it then you can request your 10 books. I think it’s really cool.
Billy: Tell me about your first tattoo.
Amanda: I got my first tattoo when I was 25 years old. I just thought it was something cool to do at the time, and I was raised Pentecostal and so I wanted something to represent the way I was raised. And so my first tattoo was a fairy tattoo because I thought she was beautiful and she looked like an angel.
After that they just become really addictive. I just really liked the way it looked and I was like, you know what? I want to have something else to represent what I was going through in my life. And so the next tattoo I chose was a bird and I chose that one because it was like freedom — as in freedom to do what you wanted to do. And then I started getting tattoo after tattoo after tattoo.
Billy: The more I talk to people with tattoos the more I discover that they almost all represent something at first but then shift to getting them because they simply like them as art and they fit your style. You have a very specific theme going on with your tats. You have this whole Tim Burton thing going on.
Amanda: I always made sure I carefully chose what tattoos I got because I didn’t want to regret it later on in life. I’m a big fan of the couple tattoos. I’ve been married for 18 years and I would never have my husband’s name put on me, but they remind me of my husband. I have the Corpse Bride and I have space I’m saving for Victor. Then I have Jack and Sally from the Nightmare Before Christmas. For a future tattoo, I’d love to have Morticia and Gomez from the Addams Family.
Billy: I’ve noticed that once people find an artist they like they’re often very loyal to them and go back for all their future work.
Amanda: I go to Norm Gilden at Envisions Ink in Conway because I can tell him what I want and he can draw it up and it looks awesome. I trust him completely. He showed me the reflection tattoo design that he drew and asked if I liked it, and I said I did, so we made an appointment and I got it on my leg.
Two hours and forty-three minutes after we began and I hear the needle stop.
Chris tells me we’re done. At least for tonight.
I look at my arm as he’s wiping it off and prepping it for the bandage. It’s red and swollen, but it’s also a work of art that holds deep significance for me alone. It’ll take a couple of weeks before it’s completely done healing, but for now I’m exhausted as I put my shirt back on and head out the door. To me a good tattoo signifies something you want to remember, something more than a simple photo on a shelf. Something you’ve been through and survived. Something you want to hold on to. Years down the road you can look at it and let the memories flow back to that one thing, that one person, that one time and for a moment drift back and remember.