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Beyond the Flash: The Mind of a Tattoo Artist

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Walking into the D.C. Tattoo Expo, I was automatically welcomed by a cacophony of buzzing tattoo pens. Enthusiastic artists from Pennsylvania to North Carolina conglomerated into four large rooms filled with black-clothed booths displaying colorful signs representing their business. Weaving my way through the rooms, I witnessed parents sharing the art with their toddlers, artists laughing with one another, and customers admiring each other’s previous ink. Artists invited customers into their booths with their accepting nature and buoyant faces, excited to share their passion with all people from various socioeconomic backgrounds and ages.


As I entered the largest of the four rooms, I was immediately drawn to an exuberant woman who caught my eye with her expressive blue eyeshadow and beaming smile covered with magenta lipstick. A tattoo artist in her infancy, Marley Bouloukos traveled from North Carolina with her studio, Tatsu Tattoo Gallery. "I've been doing this for about one and a half years, so I am just a beginner," Bouloukos stated. She started out as a more traditional artist–as most tattooists do–painting and sketching on clothing and canvas. Her vibrant art made use of posca pens, spray paint, and watercolors, often capturing female bodies, a theme still persistent in her art as a tattooist. She continued producing and selling her own art until she learned of her expecting daughter. Needing to now provide for her child, she began to search for a more stable career. Bouloukos explained to me that, "One day, someone told me that as an artist, the best way to make an income and to have something special is to become a tattoo artist. And there was my calling." As tattoos become more accepted in society and the workplace, a larger number of people are open to the possibility of getting extensive, visible tattoos. This expansion of clientele allows artists to earn a steady income, further utilizing their creative abilities, rather than working a 9-5 desk job they would miserably endure. 


As her story progressed, she shared her experience as a young tattoo artist learning the industry’s history. While artists normally focus on one specialty, Bouloukos finds time to concentrate on her technique and properly learn the story behind a style before she can claim a specialty. She stated, "Because I am just starting up, I want to make sure that I respect everything as much as I should because there is a history behind this. It wasn't as mainstream as it is and it was very hard for people to start." New artists earn the respect of their more experienced superiors through their work, style, and knowledge of the past. An upcoming trend in the tattoo world hindering this duty shows artists veering away from learning in tattoo shops and instead residing in their own private studios. Without a tattoo shop, artists are not as informed of the hardships the older generation endured. This shift can often lead to artists becoming ignorant of the industry's background and true hustle. 


Image Credit: Sarah Lin

While learning about the history, tattooists also find it important to reflect upon the past transgressions of the industry. Recently, artists of minority backgrounds have been speaking out about previously hidden racial issues. Artists have been called out for only using white practice skin and poorly implementing styles outside of their cultural knowledge. For example, some artists imitate art forms from Native American, Ukiyo-e, and Polynesian styles, while disregarding their cultural significance and deep history. The popular tribal style has been previously used by artists who failed to learn the true meaning of the art. Instead, they will tattoo anyone without prior research, as long as their client is willing to pay. However, there is a growing demand for artists to properly recognize the importance of specific styles beyond using them for merely aesthetic purposes. A few artists have opened up their schedules, providing a remarkably lower price for cover-ups of culturally significant tattoos from tattooists ignorant of its origin. 


Because cultural appropriation continues to be a common topic of discussion amongst artists, I wanted to inquire about additional social issues in her profession. Curious about gender discrimination, I asked how being a woman in the tattoo game provides its challenges in which a man would never encounter. Bouloukos has found that the industry itself does not provide a roadblock for women, but rather, it is the clientele that often make women artists disturbed. She stated, "Sometimes guys can come across as a little weird. They will think it's more than just me tattooing them and end up asking me on a date. Everybody does that." The story is not so different for women receiving tattoos. Her women clients open up to her about their own experiences with certain men tattoo artists and their inappropriate behavior. Clients have stated instances where men will ask them to take off more clothing than needed for the tattoo or ask them uncomfortable sexual questions. While repulsed by her clients' stories, she is grateful that they can trust her with their bodies. Boukoulos states that this comfort her clients have with her–and vice versa–allows her to create a stronger, more personalized bond with them. 


This personal connection Bouloukos creates with her clients is a crucial part of why she is so passionate about tattooing. "It's really nice doing stuff like this because of the people's faces, the reaction to the tattoo that they had just gotten, the happiness and warmth that comes from it,” Boukoulos stated. “The personalities of my clients and the relationships I make with them, it's all great and keeps me alive.”


Her love for tattooing and providing happiness is what allows her clients to put their trust in Bouloukos to fulfill their wishes. "This industry is a very serious thing. You are changing people's bodies for the rest of their lives. You are trying to make them comfortable in their own skin," Bouloukos said. "And I take that to the soul." Body modification helps people feel more confident in the way they look. Tattoos give people a way to take control of their bodies. We are in charge of what we display and how we are perceived. The art we put on ourselves expresses who we are; they hold stories and deeper meanings to us and only us. As long as tattoos have the power to provide this form of expression, the role of the tattoo artist will see no end.


 "We are only here for the people." 

 

Serene is a freshman in the college with no idea what to major in. She is an avid hardcore concert goer and lover of local bands.

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