Tattoo you: Locals show their ink
PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READTHEHOOK.COM
Forget tiny butterflies hidden from sight. When it comes to tattoos, Charlottesvillians are going bigger and brighter than ever before, says local tattoo artist Ben Miller of Capital Tattoo.
"We're approaching tattoos more as art than what is stereotypically thought of as a tattoo," he explains as he tattoos a replication of an art deco painting on client Sarah Freedman's upper chest. "I try to make it flow with the body," he adds.
Jackie Rice of Bigg Dawg Tattoos says she still has many requests for simpler work. "Tattoos on the lower back are popular for girls," she says, "while guys still want armbands."
Other recent work at Bigg Dawg: "Praying hands, names, skulls, crosses, reapers," says Rice. "Most people we tattoo are the workaday, everyday Joes."
Indeed, you don't have to be a hardcore biker or a sailor to have some serious ink, as the following pages show. From their self-applied sketches to their works of fine art, these seven locals are helping take the taboo out of tattoo.
"I think it's kind of a living biography," says Rolin of tattoos. "They always have a story behind them, and they're a permanent reminder of where you were in life at one point."
Rolin gave himself his first tattoo at age 17.
"I was semi in-and-out at a Hare Krishna temple," he recalls. Introduced to a range of Indian literature, he decided to permanently mark that period in his life by tattooing "Krishna," the supreme being in Hinduism and the narrator of the Bhagavad Gita, on his arm.
How does one tattoo oneself? The process, as one might imagine, is somewhat gruesome. With the help of a friend, Rolin "cut a v-shaped wedge out of the flesh on my arm and filled it with India ink." The result, he says, leaves something to be desired.
"It scabs up and falls off, and you're left with a very ugly tattoo," he says. Years later, he had the same tattoo "gone over" by a professional tattoo artist, leaving what he calls a "slightly less ugly" tattoo.
In his early 20s, Rolin, by now an artist, designed an octopus to be tattooed on his chest.
"I was going through a lot of life changes," he explains. "I wanted something that was very obvious and bold, but something that represented change to me."
The inspiration came from a childhood fishing trip with his father. Alone on one side of the boat, Rolin noticed what he thought was a red rag floating in the water. When he pulled it aboard, "It fanned out over the deck and then slipped back into the water." It was an octopus.
Since immortalizing that octopus on flesh, Rolin has gotten four more tats including two florals, one on each shoulder, and a series of "pre-Christian" crosses around his collarbone he got while backpacking through Cambodia in 1993 and 1994.
The Cambodian tattoo technique is "extremely painful," he says. "It's basically a long stick with several small needles on the end." The tattoo artist hits the back of the needles with another stick, driving the ink into the skin.
The only tattoo Rolin expresses regret about? His estranged wife's name tattooed on his chest.
"It's going to be a point of contention between me and someone else," he worries. "I'll probably go over it with something else, something floral."
"I've had tattoos from several different artists, seen tattoos from around the world, and I've never seen work as beautiful as Ben's," says Freedman, pictured at left with Capital Tattoo artist Ben Miller tattooing her chest.
Occupation: full-time mom/part-time artist
From a group of Harley bikers to an 80-year-old woman in Greenberry's, "I've had the most incredible conversations with people I'd never otherwise meet," says Freedman of her encounters with strangers curious about the art on her body. A mother of three children 12, 9, and 2, Freedman got her first tattoo– a fish on her ankle– at 25 as a bonding experience with her best friend. Freedman was hooked, but her friend was satisfied with just one.
"She said, 'If you get one, you're a person with a tattoo,'" Freedman recalls. "'If you get more, you're a tattooed person.'"
These days– with her back, shoulders, arms, and chest nearly covered– Freedman might qualify as a "tattooed person," but she says she doesn't think of herself that way– and she never worries that people are judging her.
"I almost never feel like I'm getting negative reactions," she says, though she admits getting plenty of questions.
Each of her "pieces" has a meaning– there's one for each child, for example, and some that mark times and events too personal for print.
The one question she hears most often: "Aren't you worried you'll regret it later?"
The answer, she says, is a simple "no."
"Why would I?" she wonders aloud, imagining herself 40 years in the future. Picturing wrinkles and other age-related ailments, she laughs, "At 80, I'm going to be worried about tattoos?"
Though Freedman says her husband, Paul, a political science professor, was at first a bit uneasy with the ever-blooming color on his wife's skin, he now "understands what it means to me," she says. And her children help select the art for future tattoos, including a "chest piece" she began in mid-October and hopes to have finished in the next month.
But though she says she loves the entire process of getting tattooed– from selecting the piece to watching it appear on her skin– there are certain areas on her body that will remain off-limits.
"I wouldn't ever tattoo my face or neck," she says. Her hands and legs will also remain ink-free.
"I just don't have any desire to get one there," she says.
Whether their mother leaves her hands tattoo free, Freedman's children are going to have to find a creative way to rebel once they reach their teenage years.
"They could be like Alex P. Keaton," she laughs.
Occupation: Piercer and tattoo apprentice
Do what you love, and the money will follow. Aust doesn't need to read that famous self-help book– she's living it. A Connecticut native, Aust says she was always fascinated with tattoos and piercing.
While she wasn't allowed to get a tattoo until age 18, her parents– her mother's an artist, her father has a radio show– were supportive of their daughter's interest.
"If I got on the honor roll, they'd let me get a piercing," she recalls. "That's how I got my tongue pierced."
She got her first tattoo– a heart with a dagger– on the back of an arm three days after her 18th birthday. Tattoos on her leg, stomach, and chest followed soon after.
When she moved to Charlottesville with her now ex-husband, she became a customer of Capital Tattoo, and it wasn't long before she was helping out at the shop. Following a piercing apprenticeship, Aust is now the shop's full time piercer.
When one of the studio's two tattoo artists admired sketches she'd drawn, she decided to expand her training and is now halfway through a three-year tattooing apprenticeship.
"It is kind of scary," she admits, "especially your first couple."
But the money– fully certified tattoo artists can make $100 an hour– makes it "the best living an artist can make," Aust says, "unless they get famous."
Exploring the post-punk Goth scene in the early '80s was the impetus for Hibber's tattoos, two Chinese dragons that cover his inner forearms.
"I'd dropped out of grad school, moved to L.A., and bought a motorcycle," he says. "The tattoos were a way of saying I wasn't just visiting the scene; it had more permanence for me."
He got both tattoos at a Hollywood Boulevard tattoo studio– the first in 1983, the second in 1984– and while he considered getting others around that time, he didn't give in the urge.
"I understand now that it can become addictive," he says.
He laughs, recalling one of his friends during that time, a 17-year-old who tattooed "F*** Russia" on the back of his head. "I wonder how he felt after 1989?" Hibber muses now.
After a few years, Hibber says, academics beckoned, and he returned to New York to complete his Ph.D. at Columbia.
These days, he's a husband, father, and physicist, but he has "no regrets" about his tattoos. He'd even consider getting another– a tribal armband.
And if his children want to get inked? "Not until they're 18," he says, "but after that I'd have no problem with it."
His only advice?
"I'd say keep it elegant," he says, "and not too big."
Occupation: travel agency manager
For Peyron, every one of her tattoos has meaning. "They're all kind of spiritual," says the native of Marseilles, France, citing her tattoos of the four elements and a Celtic cross as examples.
Though she rocked out in L.A. in the late '70s as a member of the GoGo's (before they got famous), by the time she got her first tattoo– "a cartooney mouth and a teddy bear on my back"– Peyron was already married with a child.
Since then, she's covered up that first tattoo, which was a tribute to her now-ex-husband, and added nine more. She has her son Max's name tattooed on her left arm, and most recently got an Inuit-style drawing of a serpent on her right arm.
In October, she extended her four elements tattoo so that water wraps entirely around her arm. But despite her continuing appreciation for the art formand particularly for her tattoo artist, John at Capital Tattoo– she says her time to tattoo is coming to a close.
"I promised myself I'd stop when I'm 50," she says. "I'm almost there."
What won't stop is the attention, which she says is plentiful, from "youngsters to older people, punks to very conservative kinds." And it's almost always positive.
"They say, 'Wow, the colors are really amazing,'" she says.
Reaction from family is not always so upbeat.
"My parents are older people," she says. "They think they're beautiful, but they have a hard time. They wish I didn't have them."
Her 13-year-old son, Max, also has mixed feelings.
"Every time I go, he says, "No, mom, not again,'" she says. "He loves them, but he's worried about what people are going to think."
Peyron doesn't have such worrries. "I don't care what people think," she says. "I feel like I'm wearing my art."