The couch squeaked softly when the young couple adjusted their sitting positions.
For 18-year-old Isaiah Smith, it was a way of transferring pent-up energy even though it was dark outside and the day was nearly done. But in the case of his girlfriend, Kiera Manchester, it was nervous fidgeting as they sat together near the entrance of Artistic Creations Custom Tattoo and Piercing.
“She’s flipping for no reason,” Smith sighed.
“I’m scared,” Manchester said with an uneasy chuckle.
“They don’t hurt that bad,” Smith replied.
Manchester, 18, was only slightly relieved.
Her first tattoo would be something small. She loves flowers, so a tiny one on the side of her left wrist would be a gentle way to wade into the world of body art.
As for Smith? He fought back any smiles or smirks, instead remaining focused on his looming appointment with tattoo artist Drew O’Neill.
“A buddy of mine passed away at age 17,” Smith said. “He hung himself over something tragic. So I want to get something in the memory of a buddy I’ve known practically my whole life.”
It’s a big commitment, but the pain and the process of getting a tattoo is old hat for Smith. After all, it’s been nearly three years since he got the Celtic cross running down his right arm.
That piece had a dubious start: a friend of his dad began the tattoo at his house and only a small portion was complete five “very painful” hours later. But he remained committed to the idea, making two trips to this shop off of Roxalana Road to have it finished. A pair of sessions in the professional hands of O’Neill — one to outline the intricate design, a second to color it in — totaled about four hours.
Smith reasoned that’s a pretty one-sided trade in his favor for artwork that lasts a lifetime.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “I accept it. I don’t get them just to put them on my body. I get them because I kind of admire them somewhat. They mean something.”
Whether it’s the cliche “Mom” sketched across a man’s heart or lines of ink dedicated to military service, tattoos have always had the scent of sentimentality. They’ve also often had a stigma attached to the people associated with tattoos, unfairly linking the wearer or the artist — or both — to a dubious culture.
However, the stereotypes are beginning to melt as tattoos — or, perhaps more broadly, body art when you consider body piercings — have increased in popularity across wide swaths of society. No longer a trophy from a sketchy past or questionable lifestyle, body art has increasingly been accepted for what it is.
That much will be evident next month during HallowEast, an annual celebration in Charleston’s East End. The highlight of the 12-day event is the ArtMares horror-themed exhibit, the only initiative that has been a part of every HallowEast since its inception in 2008. This year’s edition will be different in that it will be held as an online auction, starting Oct. 20 and running through Halloween.
It will also spotlight local tattoo artists for the first time, as each piece in the exhibit will have been created by a local tattoo artist to match one of the 12 days of Halloween. Some of the displays will be on canvas, others will be digital depending upon the artist and their preferred medium.
“The thought behind doing it,” explained Adam Stollings, associate executive director of Charleston Main Streets, “was there are a lot of talented artists in the area who happen to be tattoo artists. But they don’t really participate in many art shows or get the exposure they deserve. Also, there’s a certain aura that melds the two together.”
Stollings said the list of participating artists is still being finalized and the entire roster will be announced soon. Regardless, there shouldn’t be a problem finding willing participants.
According to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, there are 42 licensed tattoo parlors, as well as 17 body piercing studios, in Kanawha County. Along with them come scores of local tattoo artists servicing a growing marketplace.
The United States (46%) trails only Italy (48%) and Sweden (47%) as the nation with the highest percent of tattooed people in the world. According to research firm IBISWorld, the U.S. tattoo industry generates more than $1.1 billion in revenue annually.
Those dollars are driven by nearly 25,000 tattoo parlors that employ about 30,000 tattoo artists, each earning an average salary of nearly $50,000 annually.
Also, data compiled by research firm CompareCamp illustrates the people having ink put to skin aren’t grouped into one demographic. Among the notable numbers:
n 15% of men in the United States and 13% of women have tattoos;
n 36% of Americans between the age of 18-29 have at least one tattoo;
n 30% of college graduates have at least one tattoo.
Art isn’t cheap, either, regardless of the medium.
IBISWorld reports 27% percent of Americans will pay at least $100 for a tattoo, while more than 6% will spend more than $2,500.
Tattoos are more unique now than ever thanks to a client’s ability to scan the internet in search of specific examples or inspiration for something distinctive.
Joe Daniel, a veteran tattoo artist at Artistic Advantage Tattoo & Piercing Studio in Charleston, said that essentially unlimited access has reshaped the business. It’s also raised the quality of the art, he said, in time with the spike in prices.
“The internet has changed the industry probably more than anything else in the last 26 years,” Daniel, 56, said. “Instead of choosing flash art, people can find designs and ideas at the touch of a button. People are wanting custom, one-of-a-kind tattoos.”
Daniel said he’s been doing 20 to 30 tattoos a week — either by appointment or walk-in inquiries — with some taking several hours or requiring multiple sessions to complete. That means tattoo artists have increasingly had to become as adept at managing a schedule as they are at wielding a tattoo gun.
Consider the shifting scope of O’Neill’s availability.
Like others in his craft, he was idle for a sizable chunk of this year as the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined businesses en masse. For the tattoo industry, that meant a 42-day shutdown — a potentially crippling span for independent contractors, regardless of their trade.
As things began to slowly reopen, a rush of business from regulars, as well as new clients, awaited. O’Neill, now in his 26th year as a tattoo artist, is “booked solid” until mid-November.
“That’s the longest I’ve gone without tattooing someone since ’95. It was crazy,” O’Neill said. “But they finally gave tattoos artists, hair stylists, people who are self-employed unemployment back pay and that helped a great deal. And then when we came back to work, we were flooded. I had to cancel 45 days worth of appointments, and then try to schedule all of those back in on top of people trying to get new appointments. Crazy busy.”
That much was evident as he typed away on a computer while his next appointments sat on that couch near the shop’s entrance. A pair of reading glasses positioned at the bottom of his nose perfectly balanced limbs and a torso covered in tattoos, translating to a marriage between business and art.
O’Neill had created a tattoo that afternoon before going home to spend time with his children. He returned to the shop after dinnertime and was prepping for three more appointments, including Smith. The hope was to go back out of the door by 11 p.m.
The casual tendency to twist his red handlebar mustache when he’d back away from the keyboard provided wistful gravitas as he described the previous few hours. But those moments were brief before he would return to his administrative tasks and then his hands-on work.
O’Neill would huddle with Smith before he called it day to discuss the planned tribute.
“If I don’t think it’s not going to look good, then I’m not going to do it,” O’Neill said. “It’s walking out of here with my name in a sense. But I’ll always try to steer someone in a direction that will make it look good so they’ll be happy and then everyone is happy.”
By his own count, O’Neill has performed thousands of tattoos. Small ones, large ones, complete body parts — there’s not much he hasn’t created with a tattoo gun. He’s even tattooed himself, inking an image on his thigh 17 years ago he said he hates. He’s swore to never do that again (“It sucks tattooing yourself”), but stopped short of saying he won’t get any more — even if he already isn’t sure how many tattoos are already on his 45-year-old body.
“Once you get a few tattoos,” O’Neill said, “you stop counting.”