A peek inside the world of tattoo artists

The Tootsie Tattoo: From the toe to the ankle, the foot makes a great canvas for tats ... that is, if you've got a high pain tolerance.
  • POPULAR TATTOOSThe Armband (Most likely in barbwire form)

    Popular among dudes, especially in the 1990s. Only the truly tough, however, are able to withstand getting it all the way around the arm.

    The Lower Back Tattoo (a.k.a. The ...

  • SHOW ALL »

There's no denying that tattoos have become more mainstream. It's estimated that about 45 million Americans have at least one tattoo, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

A 2008 Harris poll breaks that number down further, stating that the biggest group is people aged 25 to 29, where one in three have a tattoo. The next largest group is people aged 30 to 39. Males and females are split evenly and Democrats, Republicans and Independents all admit to tattoos at pretty much the same rate.

Not only is the perception of tattoos changing, but the image of the tattoo artist is evolving, as well. Because of TV shows like "L.A. Ink," "Miami Ink" and "Inked," the lives of tattoo artists have taken a glamorous spin, said Will Ellis, local tattoo artist and owner of the recently opened Timeless Tattoos in Victoria.

The truth, however, is quite different.

"Tattoo documentaries and shows have glorified the whole aspect of being an artist, portraying them as rock stars, but that's not the case at all," Ellis, who does only custom work in his shop, said. "At this point, you really have to be careful who you go to in the industry. Tattoos and tattoo artists have become so popular, that there has been an influx of new artists, and so you really have to seek out one that you trust."

Joe Rodriguez, a tattoo artist of 20 years and manager of Chaos Tattoo in Victoria, agreed, saying that all the exposure the industry is getting is both helping and hurting.

"It helps in the sense that these shows let people see how it's done. It's hurting because most people come into the industry with ideas of glamour, easy money and easy work. A lot of people are jumping into this not realizing there's a whole lot of work involved," Rodriguez said. "A lot of people claim to be artists when they're not."

To become a good tattoo artist takes years of apprenticeship, where one studies under a reputable artist and then years of experience on your own, he added.

"Studying under a professional, licensed tattoo artist is a very important aspect to becoming a tattoo artist yourself. It's not something you do for two weeks and then boom, you're ready. It can sometimes take two years if not longer," he said. "This trade will consume you. It doesn't end once the shop closes."

Gayle Austin, of In The Skin Tattoo & Piercing, got a degree in graphic arts in her younger years, but what spurred her to become a tattoo artist was the horrible experience she had when she got her first tattoo at the age of 42.

"The guy was a real jerk. When he put the stencil on, it was crooked. When my husband pointed it out to him, he acted all put out and said 'sit down, don't move or you'll ruin it,'" she said, adding that she also underwent a long apprenticeship in Austin. "I was already comfortable doing the art part, and I thought I could make this a really nice experience, especially for older women like me. I didn't want to walk through a wall of big, burly, smoking men to get a tattoo."

While a tattoo studio or shop has to be licensed through the state, a tattoo artist does not, Rodriguez said. This oversight in the industry makes it all that more important for anyone considering a tattoo to do their homework before even stepping foot into a studio.

"Real tattoo artists consider themselves craftsmen," he added. "Before you get a tattoo, ask around town, find out who has a good reputation, check out their portfolios, take note if they make time for you and are patient with you. Make sure they take pride in their work. Check to see if they have any health violations, which is public record. You really need to do your homework."