FOSTER – Anthony Manzo is seated in a vintage leather barber chair with his muscular right arm extended in front of him as tattoo artist Robert Young prepares to go in.
Clean-cut and bookish-looking in his thick-rimmed eyeglasses, Young gives off the demeanor of a doctor as he pauses for a moment, studying Manzo’s arm with quiet intensity. Young’s hands are covered in black rubber gloves, one of which is holding aloft a metallic device that looks like some sort of oversized hypodermic.
Manzo looks away and winces as Young touches his forearm with the device – a tattoo machine – which comes alive with a rasping electrical drone reminiscent of a dental drill.
“It hurts,” says Manzo. “It’s bearable.”
It can’t hurt that much, because human canvases like Manzo are shelling out hundreds of dollars a pop for tattoos like the one he was getting this week at Young’s studio, Altered Images, which also has a location in Cumberland. The smallest tattoos start at $60 each, says Young, who’s been making his mark in the tattoo business for over 13 years.
Tattoos used to travel on the margins of society, if not the underbelly, but in recent years gen X-ers and twenty-somethings have erased the unsavory stigma of body art. Even for his small-town business, on a lonely stretch of the Danielson Pike not far from the Connecticut line, Young says there’s been a noticeable expansion of tattoo demographics – and a big uptick in competition as more artists attempt to cash in.
“It used to be bikers, sailors, rough-and-tumble types,” says Young. “Not anymore. People come in from all walks of life. And it’s not just young people. A lot are older. First of all, maybe they’ve been waiting a long time to do it and now it’s more socially acceptable. Second, they can afford it.”
Today tattoos are mainstream enough for major convention centers to hold weekend-long festivals devoted to the culture, which is exactly what’s happening in Providence, starting tonight. For the second year in a row, the Rhode Island Convention Center is hosting the Tattoo Expo, a monster tattoo bash featuring more than 300 artists from California to Cranston and beyond, with a strong contingent from northern Rhode Island, including Altered Images; Sin Alley, Level 7 Tattoo and Blackstone Tattoo Company, all of Pawtucket; and Henna Tree Productions of Woonsocket.
“There’ll be tattoo artists from Germany, Japan, China, Nepal, Manila...” says Peter Brouillard, the executive producer of the expo. “They’re coming from all over the world.”
Brouillard says he expects some 10,000 visitors to pass through the convention center during the course of the expo, and he figures every one of them will have at least one tattoo.
Though it’s hard to imagine applying for a job at Fidelity Investments with the image of a flaming skull plastered across one’s neck, the signposts of a new social acceptance of tattoos are everywhere. Along with moonshiners, pot farmers and other trades once relegated to the shadows, tattoo artists have become a staple of reality TV. But one of the more telling examples came just over a week ago, when a New York real estate agent made national news by offering raises to employees who got tattoos of the company logo.
A 22-year-old waiter who works in a trendy beachside bistro, Manzo, of North Providence, was getting his fourth tattoo from Altered Images this week, a portrait inspired by his late mother. Judy Manzo was one of 100 victims of the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick.
“I was only 12 years old,” he says.
Manzo likes the idea of paying tribute to his mother with a permanent image on his body, but he has other tattoos that express more personal issues. His first was a large image on his ribcage designed to look as if a skeletal monster is ripping its way free from the inside of his body. It’s about “inner demons,” explains Manzo.
SOME PEOPLE get tattoos to look mean or tough, others just want to decorate their bodies with a brand that makes them seem more unique and individualistic, he says. The bottom line is tattoos attract attention, and that’s what counts – at least for Manzo.
“I like getting looked at,” he says.
Everybody has their reasons. A few feet away from Manzo, in a separate booth, tattoo artist Melissa White is hovering over an elderly woman with a tattoo machine.
The silver-haired woman got straight to the point when someone asked why she was getting a tattoo. “Because I never had eyebrows and I wanted some,” she says.
She and Manzo are among the kinds of people driving a national boom in the tattoo business. The Pew Research Center, a widely respected think-tank, estimates that Americans are spending about $1.65 billion a year on skin pix. About 45 million Americans are believed to be sporting one, most of them men, but one of the fastest-growing groups of tattoo consumers is younger women.
Some living artworks are content with a butterfly on their ankle or some other discreetly located image that can be finished in an hour or two, says Young, but other consumers aren’t happy until their entire bodies are covered. He says he once had a customer who came in every Friday for five years to be tattooed, from head to toe. Young says he started out charging by the hour, but after a while they worked out a sensible fee.
“He ended up getting the frequent flyer discount,” says Young.
What is a tattoo, technically speaking?
It’s actually a form of scarification, or ritual scarring of the skin, a practice some anthropologists believe dates back to prehistoric times. Though older methods of marking human flesh with indelible images were quite primitive, the modern technique involves the use of the tattoo machine, a device that’s part-sewing needle, part paintbrush.
The tattoo machine is tipped with tiny needles that pulsate to and fro, the same way a woodpecker hits a tree with its beak, only much faster. The ink essentially sits on the exterior of the needles. When the ink-stained needles penetrate the skin, some of the color is left behind.
“A little bit goes a long way,” says Young, as he gently daubs Manzo’s arm with the vibrating tip of the machine.
Despite the tattoo boom, Youngs says the surging demand for body art doesn’t always trickle down to the pocketbook. He says there is also more competition, and not just from reputable, licensed dealers who are properly monitored by health regulators, as he is. He says the business is full of back-door, fly-by-nighters who are neither skilled artists nor particularly concerned about their clients’ well-being.
By skirting the regulations, he says, they’re also able to work more cheaply, so they draw customers away from reputable artists.
“Tattooing has never been so popular,” he says. “And I’ve never been slower. I can eke out a living here and I’m pretty happy with that. But if you’re in this for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason. I get into it for the love of the art form.”
Young, who grew up in Cumberland, says he’s had a talent for visual arts as long as he can remember. He paints and draws in a variety of other media besides ink and the human body, but the latter, he says, is the most satisfying. Painting pictures on canvas is a lonely business, he says, but tattooing offers an element of social interaction that he craves.
“This is great,” he says. “I get to meet people from all walks of life, and the work isn’t hanging on a wall somewhere. It’s walking through life.”
He never had any formal training in tattooing, and few of his kind have, though there is a school or two for it if you look hard enough. He started out years ago drawing sketches on paper for other tattoo artists to copy on skin. Eventually, some of his friends who were bona fide tattoo artists took him under their wing and showed him how they did it.
A hands-on apprenticeship is the only way to learn the technique, and being talented is the only way to build a customer base solid enough to earn a living in tattoos, according to the artist.
“You’re only as good as you’re last tattoo,” says Young.