Counter-culture hits mainstream

Leah Sewell

his past July, a couple of heavily tattooed rockers played a gig in Lawrence to a group of bemused drinkers at the Gaslight Tavern. ?

?The thing that was odd about their performance was not the poorly executed heavy rock, nor the stage tricks they did with fire and swords. The performers, dubbed Enigma and Katzen, or collectively the Human Marvels, were literally covered head to foot in tattoos. ?

?Yet no one was completely blown away by the fact that these two had chosen to painfully transform their entire bodies into works of art. Their performance, billed as “sideshow and rock n roll,” is reminiscent of a time when people were extremely fascinated by tattooed sideshow attractions. But those days are over. Tattoos have become quite commonplace.

?”Now it’s even on TV,” said Marilyn Wathke, co-owner of Electric Tattoo. “I’m a pretty heavily tattooed woman, and being in Topeka and going where some older people are, they definitely don’t like it. But on the whole, people are pretty used to it at this point.”

?Many people who are gung-ho about body modification have chosen to supplement ink with piercings. If one or the other isn’t shocking enough, the two combined will undoubtedly elicit an appalled or impressed response. But Wathke, who does piercing at Electric Tattoo, says that even piercings have become mainstream, and so people are looking for more bizarre and original places on their bodies to sport jewelry.

?”I recently pierced the top of a woman’s toe,” said Wathke. “People are doing such weird stuff with piercing that I’m never shocked anymore.”

?In addition to the new reality shows, “Inked” on A&E and “Miami Ink” on TLC, tattoos can be seen on actors, musicians and athletes. This form of accessorizing is no longer viewed as mainly characteristic of bikers and outlaws. Tattoos are particularly popular among traditionally college-aged people. Look around. There are quite a few Washburn students who have chosen to let artwork take up permanent residence on their bodies.

?Inside Electric Tattoo, natural light fills the welcoming area and illuminates the walls filled with traditional and Japanese designs. People wander in and browse the flash, discuss future tattoos with Wathke and peruse the cases dotted with a variety of piercing accessories. The drone is emitted from the back of the room. Brad Johnson is getting a tribal tattoo inked into his left arm by tattoo artist Steve Turner.

?”I have no idea why I do it,” said Johnson above the cicada-like hum of the needles rapidly protruding in and out of his skin. “I guess it’s just your own personal way of expressing yourself.”

?For some, tattoos can be a wordless expression of personality or style, much like any radical fashion statement. ?

?But for others, body art is a way to commemorate an important event or stage in life, and they can be very personal.

?”Honestly, they tell stories,” said Jocelyn Frances, freshman philosophy major at Washburn. “I have an iris on my arm, and it’s in homage to my grandmother who passed away a few years ago.”

?Wathke believes that people choose to get inked for individual reasons, but that tattooing is an art form that has its roots in the history of humankind.

?”I think it’s just innately human to want to modify ourselves,” said Wathke. Pretty much since the beginning of humans, since the beginning of us, we’ve done it.”

?Imagine you are sitting in a lecture hall in Henderson on the first day of the semester when your new professor walks in and stands at the podium. He has vibrantly colored tattoos covering the entire lengths of his arms and his nose is pierced. He opens his roster and begins calling role. What would you do? Would you gasp, snicker or remain straight-faced? Would you be appalled, surprised or impressed? The reason that we have to merely imagine this scenario has to do with society’s somewhat limited acceptance of body art, no matter how mainstream it has become.

?Freshman philosophy major Jocelyn Frances intends to get a doctorate someday. She has numerous tattoos and plans on acquiring more. She doesn’t think, however, that her seemingly radical outward appearance will hinder her from achieving a position as a professor in the future.

“Basically, ambition prevails over anything,” said Frances. “I’m going to be a professor. It doesn’t matter what I do with my body. I’m going to be what I want to be, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Frances is optimistic about her career goals, but does admit that Topeka employers don’t seem too thrilled with the idea of a tattooed employee.

“It’s hard when you go to job interviews. You have to cover them up. They’re not socially acceptable yet when it comes to employment,” said Frances.

Sara Meier, a senior fine arts major, thinks that her future career will offer a more hospitable atmosphere to tattooed people. Meier is currently considering getting a tattoo.

“In an artistic field, people are more accepting, but obviously if you’re going to be an accountant you aren’t going to be as accepted,” said Meier. “I think placement is very important. With mine, I’m going to get it somewhere that if I need to look nice, I can cover it up.”

Other students shy away from tattoos altogether because they can’t trust that they will still like them down the road.

“I probably wouldn’t [get a tattoo] because it’s permanent. It’s forever, and that’s a big decision,” said Bethanee Boeh, a Washburn student.

Another deterring factor might be the pain. The needles in a tattoo machine move up and down very quickly to put pigment into the skin. But many people who have tattoos think that the pain is merely a hurtle to get to the final result.

“Of course it hurts, but afterwards it was worth it. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly like giving birth to a child, but it kind of is,” said Frances. “You go through a couple hours of pain and you get this beautiful thing that lasts forever.”

Steve Turner, tattoo artist at Electric Tattoo doesn’t think the pain is such a big deal.

“I would say that it feels kind of similar to a cat scratch. It’s a burning sensation, not really painful, and the pain goes away right after you’re done getting the tattoo,” said Turner.

But Turner has many, many tattoos. He is used to the procedure by now. The most painful experience with getting a tattoo happens when the person gets too worked up beforehand, according to Turner.

“A lot of it has to do with how jittery or anxious you are before the tattoo,” said Turner while tattooing a customer. “It’s going to be very uncomfortable for you versus if you’re relaxed; it’s not as painful. It really depends on how you go into it.”

My body my choice

The kind of people who get tattoos have something in common: self-confidence. Putting aside any disapproval and willing to bear a little pain, people who want art on their skin are aware of their bodies and relish that the choice to adorn their skin is available to them. Meier looks forward to the chance to make a permanent mark on something so impermanent as the body.

“We only have this body once so maybe we want to do something exciting with it.”