Delving into the body-art community in Colorado Springs means meeting some interesting people, guys with names like Toast, Goat, Spider, Snake and Paes 164.
But as virtually everyone knows, their world today welcomes accountants named Ed, or librarians named Susie. Pop culture and the mainstream have embraced ink and metal fervently. Though your Mom may cry (mine did) when she learns that you permanently stained your birthday suit, you probably won't necessarily attract gawks at the supermarket anymore.
Sleeves are the new black.
(Well, OK, not really.)
The abundance of body-art studios in Colorado Springs disproportionate per capita to other cities of our size, by our calculation suggests that the local industry is alive, if not thriving to excess and oversaturation. Every artist in town will speak of a swollen market, with a sigh.
And virtually everyone will tell you that still, the local scene is something of a mess. As of today, it lacks a true leader; governmental oversight is hit-or-miss, at best; and there are a lot of artists who speak ill of each other while saying their way of doing business is the only way.
What does it mean to you?
Finding the answer to that question meant spending the good part of a month on the phone, sifting through files at the El Paso County Department of Health & Environment and dropping into a number of studios.
You can't talk tattoos in the Springs without giving credit to the legacy of "Uncle Bud" and Snake Yates, brothers and sons of "Big Bud" Yates, who tattooed here for roughly 15 years in the late 1950s and '60s, according to Snake.
On this day in his Platte Avenue studio, Snake's wearing an "It ain't gonna suck itself" T-shirt under his Santa Clausian beard. Flash pretty pictures on the wall lines the place, from floor to ceiling, outside the starkly sanitary procedure area.
Snake's Tattoo claims to be Southern Colorado's oldest (read: longest continually running) studio, having opened in June 1972. Snake believes that at that time, there were only about 250 artists in the nation. Now, the Front Range alone easily reaches that number.
"We made a horrible living back then," he says. "A nice tattoo only cost you about $5. The industry got a bad rap because we could only afford to set up in seedy spots those were the only landlords who'd rent to you."
Snake says only about 10 percent of the nation's population at the time had tattoos. Demand simply could not have supported more shops back then. Even if it could have, there were turf wars to contend with.
"The artists didn't communicate with each other back then," says Snake. "If you wanted to say something, you'd write it on a brick and chuck it through their window. Or you'd introduce them to Ethyl."
(He explains that means torching a place.)
Longtime Springs artist Jack D'Amore, from Art with a Pulse, says that even 15 years ago, when he opened up on West Colorado Avenue, his windows were shot out a few times.
Snake's younger brother Bud, whom he taught to tattoo and who later became president of the National Tattoo Association, worked with Snake at a studio on South Nevada Avenue before establishing Pikes Peak Tattoo in 1978.
"Uncle Bud" worked tirelessly to organize the local industry. He was considered a mentor to many artists and is largely responsible, according to Snake, for the early versions of what have grown into today's county regulations. Bud died in a motorcycle accident last August, devastating the local body-art community and, by many artists' accounts, leaving an gaping leadership void.
"He was the glue in the professional industry here," says piercer and Holey Rollers owner Marcea Flowers, one of a handful of body-art workers closely involved with a recent Health Department regulations update. She describes Bud as the local watchdog, often turning in other shops and artists to the Health Department.
"A lot is gone with Bud," says D'Amore. "He was very instrumental in establishing integrity in the business."
In his absence, a new wave of impassioned artists has united in an attempt to present an organized face to the Health Department. Those outside the circle say those within are just vying for Bud's position. It's an important time for a scene in transition.
You didn't hear it from me, but ...
Drawing a family tree from the early years through today would leave you with an abstract picture, at best. So many places have come and gone as artists have jumped ship and (often unsuccessfully) opened shops, that even the county's environmental health division director, Rick Miklich, characterizes the list of shops as "very fluid and evolving," even changing weekly.
Paes 164 opened his own operation, Above Suspicion, just last year. He points to 1997-98 as the nationwide boom time, and confirms what piercer Toast from West Side Tattoo says: Around 2000, Colorado Springs blew up from about a dozen or fewer shops to the 34 we count today.
Tattoo artists are like hairdressers. They grow their own clientele inside an established shop, then eventually want to be their own boss and take their r egulars to a new location. It's a natural progression, and it's business nothing personal. Except when it is personal.
What's commonly heard off the record is less "I'm the best" chest-pounding than "I got dicked over" tale-telling. Then there are the philosophical arguments about how a shop should be run and regulated. Everyone hints at a few places in town where you just don't want to get poked. Most artists say they would only get tattooed in about five or so shops in town. Some said fewer. But that list is never the same, and it always includes friends.
Join my clique, anyone?
"Everybody shit-talks," says Holey Rollers' Jeremy Katz. "Anyone who says they don't is talking shit."
Except maybe Snake. His take: "If you have to talk about your competition, you fear them. I don't do it."
The ill will can take its toll. D'Amore and his wife, Donna, who've won more reader-voted Indy Best Of's (11 awards since 1995) than any other establishment, say they've fielded more than their fair share of guff over the years.
"It's tough emotionally; we've had so much shit talked about us," D'Amore says over lunch at Southside Johnny's. For a moment, the fire in his eyes turns to sadness, as if to say, "Can't we all just get along?"
Before addressing other explanations, let's examine the most-cited misconception of why the Springs is a body-art studio mecca: the military.
Sure, plenty of Springs businesses go tick-tock because of our soldiers, but aside from A-Z Masters and Awesome Ink on B Street, which see a lot of memorial and family-oriented ink jobs, tattoo studios are not on that list.
"If I had to depend on the military, I'd be selling socks," says Shrap Metal owner Shawn Jackson, who attributes only 15 to 20 percent of his business to soldiers.
D'Amore admits he relocated here from California to open Art with a Pulse because of the military demographic. But he says soldiers never became his clientele's mainstay. Snake says that back in the day, the only shops were near basic-training facilities. Now, he says, body art has become so in vogue that shops aren't tied to the troops.
Second to the military guess, a combination of mainstream culture and generational trends actually do somewhat explain the rise of tattoo shops at-large, but don't single out the Springs as unique.
"I grew up in the tail end of the punk rock scene," says Jackson. "We grew up with [tattoo culture] during much of its [modern] beginnings."
The thought is that a lot of early-wave Gen-Xers have rejected desk jobs and gone into the business.
D'Amore cites recent tattoo reality shows and movies amid other pop culture avenues as sparking more interest in body art.
"It's a double-edged sword," he says. "You take the good with the bad. More exposure, but also more shops."
Another theory for the high number of shops is summer tourism and an influx of Okies looking to get ink. (Oklahoma only just recently legalized tattooing.) But that explains only a small percentage of the business.
Paes 164 believes the Springs has so many shops "because so many people want to be a tattoo rock star, and opening a shop is easy to do."
Would-be restaurateurs and bar owners have to petition for a liquor license. If you're a tattoo artist who has rent, a floor plan that adheres to code and can pass pre-inspection, a $100 licensing fee puts you in business.
"If you want to be an artist tomorrow," says Jackson, "go to the Health Department and sign up for the next class. Legally, you could tattoo tomorrow in my shop."
No sane business owner would allow that, but it illustrates how someone with an inflated sense of self-confidence, who may not have ever apprenticed, can get a foot in the door. There's no regulation policing skill or competency.
Art with a Pulse has spawned at least seven other shops, and has been a "revolving door" for hungry apprentices who pay thousands of dollars for training. AWP's pupils who set up shop elsewhere in the Springs almost solely account for the disparity of shop numbers between the Springs and cities of like size.
D'Amore acknowledges the manifest destiny inherent to the situation. But he says much of the younger generation lacks loyalty, work ethic, discipline and integrity.
"They want it now," he says. "I'm 30 years older than them. How do you think I got here? I don't expect them to stay [at AWP]. This is America. Everyone gets the tick to leave."
If these theories aren't convincing, perhaps simple economics is the best summation.
According to the Health Department's Miklich, "It's all market-driven, just like any other business. It's whatever the market bears."
To serve and protect
Everybody wants some bling even those who aren't at all legit. Some speculate the Springs has anywhere from 20 to 100 "hack shops" doing work out of kitchens, basements and garages. There are rumors of "tattoo parties" for minors.
"I don't think there is a huge underground body-arts community out there," says Miklich, "but are there ones operating without our knowledge? Probably."
The Health Department responds to tips within 24 hours and will shut down shops if necessary or help bring them up to code. But even department employees admit they're overwhelmed. As a 2006 county report shows, the county's per capita rate of state funding per person ranks among the lowest, though the county is the largest-populated in Colorado. The department relies on more than double its state funding to come in through grants and contracts.
"We definitely don't have everything we need," says Miklich.
So for now, they're just trying to get by. And some good ideas, like posting the results of tattoo parlor inspections online, will remain simply ideas.
In the meantime, we thumbed through every archaically organized manila file on each shop in town. Our opinion: They yield little to no help in discerning a good shop from a shady one. The inspections all look roughly the same, save a couple complaints and an anomaly that confirms that Uncle Bud was a man who walked his talk: Pikes Peak Tattoo was the only file without any inspection violations.
Critical violations were sparse, and most were minor stuff on par with diction missing on aftercare sheets or unlabeled cleaning bottles. We found no severed heads in the break room fridge, so to speak, though we did get a few chuckles over such finds as a pet bed found in a procedure area at one establishment and two artists observed getting high outside another. They apparently re-entered but did not perform any work while stoned.
The inspectors aren't stupid. They know where there's smoke, there's fire. But they aren't cops. They have limited enforcement and no time for follow-up detective work.
We requested a list of shops currently open in the Springs. Of those shops included on the list we received, two actually were closed. One shop that we had located on our own was nowhere to be found.
Another shop had its file missing, leading a department employee to tell us the shop must be closed. We later found that missing file stuffed inside another, and the shop turned out to be still in operation.
What does that say for the regulation of shops, if compiling an accurate list of them proves so difficult?
Also alarming: Inspections rarely come as surprises and follow-ups on violations are not always prompt.
"I could pretty much tell you within 10 days of when they'll come," says Jackson. "And we pretty much know that nobody's coming back [to check compliance]."
Snake and others say likewise. Because inspections are conducted on a non-stipulated basis, some establishments can go close to two years between checkups. Snake, for instance, was inspected in January 2005, then not again until October 2006, a 21-month lapse.
That's a long time to be on scout's honor. When the Health Department acknowledges the industry is largely "self-policing," it's not a joke.
The industry is unusual, avidly pushing for more regulations, not fewer. Only recently have many artists been content with the level of scrutiny paid to shops.
As Miklich explains, "If something goes wrong, it's a black eye for the entire industry. I think it speaks quite well of them wanting to protect themselves by making sure we have something useful to protect the public."
A bit of fresh hope has come in the form of new regulations, approved June 27 by the Board of Health after discussions with the body-art community.
The new regs include such amendments as a mandatory, blood-borne pathogens class to be taken annually and within 100 days for new artists. (Previously, artists could attend one of the next available classes, which could run up to six months or more.) They also increase the frequency of spore testing, which monitors autoclave function, from monthly to weekly.
"The enforcement was largely lacking until now," says Paes 164. "But now we have a good standard that everyone should have no problem complying to that will benefit the community."
He's also jazzed about a new permission for temporary events. That will allow him to go ahead with plans to launch a convention featuring world-famous guest artists by summer's end.
Use your senses
Since we've nixed the value of spending time at the Health Department researching shops, let's talk about the best way, according to artists, to evaluate a studio.
As Brian Moore of West Side says, "It's up to the shops to try and educate people." You'll learn more from walking into a place and talking with the owner or artists than anywhere else.
Moore and every other artist interviewed for this story make it clear that asking to see a studio's latest spore-test results or asking for a tour of the cleaning room will not get you booted to the curb. Flowers says cleanliness of the shop bathroom is one of the best indicators of a good place.
Katz adds, "You want to get tattooed somewhere where [tattooing is] their main staple."
If it's a head shop or boutique first, be wary. You don't go to your mechanic for counseling or your veterinarian for massage.
Most studios want to put customers at ease, as they know getting a first tattoo or piercing can be intimidating enough without worrying that you'll offend a shop owner by asking for a tour. You won't. If you do, something's already wrong.
Snake is skeptical about even the common ways to size up an artist or shop. Checking a portfolio on display should convey an artist's talent, but he's seen plenty with stolen work in them. He's also wary of places that stay open long hours and are willing to work on minors, even with consent.
He shares a horror story about a woman who came in wanting him to tattoo the bottom of her infant's foot "for identification purposes." That's clearly an extreme instance compared to the more common example of, say, a 16-year-old wanting a piercing. With parental consent, the moral decision is left up to shop owners.
This is an example of sometimes, not always: Jackson of Shrap Metal says the only reason he offers services to minors with parental consent (according to regulations) is to provide a safe environment for them to pierce.
"Kids are going to do it whether it's available to them or not," he says, adding that he got his first tattoo in his own bedroom as a teenager, and that his daughter's friends are piercing themselves in the bathroom at school. "Uncle Bud pierced my tongue for me in '91. I was going to do it whether he did it or not."
Another thing commonly heard from shops is how much re-do work they get. On a weekly, if not daily basis, artists say they are fixing someone else's work in town even misspellings. Yikes.
But Jackson says he sees fix-it jobs from artists he'd go to himself. Sometimes it's just that a customer wants the shading or line work a little different. As for misspellings, those usually start with the customer.
It's also true some artists are lacking finesse. One put it this way: "There are guys who are talented but not clean, and guys who are clean but not talented." Make sure you find one who's both.
Which leads to the ultimate advice from D'Amore: "Use your senses."
If a place smells like cigarettes or french fries, get out. Use your eyes look around. Your gut instinct is the best way to ensure the right artist for you.
If you see someone with a tattoo or piercing that you like that perfect portrait, straight piercing or Yakuza-worthy back piece ask him where he got it and go there.
"Word-of-mouth is your best asset," says Jackson.
(Insert "I could've told you that" comment here.)
All the politics, bad blood and disorder aside, the ink speaks for itself. And as everyone is painfully aware, we certainly don't have a shortage of options in this town.
Amanda Lundgren contributed to this story. Find a complete list of local body-art studios at csindy.com.