People paid money to peek behind the curtains to see Betty Broadbent’s heavily tattooed body in the 1930s.
The circus and show business star spent 40 years showing off more than 350 designs that adorned her pinup body. Circuses and “freak shows” during the early 20th century popularized a form of expression that’s been around for thousands of years, but not always so idolized.
Within the last 75 years, tattoos were largely reserved for sailors, criminals and oddities.
Today, it’s mainstream.
A Canadian Press/Leger Marketing study done in 2002 revealed that two out of 10 Canadians have a tattoo or body piercing, excluding earrings on the earlobe. Thirty-one per cent of 18-to-34-year-olds have either one or the other. And the prevalence of both has grown significantly since then.
Devin Lalonde and fiancé Angela Pollock, both in their early 20s, embrace the fact that they’ll have tattoos into old age.
Lalonde describes his eight tattoos as pieces of art. At age 18, a friend tattooed his left shoulder with the words, You Can’t Trick the Joker, and a picture of the green character from the Batman series.
The Red Deer man has since had several tattoos done of skulls, including a half-completed one with tentacles on his bicep.
“They look really mean and they’re like an old-school type tattoo,” said Lalonde.
He also has several Japanese-style tattoos, including a half-completed Japanese Oni mask representing evil done on his backside. A “good” mask will be done on the other side. The words, Mama Tried, from a Merle Haggard song he grew up with, are emblazoned across his chest.
Lalonde has learned over the years that he wants tattoos that mean something to him. He plans to get more on his back and arms, although he doesn’t like the pain of getting one.
“It’s like someone is dragging a hot needle against your skin,” he said.
He paid $450 for Pollock’s first tattoo, which was done over three hours. The lotus flower winds its way from her right hip bone, up her ribs to her armpit. Further detailing, plus colour, needs to be added.
Pollock saw other women with similar tattoos and liked the way they looked.
“I knew for my first tattoo, I didn’t want to get a small one. I wanted it to be bigger,” said Pollock. “I hear it’s the most painful spot, so now any other tattoo won’t be as painful.”
Tattoo artists stencil or outline a tattoo design on carbon paper which is then put through a photocopier-type machine. The skin is then made moist with a cleaning solution and the transfer paper is pressed onto the skin. The electric machine traces over top, injecting ink underneath the top layer of skin. The needle of a tattoo machine moves up and down, anywhere from 50 to a few thousand times a minute.
Pollock tried to stay still as Infamous Ink co-owner Marshall Ambrose carefully created the image on her skin.
A year later, she shows off the tattoo proudly while wearing a bikini. Her mother was initially shocked it was “so big!”
“But it’s growing on them,” said Pollock. “A couple of weeks ago, my mom told me it was really nice. My dad was like, ‘OK — it’s not coming off.’ ”
Mike Hoffman of Red Deer doesn’t really care what people think about his tattoos, which cover pretty much his whole upper body. In Winnipeg, where he grew up, he’d have some employers “staring at my neck the entire time and thinking negative about me before getting to know me.”
The 27-year-old figured he didn’t want to work for them anyway.
“It sort of hurts me, which is one of the reasons I moved out here — job opportunities were cut in half right off the hop.”
Hoffman appreciates the work tattooists do.
“It’s one thing to be able to draw it out, but then to be able to put it on somebody’s body while they are in pain and trying to hold them.”
Ambrose figures he’ll be tattooing until he’s decrepit or dead. The 24-year-old loves what he does — the flexible hours, his work buddies. He wishes people would take the industry more seriously, although perceptions are changing slowly with reality shows focused on tattooing.
“We’ll have people come in here and we’ll say, ‘Your tattoo is going to cost $200.’ They’ll say, ‘Can you do it for $150?’ I find our industry is looked at as a bit of a joke.”
He grew up in New Brunswick, where he doodled as a child. His father, who used to tattoo, tried to discourage him because he didn’t think he’d make a good living. With tattoos being more socially acceptable today, Ambrose is.
He is largely self-taught.
“I remember going into tattoo shops to get apprenticeships and being chased out because they think you are trying to steal their secrets,” said Ambrose. “Nowadays, it’s a lot more open. Artists are realizing we’re all fighting for the common goal, which is to stop seeing bad tattoos.”
The tools of the trade have come a long way, with better inks and equipment, Ambrose added.
“Through advancements in technology . . . and even advancements in understanding the actual application of a tattoo make them last longer and keep them a lot more clear,” added Classic Tattoo owner Lucas Ford. “We have guys who had tattoos done in the service in the ’40s through ’60s, and there were crude applications done back then. That really makes a big difference in how it’s going to age.”
Like Ambrose, Ford is passionate about tattooing. His new brightly lit shop includes a crimson-coloured lobby and comfy couches.
“Tattooing has lost its mystique as that scary place where people didn’t want to go. I wanted to make the shop more inviting.”
The former construction worker compares himself with a commissioned artist, who works closely with a client to bring their ideas to life.
He particularly loves two genres — Japanese and American — because he believes they show what’s important to tattooing.
“They are meant to be taken in one shot and easily enjoyed.”
Ford is working on a couple of body suits, where individuals will eventually have their entire legs, arms and torsos done. Similar to the circus attractions of long ago.
“It’s not something you should get rid of down the road,” said Ford, regarding the permanency of tattoos. “They are like mini time capsules.”
A high standard for health
Alberta Health Services has strict public health requirements for tattooing.
A team of about 30 public health inspectors within central zone is responsible for at least one annual routine inspection of tattoo/body piercing parlours in the region. Shops are also tested within 48 hours of complaint.
Dave Brown, zone manager for environmental public health, said inspectors also review the effectiveness of the shop’s sterilization device, known as an autoclave. Autoclaves must be tested monthly through accredited labs.
“We look at the procedures inherently of concern to us and that are based on communicable disease transfer,” Brown said. “And we look at the general condition of the business itself to ensure it meets minimum maintenance and sanitation levels.”
Common biological hazards, not exclusive to tattooing, include human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes simplex virus, as well as skin, fungal and wound infections.
Additional risks for invasive procedures, such as tattooing and body piercing, are hepatitis B and C, and HIV. These risks are uncommon, Brown said.
If a health risk is low to a client, such as dirty floors, the inspector would seek changes within a set time period. If the risk is significant to a client getting a disease, the shop would be immediately shut down. Brown said they respond to all complaints, including ones that may be operating illegally.