Up to the early 1980s, nearly the only people to get tattoos were bikers or sailors, but times have changed, as has the art. Brian Johnson, one of the two owners of Underworld Tattoo in Gap, said in his nearly 20 years of experience, he has tattooed doctors, policemen, corporate workers, even an ordained priest.Since Underworld Tattoo, located next to the Chuck Stop on Route 41 in Gap, opened this past July, it has seen a constant flow of business. Johnson co-owns the shop with Chris Alexander, both of whom are experienced artists. Tracy Davis is the certified body piercer.
Though they have some photographs and sketches on hand, Underworld specializes in custom tattoos. A customer can simply walk through the door with a rough idea of what they want and one of the artists will draw it while they wait. "I love taking what people think of and putting it on paper for them," Alexander said.
They are also able to do custom freehand, which is when they will draw the sketch directly on the site of the tattoo. "I've been doing that a lot lately," Alexander said. "With that kind of tattoo, no one else can have it unless I would actually trace it off of that person's body."
Underworld has brought home seven awards from the last four shows they attended. Their numerous trophies and plaques are displayed at the shop. They spent last weekend at a tattoo convention in Baltimore where they tattooed on site and competed in several different categories. "Every person I talked to asked me to tattoo them," Johnson said. "I actually had to turn people away; I had never experienced anything like that."
"Society is starting to accept it," Alexander said of the business. In all fairness, they could partly attribute that to the long list of television shows that have recently hit primetime. But along with increased acceptance and business, Johnson said TV shows like "Miami Ink" and "LA Ink" have also done a lot to hurt the profession.
"It's not all glitz and glam," Johnson said. "TV shows make you think we make outrageous amounts of money and all drive muscle cars." Johnson had his entire back tattooed by Christ Garver, the owner and star of Miami Ink. "I paid $3,500 for my tattoo in 1994. It would be $50,000 now," he said because of Garver's celebrity status.
He also said because of the editing that goes on before the shows air, people think you can get a big tattoo in an hour. He said on more than one occasion he's been 10 minutes into a tattoo when the customer has asked if he's almost finished. "When I tell them they've got about three hours left, they are completely horrified!"
The group said the trends of tribal tattoos and Chinese symbols have pretty much passed on. What's most popular now seems to be memorial tattoos, sometimes even for people who are still living. "I've never done so many memorial tattoos in my life until the shows started," Johnson said. "And people are a lot more carefree getting a memorial for an acquaintance."
Another popular pick for men lately is a tattoo of a female vampire. "I can't believe how many of those I see," Johnson said. "I even did one [at the convention last weekend]." Davis said foot tattoos are also very popular right now on females as well as tattoos on the neck, which is a hot pick for both men and women.
When asked if he has ever refused to create a tattoo a customer requested, Johnson said while he does not do it a lot, he has on occasion. "I won't do anything that will hurt our shop or my reputation," Johnson said, citing racist tattoos as an example. Alexander added that they might try to persuade a customer away from a certain idea they have that wouldn't look very good in tattoo form, or one they might regret later down the road.
"I can't believe how many people still get bad tattoos," Johnson said. "I fix them all the time." He said it is well worth it to pick up a tattoo magazine, find an artist who does amazing work, and drive or take a train to their shop. "Tattoo magazines usually have killer art," he said. "Find a good shop rather than going to a friend's house." Davis added that otherwise the customer usually ends up paying for two tattoos, the bad one and the cover-up.
Alexander said sometimes people come in and tell them to do what ever they want. "I will wing it," he said, "but I usually try to pick their brain and secretly find out what they want."
"It's kind of cool getting some of the people who watch the TV shows coming into the shop," Johnson added as he said that he gets a lot of mothers and daughters coming in together or fathers and sons. He said one group the shows have definitely brought in is "the guy who was on the fence" because they see such good work being done. "I feel we do as good of work as those people," said Johnson. "In fact, I know most of those people; it's a small community." (Johnson added that he likes "London Ink" because it is more realistic.)
Alexander explained that the state does not consider a tattoo shop a business. On their tax id, they are labeled as a retail shop because they sell jewelry and ointments. Johnson said that while he is licensed in several cities and states across the country, there is no way to obtain a tattoo license in Pennsylvania. "I worked in the first legal shop in Virginia," Johnson said, "but it took years to get it legalized and about $100,000." He said he read in a magazine recently that one US city actually banned tattooing.
"This is the fifth shop I've been involved in as an owner," Johnson said. "I've been really fortunate with not having major problems legal wise."
Once Underworld was up and running they decided it would be beneficial to add piercing to their repertoire, so Davis stepped up to the place. Davis has always wanted to be a tattoo artist, but because of nerve damage in her arm, she can't handle the vibrations from the machine.
She learned to do piercing from the owner of Piercings by Darby located in Kingsport, Tenn. She traveled from Tennessee to New Orleans to train with Darby. "I wanted to learn from the best in the country," she said. "I was intimidated at first, but I found I am good at precision." She is certified in ears, genitals, Dermal-anchors, and advanced surface piercing.
Davis said piercing requires a lot of training. Her advice is to never get a piercing from someone who is not certified in that particular style. She said not that many piercers in Pennsylvania are certified because it's not required by the state. Once a certification course is completed a certificate is given to all who passed. Davis has these displayed on the wall for clients to see.
She uses a room that is separated from the main part of the shop so the customer has privacy. It also protects the piercing from airborne contamination that could be in the air where the tattoos are being done, which could infect a piercing because of the depth of the hole.
She said she is very particular about the jewelry she uses and sells. It has to be pure steel or titanium. She does everything from the basic earlobe piercing to the full corset down the back. "I'm always looking to do something crazy," she said.
Every point that she uses to pierce with is razor sharp. "I am totally against the gun," she says, "The force is too great that it causes the tissue to crack and break." The needles that she uses remove the tissue, leaving a clean line that will heal quicker.
Underworld recently purchased a Neumata machine for tatooing. It is air-driven and powered by a compressor. This causes less trauma, less pain, and less scabbing. With less trauma, the wound will be less likely to bleed, therefore the tattoo will be brighter. It also allows for smoother transitions. The tattoos done with this machine generally heal a lot quicker and Johnson said the skin flakes like a light sunburn. The machine also produces a quieter, softer sound compared to the intimidating buzz of traditional machines. The Neumata machines can also be completely sterilized.
Alexander has received certificates from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) because of his sterilization procedures. Underworld uses an autoclave, which is a sterilizing machine that uses 300 pounds of steam pressure, on all jewelry and machine tubes and grips. The traditional machines have to be hand sanitized. Every needle that the shop uses, whether for tattoos or piercings, arrive in airtight packaging and stay wrapped until they are ready to be used. They are only used once and then properly disposed. Every single thing that Johnson or Alexander touch when tattooing is covered in plastic to protect from blood borne pathogens.
"I like to go overboard with cleanliness and regulations," Johnson said. They are always updating their regulations and checking out what other shops do.
Johnson had his first tattoo done by the Godoy twins, now very well known and working out of California. He said he was really in to skateboarding when he was a teenager, "I was one of those spoiled kids with a half-pipe in my backyard," Johnson said. The Godoy twins, both with full-sleeve tattoos themselves, stopped by Johnson's house one day to give he and his friend tattoos.
"They said they do it for extra money on the side," Johnson said. "And that always stuck in my head. They just carried a small case with their equipment and I thought that was so cool."
Johnson learned how to tattoo in Ephratain 1989. Before opening Underworld, he owned Vanden Studio in Parkesburg. "I didn't think I'd be doing it this long," Johnson said, "but any tattoo artist who's been doing it for a long time will tell you that."
Johnson recently tattooed a portrait of the President and sent a photograph of the completed tattoo to the White House. He later received a letter signed by President George Bush thanking him for the great artwork. What the President didn't know was that the photo he saw was cropped, showing only the tattoo. The original photograph shows that the tattoo is on the person's right buttock.
Johnson said he is either the second or third tattooist in history to get a letter from a sitting president. And he is definitely the first to get a thank you letter from a republican president.
Alexander has a degree in graphic design. Once he graduated from college and started a career in the profession, he found that he didn't like the corporate world. "I'm an artist at heart," he said. "I used to draw a lot of comic book illustrations; and I
(photo by Tara Pugh)
Brian Johnson touches up the color in a tattoo he previously did on Joshua Seymour, the bass player of local band, Swelter. As long as the tattoo is treated properly, Underworld will give free touchups to tattoos they've done in the past. drew a lot of portraits of my friends. My friends and family really supported me."
After leaving the corporate world he became certified as a personal trainer. Davis Glisson, who co-owns five tattoo parlors, worked at the same gym as Alexander and took notice of freehand drawings he would create during free time at work off the top of his head. Glisson was so impressed with Alexander's artistic ability that he told him he would teach him how to tattoo for free as long as he would buy his own equipment and agree to work for him for two years. After giving it some thought, Alexander decided to go for it.
"The small things I was drawing at the beginning were really easy because I draw all the time," Alexander said. "Usually beginners do their first tattoos on fruit, but he wanted me to tattoo on real people." His apprenticeship lasted four months before he started tattooing fulltime.
Johnson and Alexander are currently in the process of having their first book published. Stencils, expected to hit stores in the fall, is a collection of custom tattoos they have drawn over the years.
They are each working on putting together solo books as well. Alexander's next book, Chris Alexander's Custom Tattoos, will show how to draw tattoos using sequential photographs. "I call it a record of a tattoo," he said. He is breaking down each drawing into three stages and will explain the process for each. It will illustrate the four different styles of tattooing: traditional, neo-traditional, new school, and realism.
Johnson is currently working on a book he will call Tattoo Fetish. It will be a collection of photographs of women and some men who are heavily tattooed. Each photo will include a short biography of the model and any text they choose to include.
Both of the artists see a future in books. "You get out of tattooing what you put into it," Johnson said. "I put in a lot of hours and go to a lot of shows, and we'll be getting royalty checks for the rest of our lives [from these books]."
Davis' son, Austin Corle, is currently apprenticing under Johnson at the young age of 16. "I certainly didn't encourage it," Johnson said. "I was afraid he'd get a rock star attitude (because of the atmosphere, popularity, and money). And that could lead to bad situations." Davis said he's shown a lot of potential.
Davis said Underworld is completely alcohol and drug free. No one who works in the shop drinks and they will not give a tattoo to anyone who has been drinking.
The shop charges $100 per hour for tattoos with a $50 minimum. Piercing starts at $40 and includes jewelry. They are open seven days a week and accept walk-ins.
To look at some of the work the artists of Underworld have done, visit their page at www.myspace.com/under-world_tattoo or stop in the shop to look through portfolios.