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Lots of skin in the game: Artists craft tattoos as memorials and keepsakes at Harford studio

The woman lies, unflinching, on the table as the tattoo artist works his craft. Her skin is his canvas; the needle, his brush. What’s the design on her shoulder to be? A delicate, flowering pea vine.

“My husband and I are getting matching tattoos,” says Jen Fitze, 43.

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Sort of. Her hubby, Kristofer Fitze, 42, is getting a carrot tattoo, inspired by a line in the film “Forrest Gump”:

“Jenny and me was like peas and carrots.”

They’ve come to Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston to put an artistic face on their marriage — two inky symbols of their love. And though the artist, Guy Arnold, has been tattooing for 25 years, he’s still touched by his part in the process.

“I get to affect them for the rest of their lives,” says Arnold, of Joppa.

Tattoo artist Mike Kohler works on a custom tattoo on the arm of client Wyatt Hare of Baltimore during a recent session at Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston.
Tattoo artist Mike Kohler works on a custom tattoo on the arm of client Wyatt Hare of Baltimore during a recent session at Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston.(Matt Button / Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media)

Flesh Tattoo is an upscale studio, a winner in Harford Magazine’s Best of Harford County Readers’ Choice Poll, and one of a number of trendy shops that have sprung up locally since the industry went chic some 15 years ago.

Reality television shows like “Miami Ink” gave credence to places once seen as dives for motorcycle gangs and ne’er-do-wells.

“Back in the day, if you had a tattoo you were rough, bad news, trouble,” says Mike Rosellini, who opened Flesh Tattoo in 2006. “When I tried to start a shop in Bel Air, a landlord told me, ‘We don’t want your type here.’ Then cable television discovered tattoos and the whole perspective changed. We’ve gone from putting that anchor on Popeye’s forearm to tattooing a vest on a doctor’s chest. Nowadays, people are investing a lot of time and money ($175 an hour) into their bodies."

In another room at Flesh Tattoo, a father and daughter share an epidermal moment.

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A variety of drawings hang on the wall of tattoo artist Nick Kaufamn in his studio area at Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston.
A variety of drawings hang on the wall of tattoo artist Nick Kaufamn in his studio area at Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston. (Matt Button / Baltimore Sun Media/Baltimore Sun Media)

Chip Schilling, 52, is getting the likeness of an album cover by The Cult — a bird’s wing — tattooed on his arm; for Bethany, 18, a fan of Manchester Orchestra, it’s the image of a girl clinging to a fir tree like on the front of that band’s album.

“This is [Bethany’s] birthday present,” says Schilling, of Bel Air. At his daughter’s behest, he followed suit.

“It’s a special thing, a permanence, between us,” she says.

Many folks leave Flesh Tattoo as walking memorials to loved ones now deceased. After two police officers were killed in a 2015 shooting at a Panera Bread restaurant in Abingdon, a family member of one of the officers had a replica of his badge tattooed on her arm.

“It’s a therapeutic thing for the living,” Rosellini says. “I literally have a spot on my chest, opposite my heart, for when my mom passes.”

Such commemorative designs comprise 70 percent of his business, says Tony Veres, 36, who, with his wife, Kayli, 33, owns Instant History Tattoo in Havre de Grace.

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“We’ve had moms get tattoos of their kids’ names and birth flowers,” says Veres. “One dad who has four daughters got a design of four pocket watches, each showing their time of birth. Tattoos are part of your personal history; they help tell your story and carry a piece of you outwardly to show others.”

Once, Veres was asked to put “Will you marry me?” on a young man’s chest, but said that “the guy wanted it stenciled, not tattooed, in case the woman turned him down.”

Alexis Price, center, of Elton, gets a tattoo from artist Becca Tozer, left, at Instant History Tattoo & Art Gallery. The shop, operated by Tony and Kayli Veres in Havre de Grace.
Alexis Price, center, of Elton, gets a tattoo from artist Becca Tozer, left, at Instant History Tattoo & Art Gallery. The shop, operated by Tony and Kayli Veres in Havre de Grace. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Repeat customers are common, he says — 30 multi-hour sessions for one man, whose left arm is covered with tattoos of cartoon characters from “Underdog” to “Toy Story.” His right arm bears images of villains from horror films. Think Pennywise from “It.”

Veres, who opened his shop four years ago, says women account for half of his clientele and that older folks are now showing up as well.

“It’s all a part of (tattoos) being accepted by society,” he says. "With seniors, you have to be real careful because their skin is thinner.”

Tattooing has gone high-tech. Skin-piercing needles are disposable; the once-noisy rotary machines that house them now hum. But bleeding still occurs and the process still hurts.

How much?

“It depends on your pain tolerance,” Veres says. “I’ve seen small-statured women get a full rib piece and not budge, and I’ve seen men get wrist tattoos where [the discomfort] didn’t sit too well.”

Veres and his staff have tattooed eyebrows on women. (“It shortens their makeup time.")

They also accommodate breast-cancer survivors, providing lifelike tattoos of nipples, at no charge, to those who’ve undergone mastectomies.

“We want women to feel good about themselves,” he says.

Forearms are the favorite body part to get inked “because tattoos are more socially acceptable and people want to show them off in the workplace,” says Veres. The most unusual spot? The sole of one’s foot.

Bottles of ink in a rainbow of colors sit at a work station of an artist at Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston.
Bottles of ink in a rainbow of colors sit at a work station of an artist at Flesh Tattoo Company in Fallston.(Matt Button / Baltimore Sun Medi/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

“We don’t do genitalia,” he says. “But we’ve been near there.”

Folks who a generation ago would not have set foot in a tattoo studio are going under the needle, from police officers to politicians, plus those in medicine.

“I’ve done tattoos of anatomical hearts, the caduceus and stethoscopes on doctors and nurses,” Veres says.

Flesh Tattoo artist Nick Kaufman recently tattooed an 85-year-old woman.

“Her husband would never let her get one, but once he died, she came in and got a butterfly on her leg,” says Kaufman, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Erica Gladfelter, left, of Havre de Grace, gets a tattoo from Instant History Tattoo & Art Gallery tattoo artist Kayli Veres.
Erica Gladfelter, left, of Havre de Grace, gets a tattoo from Instant History Tattoo & Art Gallery tattoo artist Kayli Veres. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Rosellini, his boss, says he has seen it all, from designs of a favorite Psalm to the paw prints of a beloved pet. He has even put faux wedding bands on ring fingers.

“Nothing surprises me,” he says. His staff, some of whom have six-figure incomes, are paid by the tattoo and will tackle everything from a toe to a tush.

Rosellini’s back is covered with a mural of colorful designs which cost him more than $5,000.

“If it’s skin, and you ask for it, we can tattoo it," he says. "We haven’t run out of space on anyone yet.”

Could that happen?

He shrugs, smiles.

“Vanity never fades,” he says.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove incorrect information in two cutlines. Flesh Tattoo was the winner in Harford Magazine’s Best of Harford County 2019 Readers’ Choice Poll.

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