It's the old-timers who tell you how much the business has changed. The legendary Lyle Tuttle started tattooing professionally on the West Coast in 1949, when it was mostly drunken servicemen demanding screaming eagless. Then came the first wave of hippies, their heads full of acid and idealism. Mr. Tuttle did Janis Joplin ("Gave 'er a bracelet on her wrist and a rose on her [chest]") and Cher and the Allman Brothers, although a lot of good their tattoos did them.
Joplin OD'd on heroin and Duane Allman slammed his Harley into a produce truck, and both were gone from this world forever. Cher started dressing in bobcat vests and singing sappy love songs to a little guy named Sonny Bono, with a face like a basset hound.
Oh, it was a seedy business, all right.
You couldn't get much seedier than a tattoo parlor, unless maybe you ran a whorehouse. Even then it was a toss-up as to whose place they'd burn down first when the holy-rollers got it in their heads that the town was going to hell in a handbasket.
Now, a guy like Lyle Tuttle, who once spent umpteen hours having his back tattooed by hand by Samoan tribesmen and never even asked for a Tylenol, looks around and thinks: Good God almighty, what's happened to my world?!
The fact is, tattooing has gone positively mainstream in the last few years.
It even appears to be edging perilously close to -- steady now -- respectability.
Now there are movie stars (Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts), fashion models (Christy Turlington) and NBA players (Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman) showing off their tattoos. So is the pimply-faced 19-year-old economics major who lives next door to you, and that 29-year-old ad executive down the street, especially if she's a female. (Women now make up more than 50 percent of the customers in most tattoo studios.)
So is Norman Rifkin of Parkville. You can't get any more mainstream than Norman Rifkin. Norman Rifkin is 40 years old and works for the Internal Revenue Service. The government, for crying out loud!
Norman Rifkin never had a tattoo in his life. But a streak of wildness runs through all of us, and it turns out Norman Rifkin secretly lusted for a tattoo for years.
Anyway, on a sunny, crisp Saturday in the fall, something finally snaps inside him and he walks into Dragon Moon Tattoo Studio in Glen Burnie and has them etch a tribal sign on his bicep.
"I don't know . . . maybe this was a mid-life crisis," he says. "I was definitely anxious and at one point I thought: Am I really doing this? But I really like it."
To decorate the Norman Rifkins of this world, there are now some 10,000 tattooists nationwide, compared to only about 400 in 1965. Mick Beasley, 36, co-owner with her husband, Tom, of Dragon Moon and the founder of the Alliance of Professional Tattooists, says there are 40 tattoo shops in the greater Baltimore area alone.
Perhaps the ultimate testimony to the mainstream inroads made by tattooing is this: No less than two tattoo studios are currently vying to open in the heart of staid Towson.
Just a few years ago, the locals would have treated this as something akin to devil-worshipers moving in with their portable altars and charred remains of small animals.
Now, a few town councilmen are in a lather over the tattoo crowd moving in, but to many in Towson, it's no big deal.
"To some people, it's like going to get your hair done," says Mick Beasley.
"Tattooing has really crossed this line with the public to become super-popular," Mr. Tuttle, now retired and the founder of the Tattoo Art Museum in San Francisco, is saying over the phone. "It's the whole body-decorating thing. Body-piercing has become [big] that now people are saying: 'Jesus Christ, a tattoo is nothing!' "
And yet the person who cheerfully shows off a 4-inch silver rod through her septum while passing the string beans at the dinner table is not necessarily the person who gets a tattoo.
"The whole business has changed dramatically," says Ed "Mouse" Massimiano, 38, owner of Main St. Tattoo Studios in Edgewood. "Four years ago, 70 percent of my customers were bikers, rock-and-rollers and good ol' country boys, and about 30 percent were middle class.
"Now it's 70 percent middle class, 20 percent upper class and maybe 10 percent bikers, rockers and country boys."
The fact is, modern tattooing, with its more efficient tattoo
"guns," brighter colors and autoclaves (steam-pressure sterilization units for needles) is appealing to a whole new demographic.
"Tattooing is definitely a middle-class thing now, and I think a lot of that is because of MTV," says Vincent Myers, 33, owner of Little Vinnie's Tattoos in Westminster. "MTV used a lot of creativity to display tattoos visually, and not just on the rock stars, but on everyday people in the [concert] crowds and videos."
Is this just another fad headed for a meteoric flame-out, like green hair or those "Mother-in-law in trunk" signs once seen in rear windows of cars? After all, there are already people moving into other more exotic (and infinitely more painful) methods of body-decorating, such as branding and scarring.
Plus, the popularity of tattooing has always been cyclical, dating back at least to the Depression era.
"What's important about this cycle is that it's far more widespread than it's ever been," says Clinton R. Sanders, professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and the author of "Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing."
For more than 25 years, Lyle Tuttle made a living jabbing a tattoo gun into the hairy forearms of beered-up Marines and outlaw bikers, and then the delicate features of the Flower People.
Now you have tattoo studios opening next to the local Rite-Aid and tweedy college professors declaiming on the essence of the tattoo culture as if it were Faulkner 101.
Mr. Tuttle says it's the same old girl, tattooing. But they sure have dressed her up fancy.
Present, future of tattooing
It's a little past noon on a Friday at Little Vinnie's Tattoos in Westminster, and the joint is jumping.
Twelve customers mill about in the waiting room, inspecting the "flash," or sheets of designs that hang on a tattooist's wall.
Three of the customers are women, three others appear young enough to be college students, and one is a biker. The biker has the kind of mug that would cause you to jump out of your folding chair at a police lineup and shout, "There! That's the guy who held me up!" But the others appear wholesome enough to star in a breakfast commercial.
If you want to see the present and future of tattooing, this is the place to be. Owner Vinnie Myers is 33 and looks about as threatening as the kid bagging groceries at Safeway.
Eagerly, he ticks off his middle-class credentials: born at Mercy Hospital, grew up in Woodlawn, has a wife, two kids and another on the way.
"We're from the new school of tattooers," he says proudly, sweeping his hand around the immaculately clean store, with its 1,500 square feet of space and four private tattoo rooms.
"Everyone here is an artist first."
At Little Vinnie's, tattoos start at $50 for small designs and run into the thousands of dollars for elaborate back, chest and thigh pieces.
On this day, Sue Gorman, 21, a Towson State student from Bergen County, N.J., is having a tiny crescent moon tattooed on her left ankle.
This is Ms. Gorman's second tattoo. She had a small sun secretly tattooed on her hip last year. When her parents discovered it, they did not throw her belongings out by the curb and tell her to get out. But it was clear they weren't thrilled.
So, naturally, she decided to go for another one, operating on the theory that whatever doesn't kill her parents will only make them stronger.
"I just like the way they look," she says. "I wanted to get one for a long time. And when I got one, I liked the way it looked, so I wanted to get another."
The tattooing begins with Dusty ("Nobody uses my last name") carefully outlining the contours of the design on Ms. Gorman's right ankle.
She appears to be handling things well, if you ignore the fact that she's squeezing so hard on the hand of her boyfriend, Nick Agosto, that Mr. Agosto has lost all feeling in his arm from the elbow down.
The pain of tattooing varies, depending on the body part being worked on, and has been likened to everything from a cat scratch to being operated on with a harpoon and no anesthesia.
Ms. Gorman seems to be suffering more from apprehension than anything else. But 20 minutes later, when the tattooing is done, she's smiling.
"I like it a lot," she says, then to Mr. Agosto: "Do you like it?"
Mr. Agosto says, yeah, he likes it fine, although his main concern right now is restoring circulation to his arm.
The next day at Dragon Moon Tattoo, no less than eight "first-timers" can be found in the waiting room by 1 p.m., and, again, the image is as mainstream America as a bakery.
Studio co-owner Tom Beasley, an intense, taciturn man, is a true heavyweight in the tattoo world, internationally recognized for his intricate, customized designs. His wife, Mick, who is herself 60 percent "covered," has a ready laugh that puts the newcomers immediately at ease.
One of those is Steve Sanders, 30, a helicopter mechanic for the Maryland State Police, who's having a Celtic tribal sign tattooed on his shoulder.
"I love the way it looks," he says. "Sure, I was a little nervous about it. When you think that it's going to be a permanent part of you . . ."
And yet now that many tattoos can be removed safely and effectively with laser cosmetic surgery, one of the last barriers to the mainstreaming of tattoos is slowly crumbling.
At the Dragon Moon on this postcard-perfect fall Saturday, the four tattoo booths will be filled continuously until 9 at night.
And if you want to get deep about it, somewhere in there, amid the low hum of the tattoo guns and the excited chatter of the customers, a cultural sea-change is taking place in the way Americans show off their bodies.
Not like the old days
Cave paintings indicate that the practice of tattooing dates back to at least 8,000 B.C. According to the "Total Tattoo Book" by Amy Krakow, the ancient Egyptians communicated various symbolisms through tattoos. The Greeks identified their spies by their tattoos.
After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Saxons were able to identify the body of King Harold of England -- which now did not look so good, owing to a variety of nasty sword and arrow wounds -- by the word "Edith" tattooed over his heart.
But none of this is on the minds of the 70 or so students shoe-horned into a small meeting room in Tower Dorm at Towson State University on this rainy Monday night.
The crowd is overwhelmingly white, well-scrubbed and clear-eyed, here to attend a seminar on tattooing given by "Mouse" Massimiano and his Main St. Tattoo staff. The majority of questions center on the risk of acquiring disease during tattooing, how much it hurts, whether tanning ruins a tattoo, etc.
But what's truly remarkable about this gathering is that the tattooers are here at the invitation of the college, at least through its students here in Tower D -- a situation that would have been impossible to imagine five years ago.
"Man, we coulda used a bigger room!" Mr. Massimiano shouts when the seminar is over. "Did you see how many of them were out in the hallway?!"
Yet maybe for the old-timers like Lyle Tuttle, there is also a vague sense of sadness at how much tattooing has changed, a feeling that one of the critical elements of the art has been lost with the fading of its outlaw image.
"Tattoos used to be very powerful, because they were a great way to thumb your nose at authority," observes Clinton Sanders, the Connecticut sociology professor. "Now, when [even] your accountant has a tattoo, it's not such a great way to thumb your nose anymore."