The methodical, muted buzzing of a tattoo machine radiates from an artist’s booth like the sound emanating from a beehive. The clean, sterile smell of green soap, an environmentally friendly vegetable-based product used by tattoo artists and piercers to clean and soothe skin, fills the air. Framed tattoo artwork of every size, shape, color and style decorates the walls. You’ve just walked into a tattoo shop.
Twenty years ago, this experience was unheard of in Charleston, or anywhere in South Carolina, as the state banned tattoos in the 1960s after a nationwide panic over a hepatitis outbreak in New York City thought to be linked to a Coney Island tattoo artist.
As a result, many states moved to ban the practice, leading to decades-long legal battles to bring tattooing back. By 2004 when South Carolina lawmakers lifted the restriction, the Palmetto State and Oklahoma were the only two states that still prohibited tattooing.
After the new law passed, it took another two years before shops in Charleston opened due to local zoning laws that can still make it difficult to open a new shop today thanks to specific restrictions around the size of the space and locations where shops can operate.
Despite obstacles, tattooing has become a common practice in Charleston and nationwide.
According to a 2019 poll conducted by Ipsos, 30% of Americans have tattoos compared to 21% in 2012. Of those with at least one tattoo, 92% said they were happy with the decision. The study found younger people tend to be more likely to get tattooed — 46% of people ages 18-34 and 36% of people ages 35-54 said they had at least one.
Tattoo artist Betsy Butler, who works at The Gilded Mermaid in Ravenel, said she gets clients from all walks of life.
“If you look at the cross section of who my clients are, there’s really nothing that combines them,” she said. “They’re mothers, grandmothers, teachers, government workers, doctors, bakers and everybody in between.”
Tattoos were once associated with rowdy sailors and hard criminals, but they have integrated into mainstream culture, though some stigmas have stuck around.
“I think the doors have definitely been opened,” said Butler. “Access to things like Instagram have really allowed that for people. People are seeing potential for themselves whereas maybe they never wanted to get tattooed before.
“And I’m stoked that I make tattoos that moms like. A lot of clients will come in and say, ‘Oh, my mom’s gonna hate this,’ and then I’ll get a message from them on Instagram a few weeks later saying, ‘My mom loved it. She said it was so beautiful!’ ”
Part of the stigma that remains is the misplaced notion that women with tattoos lose their femininity because some people still associate tattoos with masculinity, Butler said.
But there are ways to give a soft, feminine look to tattoos if that’s what a client wants. Today’s women, however, aren’t restricted by definitions of femininity and masculinity; they’re getting all kinds of designs from colorful flowers to darkly shaded skulls — and sometimes even more unusual designs.
“Years ago, I tattooed a girl who tattoos now I think in Tennessee. But before she was even apprenticing, we did a giant vagina with a French mustache on her hip,” said Margo Venomous who tattoos at Holy City Tattooing Collective in West Ashley. “There’s not a whole lot of tattoos that I think are dumb ideas. Get the funny ones, let’s have a ball and make it into a great experience.”
Men are also starting to move away from a strict definition of masculine tattoos. City Paper’s 2022 Best Tattoo Artist winner Ashley B. McMullen recounted a Hello Kitty tattoo she did on a guy’s mid-lower back, a placement often called a “tramp stamp.”
“I also did a jean pocket on a guy’s butt cheek once,” she said, laughing.
But, research released in 2012 by the Oxygen Network and Lightspeed Research found women were actually more likely to be inked despite historical stigmas that associated tattooed women with social deviation and promiscuity. Out of the population of people with tattoos, 59% were women compared to 41% of men.
Enter the women
Stigmas surrounding women and tattoos didn’t just impact those who wanted to sport some body art. It made it difficult for women to break into the profession, too.
“When I first started, tattooing was very different,” said McMullen, who has been tattooing for 15 years and also works at Holy City Tattooing Collective in West Ashley. “But now, there is so much support for women in the tattoo industry. Some clients prefer to only get tattooed by female artists. When I first started, there wasn’t anything like that. People shied away from getting tattooed by me because I was a girl.”
This is a sentiment echoed by many female artists in the industry. Venomous, now 45, attended high school in Summerville and began tattooing when she was 18. She moved away in 1995 and bounced around the Southeast pursuing a career in tattooing and “having adventures.”
“The only way to get into a tattoo shop [as a woman] was to learn to pierce, but I don’t like hurting people,” said Venomous. “I like the way piercings look, but I didn’t want to do that. But, it was my only viable way into a shop other than dating some gross 50-year-old biker. I don’t even fault anybody. It really was whatever you can do to learn a little bit.”
Venomous moved back to Charleston after tattooing was legalized, but still faced gender discrimination and predatory behavior from male clients and tattooers, though she said this attitude has changed over the years.
“I like working in a mixed shop,” she said of working with male and female artists, “because for a while, I was a novelty and the weird one. Women have been fetishized in this business for a while.”
“It’s amazing how it’s changed,” said McMullen, “Because you can feel more comfortable getting tattooed and being a female tattooer.”
For Butler, who landed her tattooing apprenticeship at Blu Gorilla 12 years ago while Venomous was working there, most of her clients today are women. She speculated that perhaps more women are getting tattooed because of the changing cultural view of body art and the wider acceptance of women working in the industry.
“Margo was really inspiring to me. At the time, there were hardly any females tattooing, much less in Charleston,” Butler said of Venomous. “As an apprentice, it was incredible to see somebody so strong and getting so much respect. She was like the lead artist. She was number one, and she was a mother. All the dudes at the shop respected the hell out of her. And it wasn’t because she’s a girl. She’s busy because she’s a badass.”
The art of tattooing allows for a flow of ideas between the client and the artist, which can make for some truly unique designs. Butler is known in the tattoo world for her neo-traditional fandom art, creating colorful tattoos inspired by series like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.
“I like to tattoo things that I love,” she said. “I really love plants, animals and birds. And I’m a huge nerd, so I love my fandoms. I think it’s important to go to somebody who also likes those things because they can have more insight, more ideas.”
Butler tries to create more than just a testament to a series when she does fandom tattoos, working with clients to capture a feeling or a specific recollection connected to these beloved stories.
Currently, she said she’s excited about a large-scale Harry Potter piece and a Star Wars design as well as a full sleeve that subtly depicts female Disney characters including nods to everyone from Belle to Ursula.
Butler, Venomous and McMullen emphasized the importance of knowing your artists and getting tattooed by someone you feel comfortable with and whose art you enjoy. McMullen said she likes doing the American traditional style of tattooing as well as lettering and flowers.
Researching artists on Instagram or booking a pre-appointment consultation is the best way to find the right tattooer for you, they said.
“And, trust the process,” said McMullen. “I think some people forget that as tattoo artists, we know how to draw, so we’ll work with you to design something you want and love.”
Regardless of the design, getting a tattoo can be a transformative experience and help one have a sense of control over their own body and skin, said Butler.
“I’ve had so many clients change their entire lives — the way they looked at themselves, the way they dressed — based on a tattoo. And as someone who has had that happen to them, it’s really beautiful to see.”
So you want to get a tattoo? Here are some etiquette tips:
Getting a tattoo can be intimidating, even if you’ve done it before. To make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable, Butler, McMullen and Venomous offer some tips and tricks to keep in mind before an appointment.
- Pick an artist who makes you feel comfortable. “Get to know your artist first,” said McMullen. “That way, you can kind of feel it out. Make a consultation appointment and make sure you’re comfortable with the person and in the space.”
- Always eat before showing up for an appointment.
- Show up on time.
- Be aware that artists make time at the beginning of the appointment for any design adjustments that need to be made.
- If you don’t feel comfortable, speak up. Same goes for your design. If you don’t like something, tell the artist. They can work with you on a design you’ll be happy with. It is permanent after all.
- If someone continues to make you uncomfortable, leave. “If you feel uncomfortable, you have a choice to either say something or if you feel you can’t, just walk,” said Venomous. “You don’t ever have to feel pressed to get a tattoo.”
- You should never be required to remove clothing completely even if you’re being tattooed in a revealing area. “There are lots of different clothes you can wear to not have to be revealed,” said Venomous. “For example, if you’re getting your back done, I’ll have people put on a big flannel or button down shirt backwards. You don’t ever have to be uncovered.”
- Ask for a price range prior to your tattoo. Artists often won’t know the exact price until the design is finalized, but it’s good to know what you’ll be expected to pay. If you have a budget, communicate this with your artist.
- A deposit is required when booking an appointment. The price of the deposit goes towards the final price of the tattoo.
- Tips are greatly appreciated. But like other service industries, tipping 15-20% of the full price is standard. Take this into account when determining your budget.
- Heed an artist’s advice and trust the process.
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