Arts and Entertainment

Tattoos in Kitsap: Ink me again — and again

Silver City Tattoo artist Bo McConaghie inks some skin. - Jennifer Morris/Staff Photo
Silver City Tattoo artist Bo McConaghie inks some skin.
— image credit: Jennifer Morris/Staff Photo

The universality of tattooing is a curious subject for speculation.

- British explorer Capt. James Cook, 1779

Like many do, Lucky Boys Tattoo Parlor artist Michelle Hughes learned the ropes the long way. Starting as a counter girl, and later an apprentice, she shifted over time from a paper artist to a skin one. She’s been tattooing in Kitsap County for eight years now, and she knows the ups and downs of the seasons.

Right now, things are way up.

“Summertime definitely picks up,” said Hughes, 27, one of four artists housed in the Silverdale Way parlor. In fact, she said, aside from a few slow weeks mid-December, Lucky Boys is normally just that, booked with customers three or four weeks in advance. When the warm weather — and warm weather wear — arrives, the artists at Lucky Boys can be scheduled out for two months.

It’s a busy time of year in what is a perpetually busy industry in Kitsap, as inked skin seeps deeper into the mainstream and the numbers of repeat customers grow. The July 1 dawning of a new Washington law, mandating all artists be individually certified, is a welcome one to many who say the reputation-based scene won’t suffer from the regulation.

Seated behind a counter laden with binders, each one featuring the custom designs of a Smitty’s Place Tattoo artist, Bonnie Smith fingered an unsmoked cigarette and commented on the state’s impending tattoo law. She wore blue corduroy and her hair in dreads, and sat behind the counter as if she were sitting in her living room.

“They’re making it very easy for reputable, existing shops to adhere to the new law,” she said. Smith, 23, is the daughter of Michael O’Neil “Smitty” Smith, the shop’s owner. Like so many other artists who’ve learned the trade from friends or family, Smith studied tattoo artistry under her father. On her left arm, she sports a tattoo of his inking machine, a palm-sized work of electromagnetic coils.

Smith and other certified artists call those without certification “scratchers,” a crowd targeted by the state with the new requirements, which also stipulate strict sterilization guidelines and mandate any tattoo business be separate from the residential or sleeping areas in a building, among other policies.

Some aren’t in favor of the law, which requires artists to be licensed in a way similar to hairstylists, and say the state shouldn’t interfere with businesses that have done a good job for years.

It is already illegal in Washington to tattoo a minor, but those under 18 have still managed to get ink.

“Our biggest cover-up market is covering tattoos that were done illegally on minors,” Smith said.

Fly-by-night tattoo artists and those who operate from home are a sore spot for shop artists who play by the rules; they give the industry a bad name in a culture that has long faced negative stereotypes.

Still, tattooing has made its way into the mainstream. In Kitsap, a peninsula full of sailors, Navy boys aren’t nearly the only customers walking into the county’s dozen tattoo establishments, though there are still plenty of them.

“You’re going to have everyone coming into a tattoo shop, from judges to criminals to doctors,” said Sam Dishongh, 28, an artist at Lucky Boys. He etched a skull-and-wings scene onto the chest of an active duty 20-year-old who was using the piece to cover his original chest tattoo of his wife’s name. Not because they’d broken up, he said, but just in case.

As body art becomes more common, people become more aware of the gravity of the choice to get it, and they also meet the realization that they are purchasing a work of art, said Electric Crayon Tattoo and Piercing artist Matt Sallquist. He and most other artists report more custom pieces and fewer off-the-wall, otherwise known as flash, tattoos.

Most said repeat customers are big business, and agree tattoos are addicting.

“It’s pretty mixed up. We don’t really have one, if I was to say our biggest demographic,” said Sallquist, 40, at Electric Crayons in Port Orchard. “Take yesterday, for instance. I tattooed someone that had just turned 18 and got their first tattoo. Later on that afternoon, I tattooed a grandmother who was in her early 50s. Not to mention everyone in the middle of that.”

Same goes for Joe Boyle and Bo McConaghie at Silver City Tattoo. Boyle, the owner, has run the shop out of Poulsbo for a dozen years.

“Everyone gets tattoos these days,” he said, adding many choose their indelible look based on what they see in celebrity magazines. Boyle, like Smith, learned the art from his father. He said he noticed a wider acceptance of tattoos beginning in the mid-90s.

Silver City Tattoo looks a little like a typical tattoo parlor and a lot like an art gallery. Skulls and other wide-eyed creatures peered from hangings on its red-hued walls, and in a side room McConaghie wrote a Samurai warrior onto the shin of Scott Turchin, a software guy whose girlfriend was there to support him.

Each tattoo shop is unlike the next; the simpler, nostalgic look of Smitty’s contrasts stylized, neon Lucky Boys. The artists inside them are equally different, and each of them wears ink on their skin.

“It’s adornment,” said Hughes of Lucky Boys, who carved a screaming eagle onto the back of Silverdale’s David Mitchell, 33. “People customize everything else in their lives, why not their body as well?”

Fourteen percent of adults have tattoos, according to a 2008 Harris Poll. Thirty-six percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are inked, and 24 percent of those between ages 30 and 40 have tattoos, according to a study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, published in 2006. That survey found that 15 percent of Americans ages 41-51 also had tattoos.

Sallquist, a former snowboarder who started tattooing after a bad wipe out, chalks it up to what Capt. James Cook first discovered, as he navigated continent to continent, coming across tattooed people in each new place.

“As human beings,” Sallquist said, “it’s our inner need to decorate our bodies and beautify ourselves.” WU

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