It seems like everyone has at least one tattoo these days. I was a tattoo virgin until two months ago. I have a long scar on my upper left arm where my shattered bone was repaired with a rod and eight screws. I didn’t like wearing short sleeves because the scar felt ugly to me. I decided to tattoo a cat at the bottom, claws extended, to make it look like the cat had scratched its way down my arm.
My friend, local artist Rick Bulman, designed the tattoo, and then Kris Stencel of Sabbath Tattoo did the transfer of the design to my arm. My tattoo makes me ridiculously happy; it turned a disfiguring scar into a celebration of survival.
Last week it started to feel like fall, and I finally put on a sweater. I didn’t like covering my tattoo, and that made me wonder if there is seasonal variation in the tattoo business. I realized how little I know about the world of tattoos, and I decided to learn more. My tattooist didn’t have time to do the interview, but he introduced me to his friend KC Lange, co-owner of X Tattoo and Piercing in downtown Bellingham.
X Tattoo and Piercing are actually two businesses sharing a single shop space, but they’re complementary services and the arrangement works out well. The shop has a clean, “boutique” feel to it, and Lange talked about how every shop has its own vibe. Some people prefer a gritty, biker-bar-like feel, while others want to smell rubbing alcohol and see shiny white surfaces.
X Tattoo is a happy medium—you know you’re in a tattoo parlor, but you certainly don’t worry about how well they sterilize their equipment. There are also themes to some shops, and we laughed about “a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.” The music played in a shop sets the tone: country, heavy metal, alternative, classic rock—it’s all out there. There’s a shop for everyone to feel comfortable in, and the right shop may be different for the same person, depending on the occasion for the tattoo.
As it happens, there is seasonal variation in the tattoo business. Far more tattoos are done in the summer “skin season” than in winter. Lange says this isn’t ideal, because it’s much easier for new tattoos to heal in winter, when clothing protects the skin from sun and abrasion. It’s best when people have their work done in the winter to debut later when it’s fully healed.
Lange often begins the shop day with a short staff meeting where he says, “This is our work, we do it day in and day out; but for our customers, it’s a unique experience. We’re freezing a moment on their timeline, recording it forever on their skin. We want to make that a good association for them.”
Lange says Bellingham is a great community for tattoo parlors. There’s a “revolving” energy, with something always going on here. The day I met Lange, it was gloomy and raining, but there was a steady flow of people coming south down the sidewalk toward the Vegan Festival in Depot Square. Bellingham doesn’t shut down for the rainy season—it’s always alive.
Lange said that he’s not out to compete with other shops; there’s plenty of business for everyone. The proliferation of tattoo shops benefits all tattoo artists by creating a constant inspiration for people to record their stories in this way.
Lange has few blank spaces left on his own body for new tattoos, but he maintains a list of artists whose work he wants to acquire. Someone he admires is coming to Vancouver soon, and he made an appointment, sending photos ahead of potential tattoo locations, and he invited this artist to design something for the space he likes best. It’s not about getting a specific image for him, it’s about collecting the art of colleagues he respects. “You wouldn’t go to Picasso and ask him to paint a portrait of you and your dog in front of your fireplace, would you? You’d want him to paint a Picasso,” he says.
Lange says tattoo collection tends to change with age. Young people are literal—their first tattoo usually represents an event or person in a way other people easily understand. As people get older, the images become more abstract, expressing values and wisdom. Spirituality, quotes, and attitude statements are more common than specific events. Your tattoos become a time capsule, each capturing a piece of your life. Lange says he looks forward to being old with a foggy memory, and being brought back to his favorite moments by looking at his skin.
As a former engraver who ruined my share of silver trays and baby cups, I had to ask the question everyone probably wonders: What do you do when you make a mistake on a person’s body? Lange laughed without a trace of discomfort. Mistakes happen, but they’re rarely serious.
The tattooing process is designed to minimize the risk of error. First the design is drawn on paper, then it’s sized on a special copier that turns it into a temporary tattoo, which is applied and then traced by the artist. If the temporary tattoo looks wrong, it’s easy to wash off and try again. If a permanent line goes astray, the artist can usually adjust the drawing so it looks like it was meant to be that way. Sometimes the adjustment even makes the tattoo better.
Talking with Lange left me with a new appreciation for the art of tattooing. I don’t think of it as a craze anymore, and I don’t shake my head at the sight of heavily tattooed people. I get it now. And I’m a little worried that my first tattoo might not be my last—I might want to collect and display a KC Lange.