“Can I get you anything else?”

The server flashes a brilliant smile before deftly clearing her customers’ plates. Gracefully, she turns and deposits the dirty dishes before making her way to the next table. It isn’t until she crosses the room that the colorful and extensive array of body art comes fully into view.

Hollie Paris has made the choice to be visibly tattooed. In fact, the young mother, wife and artist is well on her way to having her body entirely covered with art. For her, tattoos reflect a love of art; they are beautiful to her and many others who compliment the look.

Ancient art

Tattooing is not new. Mummified remains of Otzi the Iceman, who lived sometime around 3300 B.C., show that the man had 57 carbon tattoos. Researchers speculate they were applied to help alleviate joint pain.

Tattoos have also been found on mummies in ancient Egypt and in China dating back to 1200 B.C.

By the mid-20th century, tattoos were mostly worn by men in the military and those in the working class. But during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, tattoos started emerging as important identity symbols for American subcultures, particularly on the West Coast.

This symbolism was the seed of what would be termed the “tattoo renaissance,” where tattoos emerged in mainstream as iconic expressions of popular culture.

Historically and culturally, tattoos are diverse. They may signify rituals, reflect status, provide protection or be purely decorative.

Today, tattoos have become almost ubiquitous. Yet the reasons behind a person choosing to have colorful art permanently placed on his or her body are as unique as the individual.

Skin deep

According to Little Vinnie McAuliffe, a tattoo artist at Eternal Ink, tattooing is at the forefront of popular culture as a legitimate art form performed by highly skilled craftspeople.

“Tattoos are no longer synonymous with doing drugs, robbing liquor stores and doing prison time,” McAuliffe says.

McAuliffe was trained by Deacon Raty, who McAuliffe says was Montana’s tattoo godfather, at the original Tattoo Art store that was located on Belknap Avenue in Billings.

Josh Degele, a designer at Eagle Tattoo, is a self-taught artist. Both Degele and McAuliffe agree that social media, the Internet and celebrity culture are largely responsible for encouraging people of all ages and stages in life to take the plunge.

“One leads to another, and many folks say they can’t stop with just one,” Degele says.

The process of getting inked can be physically painful, but like other short-term physical discomfort, the pain is quickly forgotten.

McAuliffe attributes the popularity and acceptance of the art form to image consciousness promoted by movies, cable TV and people wanting to express their individuality. Somehow a beautiful, famous person sporting ink makes the idea appealing and less stigmatizing. Cases in point: Cher, Angelina Jolie and Adam Levine.

Tattoo technology

Celebrity endorsement has helped the tattooing profession go from suspect to highly regarded.

When McAuliffe began his career 20 years ago, he wouldn’t tell people what he did for a living lest he be judged as a “low-life dirt bag.” Today, he owns his own studio and proudly claims his profession. Average lead time for an appointment with either Degele or McAuliffe is two to three months.

The artwork and skill of the artists is also being refined, helped in part by technology. Different-sized needles and the development of vibrant colors of ink have helped push innovation.

These days, people also regard tattooing as medically safe. In Montana, the industry is regulated. Each establishment is inspected yearly by the Health Department, which monitors First Aid, universal precautions and blood-borne-pathogen-handling procedures. (Wyoming, on the other hand, does not regulate the industry. People who get tattoos in Wyoming cannot donate blood in Montana.)

Montana’s legislature also passed a law requiring 16-year-olds to be accompanied by an adult of the same last name when getting a tattoo.

Stigma no more

Despite the lessening social stigma surrounding tattoos, pockets of resistance still exist. Some chain restaurants, for instance, refuse to hire applicants with visible tattoos. Those stringent requirements may ebb as many people in the 18-to-35 age range sport ink, drastically reducing the available workforce.

“If they don’t hire people with tattoos, they wouldn’t have any employees,” Paris says. “Tattoos can cause people to discriminate the same as they do with race, gender or obesity.”

Because of her many tattoos, Paris expects people to be curious, and she accepts their interest in her art with grace. In fact, it “kind of bothers me that tattoos have become so mainstream,” Paris said, because she is “not as unique anymore.”

This mainstreaming of an ancient art doesn’t surprise Degele. He sees all ages of people in his shop. Recently, two sisters ages 83 and 85 came in together to get their first ink. One, married 66 years, said she didn’t care if her husband didn’t approve.

“She said ‘after all this time, if this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so be it,’” Degele recalls.

Sacred symbols

There are practical reasons for tattoos, as well. Women who have had mastectomies sometimes opt for art to cover or beautify their scars. Others may choose to have tattooed nipples as part of breast reconstruction.

After her last chemotherapy treatment and reconstruction, one patient declared, “I just want to look like everyone else changing clothes in the gym locker room after class.”

Cosmetic tattoos are convenient timesavers for those who don’t want to worry about daily makeup routines. Waterproof, permanent, vibrant, there are tattoos for lips, eyebrows and eyeliner.

Some people use tattoos to create a visual timeline of who they are, where they’ve been and where they may be going. Others use them to memorialize a loss, rebel, create, commemorate or take a stand.

With the body as a blank canvas, tattoos allow individuals the freedom to express themselves in a highly personal, yet public and permanent way.

The key is to understand the commitment and avoid tattoo regret.

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