Breaking the skin: A user's guide to body art

    Mario Desa, a tattoo artist at The Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company in Belmont, does a tribal back tattoo for a client. (Photo by Jessi Knowles / North by Northwestern.)

    Fifteen years ago, seeing someone with a pierced nose or a neck tattoo was rare. Body modification belonged to the skinny punk kids with safety pins in their ears and the burly bikers with “Mom” tattooed on their biceps. Few members of respectable society had metal in their face or ink on their arms.

    Today, that’s all changed. Tattoo and piercing artists say they are getting more business from all walks of life, from school teachers to businessmen to mechanical engineers.

    Hordes of college students are jumping on the bandwagon, too. And what better time than college to test the boundaries of your newfound freedom by getting something ridiculous tattooed on your armpit?

    “A pretty serious undertaking”

    Where to go and what to get

    The sights and sounds of The Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company. (Photos and audio by Jessi Knowles / North by Northwestern.)

    Chicago has dozens of piercing and tattoo parlors. A good one will have its workers’ certifications prominently displayed and be able to answer any questions about its sterilization process. All instruments should be sterilized with an autoclave, and a brand-new needle should be used for each piercing or tattoo. The parlor should adhere to all state laws and regulations.

    As with any process that breaks the skin, transmission of bacteria and blood-borne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis, is a consideration. Some people also have allergic reactions to certain metals, such as gold or nickel, or inks, especially red ink. Surgical stainless steel is the industry standard for piercings, and externally threaded jewelry is advised against, as it causes trauma to the piercing site. Piercers and tattoo artists should also change their gloves several times during the process.

    “Make sure that everything is sterile,” said Rudy Carrillo, 32, a piercing artist at The Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company in Belmont who’s worked in the piercing industry for 13 years. “Everything should come out of packages. In terms of finding a good piercer… go through their portfolio and question them. Don’t be shy: Ask as many questions as you want. You’re putting your trust [in them].”

    Carrillo also warned against the piercing guns used in mall pagodas and in the jewelry chain store Claire’s. Instead of a needle, piercing guns use the actual jewelry to pierce the skin. They’re also difficult to clean, increasing the risk of infection and transmission of blood-borne disease, and are more likely to cause keloids and scarring. In some states, piercing guns have actually been banned, he said.

    “It’s really creepy,” Carrillo said. “For anybody who deals with body fluids, you need medical instruments, you need chemicals that can kill any viruses that can be transmitted through blood-borne pathogens, you need an autoclave that heats up to 300 degrees. You don’t see an autoclave at Claire’s. If you put a piercing gun at 300 degrees it’s going to roast and break. And having a 16-year-old pierce your cartilage or your earlobe, not having any knowledge, it’s kind of creepy… I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.”

    Megan Fogarty, 27, academic adviser for the School of Communication and the proud owner of seven tattoos, stressed the importance of looking at a store’s popularity and reputation when picking a shop. She said stores should be well-lit and have multiple artists working there.

    Finding someone who respects your ideas and concerns should also be a priority, Fogarty added. If you feel pressured at all, go somewhere else. And don’t let price deter you: It’s worth paying the extra money for something you’re going to have for the rest of your life.

    “A good artist will know that this is a pretty serious undertaking,” she said. “Tattoos are like dental work. You should not get a bargain. You get what you pay for.”

    Medill senior Nick Whitfield, who has multiple tattoos, recommends being sure you want a tattoo or piercing. (Photo by Jessi Knowles / North by Northwestern.)

    Nick Whitfield, 26, a Medill senior and owner of two arm tattoos, agreed.

    “When they put the [stencil] on and you don’t like it, don’t do it,” he said. “They won’t be offended if you say no.”

    Tattoo artist Matt Ziolko, 31, said he knows people are nervous when they come to The Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company, and tries to be friendly as possible.

    Deciding what piercing or tattoo you want can be just as important as finding the right person to do it.

    “I wouldn’t [advise getting flash art],” said Whitfield, who has a sun design on his arm that he picked off the wall of a tattoo parlor eight years ago. Flash art is a pre-made, easily reproducible design for tattoos. “It’s really not that cool, and eventually you’re going to see someone else with the same one, which is terrible.”

    Most people interviewed suggested researching piercing and tattoos online beforehand and making sure you understand the risks associated. Most reputable shops also have Web sites where you can examine the work of the artists. Chicago shops that were recommended included The Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company, Tomato Tattoo and Deluxe Tattoo.

    “You want it to be a design you can adapt to for the rest of your life,” Fogarty said.

    “’Why is it so red and itchy?’”

    How to care for your body art

    The recommended aftercare of piercings and tattoos is as varied as the people who get them. Some people swear by leaving the body art alone to heal itself without cleaning. But most people interviewed endorsed some kind of cleaning to prevent infection.

    Julia Fedor, 21, a Weinberg junior who at one point had 20 piercings, said she uses Dial soap a few times a day to prevent infection.

    “I don’t think you need much more than that,” she said. “Not touching it when your hands are dirty, keeping it as clean as possible.”

    Carrillo, on the other hand, advised against using Dial to clean piercings.

    “It’s a problem when people have a piercing and they just use a bacterial soap like Dial, it’ll dry out the tissue,” he said. “Then they want to put on Neosporin, which is not a good idea because it’ll clog up the pore. People tend to overclean it, like five or 10 times a day, and they say, ‘Why is it so red and itchy?’ It’s like having an open cut: the more you scratch it, you’re gonna do more harm than good.”

    Carrillo suggested using medicated soaps or lotions with oils in them, such as Satin, Castile, or Provon to clean the piercing twice a day. The oils keep the piercing moist and prevent irritation. He also recommended sea-salt compresses: green-tea bags soaked in eight ounces of hot water mixed with 1/4 teaspoon of non-iodized sea salt stimulates circulation and aids the body’s natural healing. Using the proper-sized jewelry can also aid healing: Sizing up or sizing down during the healing process can sometimes help an irritated piercing.

    Rebecca Brown, 20, a Communication sophomore, said that she had successfully removed a keloid scar from her rook piercing using a combination of green-tea, sea-salt soaks and rubbing Bayer Aspirin on the piercing. She also recommended Provon soap to prevent infections.

    As for tattoos, Ziolko recommended leaving a bandage on for three or four hours directly following the tattooing before removing it to allow air to circulate.

    “Wash it with soap and water,” he said. “Let it air-dry, then use a little bit of unscented lotion like Lubiderm. Wash it once a day, put the lotion on it, don’t pick at it.”

    “It seemed like a good idea at the time”

    Why people get body art

    For many people, the appeal of piercings and tattoos is mystifying. They’re painful to heal and difficult to care for. Tattoos are permanent while piercings can leave scars. So why would anybody endure such an ordeal?

    “A lot of people get it done for rite of passage or fashion,” said Carillo. “It’s fun to be rebellious… With any body modification, it could be tattoos, boob implants, facial reconstructions, all of it kind of falls into that same category, just revamping your body. It’s all good, as long as you’re happy and comfortable with it.”

    Weinberg junior Julia Fedor’s nape piercings. (Photo by Jessi Knowles / North by Northwestern.)

    Fedor stressed that personal expression, coupled with the freedom of college and the adrenaline rush of getting pierced, was what influenced her decision to get piercings. Fedor’s most-prized body art is her nape piercing, which she values because surface piercings are rare and unusual.

    “Not many people have it or know that you can pierce that area of your body,” she said. “People are either fascinated or it freaks them out.”

    Brown said that she had to hide her rook piercing from her boyfriend at the time, because he didn’t approve of piercings.

    “When he saw it, he screamed,” she said.

    Whitfield warned against getting piercings on impulse. Soon after graduating from high school, he got his tongue pierced while drunk.

    “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. “It was something I did for no reason at all. And you can mess up your teeth on a tongue piercing, which is true: I chipped a lot of my teeth. And I still have a scar on my tongue, which is gross…It hurt [a lot]. I vomited afterward.”

    Carrillo said that a reputable tattoo and piercing parlor shouldn’t accept intoxicated clients.

    “We never tattoo or pierce anybody who’s drunk,” he said. “It’s just dangerous. Alcohol thins the blood, and you make really bad decisions. It’s like, ‘How do you spell your wife’s name again?’ ‘Oh, I dunno, hold on a second…’”

    Carrillo said that a popular reason for piercings and tattoos was the revival of tribalism, including full-facial tattooing and earlobe stretching, called gauging. He thinks that full-facial tattoos on non-tribal members could be considered offensive by those who practice it culturally, but he did have his ears gauged to quarter-sized holes.

    “There are a few of people out there with really big two-inch, three-inch holes in their ears,” he said. “You can keep going as far as you want…I’ve happened to run across piercers who’ve had really big ears, and it’s like, ‘Wow, I can put my Pepsi can through your ear!’ It’s a little bit too much.”

    “You can’t judge a book by its cover”

    Stereotypes and the workplace

    Tattoos and piercings are becoming more common as the punk generation ages and younger generations pick up the needle. They picked up in popularity in the 1980s, according to a study by Dr. Anne Laumann of the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. The study estimated 24 percent of the population aged 18 to 50 years old has a tattoo. However, body art is still seen by many as counter-culture.

    “Older people, you see them staring,” Brown said. “People who gauge their ears, older people just stare.”

    Tattoos can make it difficult to get an office job, Ziolko said. He recommended doing things you could cover up easily, avoiding areas like the hands and neck.

    Fogarty said that she covered up her tattoos for the first year she worked at Northwestern because she dealt with parents and students, and was afraid of being judged.

    “I do a lot of admissions things where I have to talk to parents and applicants, and I cover up,” she said. “I need to look like someone these parents will want to trust their child with.”

    She also said that her tattoos give her a special rapport with the students she advises. They come to see her as an individual as much as a part of the university, she said, which helps them talk about their life and concerns.

    Carrillo said that in his 13 years of working in the piercing industry, he had seen his clients’ age range grow dramatically.

    “It’s getting a bit more accepted nowadays,” he said. “Before if you walked in anywhere with a lip or an eyebrow piercing people would look at you like ‘Oh my god, what a freak.’…Now, I’ve been noticing more older clients, between 35 and 40, getting navel piercings and nipple piercings done.”

    Fogarty agreed that body art was becoming less of an issue as the population becomes more comfortable with the idea of tattoos.

    But Fogarty admitted that there are “inopportune moments to be a person with tattoos.” And tattoo removal is expensive, painful and isn’t always successful. Methods include excision, caustic chemicals, dermabrasion and lasers.

    Fedor said that the fact that she could take her piercings out at any time was part of the appeal.

    “Anything beyond the ears, people are possibly going to judge you,” she said. “[I told my parents] that when I joined the workforce, I would take them out, but for now, I’m just having fun in college.”


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