Tattoos are a popular part of our youth's culture today. I was personally drawn to the subject of tattooing as an art student. Many young people want to be bold and expressive, and tattoos can make a personal statement. Many young adults want to be tattooed with a symbol meaningful to them, since tattoos are permanent. In addition to tattoos, body piercing is in high demand. Today, piercing is done just about any place on the body that a customer wishes. Popular piercings, including the tongue and nose, have a shock value. Sometimes young consumers want to get attention by these markings and other times the purpose is more personal. The high demand for both services, tattooing and piercing, creates a good business opportunity, especially in a campus town where there are a lot of young people.
The business I chose to observe, New Life Tattoos (located on the northwest end of campus on Green Street), opened up about two and a half years ago. In choosing this site, I hoped to learn about the tattoo process and how the workers interact with customers. Currently, this business attracts many college students, who mainly attend the University of Illinois. According to the manager, Jeromey McCulloch, known as Tilt, everyday is like fishing. You never can tell how many customers will come in, though generally business is better during the warmer parts of the year. I asked Jeromey how successful his business is. He replied he's doing well financially but doesn't expect to be successful until about seven years into his work.
I got to know Jeromey and some of his staff by observing them on the job. The workers at New Life can do both tattooing and piercing, but each one prefers to specialize in one or the other. During my five visits, which lasted an hour each, I mainly observed in the backroom where the tattooing and piercing takes place. I paid special attention to how the customers interacted with the workers. I wanted to observe the business during different periods of time, so I tried to come in during various times of day throughout the week. Jeromey and his co-workers (all male) have a very casual relationship. Though obscene language is constantly used among the workers, no one seems to take any offense to it. Instead they joke around. Over time, these men have become close friends, and Jeromey does not even refer to them as his workers. He considers them more important than just employees.
Derick Dahlstrom was a client and friends with some of the workers at New Life Tattoos before he started working there as a piercer. He never really planned to become a piercer, but when offered the position about fourteen months ago, he decided to take it. Just as Chris, Derick did not like college; and he decided it was not for him. Derick usually does about five to eight piercings a day, but some days he does as many as twenty-three. New Life Tattoos charges between twenty-five and forty-five dollars per piercing, though genital piercings go at fifty dollars and up. Derick claims piercing is not difficult.
Much like Chris, manager Jeromey, is also covered in tattoos. Before Jeromey became a tattoo artist, he attended Eastern where he studied sculpture. He decided college was not right for him, so he chose the life of a tattoo artist, which he considers the best occupation. Jeromey considers tattoos an important personal statement because they are a lifetime commitment. Jeromey's tattoos all represent parts of his life that were meaningful to him. Jeromey sees tattoos as more of an art form than piercing. A piercer needs about six to eight months of practice to be able to work and about a whole year to master the technique. Tattoo artists, on the other hand, are continually improving their technique throughout their work life.
During my observations, I mainly was in the back room, which is spacious and well lit. This is where Jeromey draws original tattoo designs. It is also where customers get their tattoos and piercings. To enter the room, customers go through swinging doors that remind me of an Old Western saloon. The room is painted in red and black; and black chairs, resembling chairs at a dentist office, are near each of the three black desks. Bumper stickers decorate desk drawers, and a few posters are on the walls. Jeromey often would work on a design, while Chris or Derick would work with a customer.
Despite the very casual atmosphere, the workers are very serious about their work. While the workers swear among themselves, they act more professional around the customers. The workers converse personally with each customer during the tattoo or piercing process and give advice on how to properly care for a tattoo or piercing. All the tattooing is done slowly and carefully, especially for the more detailed designs. The more complicated a design is, the more time it takes to finish, just as any piece of artwork. According to Jeromey, this business must be taken seriously. The workers care about the customer's health, and they advise that special precautions should be taken. Customers are asked
to be sober for at least forty-eight hours before getting a tattoo. Alcohol thins the blood, which causes a person to bleed easier while receiving a tattoo. Bleeding also creates scabs by the area of the tattoo. Both piercers and tattoo artists are very sanitary, cleaning off the customer's skin and wearing latex gloves for protection.
My experience observing at New Life Tattoos has been rewarding. I have seen the work environment of a tattoo parlor, witnessed and better understand the tattoo process, and interacted with these artists and their customers. I met my main objective of this project, which was to understand the subculture of a workspace on the campus.
I find it interesting that Jeromey and his employees are college dropouts who provide a service that is in great demand by college students. The New Life staff probably uses their college experience to better relate to their college student customers. Jeromey chose this location because he knows college students are experimenting, growing, and trying out new things. He knows his services would be in demand in a campus town. This work subculture is inviting and accepting to new people. The atmosphere at New Life Tattoos is appealing to young people with loud music, a pinball machine, and bold colors. If a customer looks nervous, the artist talks with them to assure their comfort. Sometimes customers become friends with the artists, and a few of them even became employees at New Life Tattoos.