In 1991, a German couple hiking in the Alps, between Austria and Italy, found a mummified human corpse laying face down in a glacier. Other than being Europe’s oldest mummy, the 5,300-year-old body bore signs that help us understand more about our own past. Besides having clothes, shoes, an axe and a knife, Oetzi the Iceman had tattoos.
Tattooing has become more mainstream in recent years. This can be easily observed in the commercialization of the often frowned upon art form with shows like A’E’s Inked and TLC’s Miami Ink and L.A. Ink.
The tattoo community has undergone a social revolution, Margo DeMello wrote in her 2000 book “Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community.” DeMello states that middle-class artists and patrons took tattoos from their original, working-class roots as signs of loyalty and rebellion and changed them to becoming status symbols.
One thing is certain, with 36 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 having tattoos, according to a 2003 Harris Interactive poll, there is a wide range of reasons why people get inked and every tattoo has a story.
Cliff Raven, the world-class tattoo artist who is credited as one of the pioneers of the popular Japanese tattoo aesthetic in America, described the motivation behind the art.
“The perfect tattoo… the one I believe we are all struggling toward… is the one that turned the jackass into a zebra,”?Raven has been quoted.
The real L.A. Ink
Seven years ago, Phoenix, Arizona, native Coop started out as a tattoo artist at Purple Haze, a small-time tattoo studio tucked away in Northridge, located a block away from the CSUN campus. Before taking his chances in the tattoo industry, Coop worked a series of dead-end jobs, including being a waiter, a forklift operator and a coffee shop attendant.
The 39-year-old resembles a ball of energy in his behavior as well as appearance. His bleached-blonde hair almost washes out against his pale skin. The only pigment on his body appears in the form of tattoos. Although not completely covered in ink, Coop bears several tattoos on his face, under his eyes and just below his hairline. With low-top black Converse All-Stars on his feet and a warm grin on his face, Coop represents a not often envisioned glimpse of the American Dream. He’s determined to make it and not afraid to work for it.
In 2005, after five years of watching how Purple Haze was run, shortcomings as well as successes, Coop decided he wanted to buy the shop from the owner and set out to do something different in the tattoo industry.
Coop saved his money he made from tattooing instead of blowing it on partying, like many others in his profession, he said.
He and his wife Jenna, who worked at a lighting company, came up with the financial means and bought the location. He said he wanted to build a business for the long-term and have it around long enough so he could leave something for his future kids.
This began Kathouse Inc. and subsequently his journey into the world of American entrepreneurship.
Coop said he places his pride in his shop’s customer service. He runs his business much like any other business owner. He’s charismatic in the operation of his business. He greets potential clients, makes them feel at home and takes his time to give them one-on-one attention. He’s also constantly cleaning the shop, making sure it’s spotless. This sounds like any industry, but is far from other tattoo shops. But Coop said that he never really looked to other shops for an example of how to run his.
“I don’t even know what other guys are doing,” Coop said.
Not even checking out his competition, Coop wanted to do things organically instead of holding himself to the standard of shops where employees are conceited and unfriendly to new clients.
“It’s retail,” Coop said. “I take care of my customers, it’s a clean shop, the music’s low, everyone’s friendly.”
Other than being co-owner of Kathouse, Coop also plays in a punk rock band called Trashed Idols. He described the band as sounding like Operation Ivy, Rancid and the Clash. The Trashed Idols have played all over Hollywood, and have taken their act on tour throughout the Mid-West and west coast.
A year after opening its doors as Kathouse Inc., Coop was contacted by an old friend from Phoenix who was moving to L.A. and looking for a job. Cruizer had known Coop for 21 years, but neither one knew how serendipitous their reunion would be.
Coop told Cruizer he was looking for a piercer for the shop when the two were speaking about Cruizer’s move to Los Angeles. Cruizer had been piercing for the previous seven years in Phoenix, so the two decided to work together. That’s how Kathouse found its resident piercer and manager.
Cruizer, stretching over 6-feet-tall and probably weighing less than 170 pounds, is the epitome of the guy who would gladly help your grandmother carry her groceries across the street, but she’d be too scared to accept his offer because she’d think he would take off running with her milk and eggs. A mellow guy who used to have a job putting the dimples onto golf balls, Cruizer is quiet and always looks like he’s in deep thought as he drags on Marlboro Reds on the bench outside the shop.
Cruizer specializes in a new type of piercing that he said very few people know how to do. The dermal anchor is a single surface piercing that could be put pretty much anywhere on the body, leaving a stud on the outside of the skin. Cruizer said he doesn’t pierce genitals, though, and avoids the situation altogether by saying that he’s never done one before.
Along the way, the Kathouse Krew-as Coop affectionately calls it-grew. More tattoo artists jumped on board, another piercer came along and Coop couldn’t be happier with his team. One of their tattoo artists, Mikey, has appeared in Playgirl Magazine and, as Coop bragged, was the first centerfold with tattoos.
Since they all live in Hollywood, the Krew often carpools to work and hangs out in the same bars in their neighborhood. Tiny’s is the bar of choice for the Krew. They get free drinks there and they were proud of the fact that it was voted one of the top dive bars in the country.
Eric Willis, 25, adds a dynamic dimension to the Krew with not only his tattoo skills, but also his appreciation for the art.
Based out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Willis travels six months out of the year around the country guest spotting at tattoo studios. Frequenting Miami, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, San Diego and, of course, Los Angeles, Willis said guest spotting at different shops helps him develop new techniques and in exchange he helps artists at the locations discover new styles.
“You get stagnant when your tattoos become complacent,” Willis said.
Swanking his ability to “tattoo everything,” Willis said he enjoys expanding his ability by trying new things with his tattoos. He’ll go as far as charging clients less if they have creative ideas. The regular price he charges for a tattoo is $100 an hour, but said he’d drop it to $60 if he likes the piece.
“I’m just trying to find the missing step that’s there,” Willis said regarding his expanding perspective of tattooing. Speaking about the pitfalls of art in general, Willis said he would, “never settle or plateau.”
Tattoos caught Willis’ attention when he was a child watching TV, he said. His curiosity with the art led him into a tattoos shop when he was a high school freshman. Helping out around the studio, the self-proclaimed “shop brat,” got a chance when he was 17 to tattoo one of his friends. In 2003, Willis said his hobby became serious and his perspective of where the art could take him changed.
Willis spoke of an integral moment in his career as a tattoo artist when he was still a teenager living in Pennsylvania. A neighbor asked him to come over and check out a new, exorbitantly priced painting he h
ad just bought. Experimenting with graffiti at the time, Willis said he thought the idea of owning art and keeping it locked away inside, where no one could view it, was pointless. Only the owner, their family and few guests would be able to view it, whereas his art would be on display for everyone to enjoy.
“Each tattoo is a billboard,” Willis said.
There are as many theories behind the reasons why people get tattoos as there are tattoos. There is no one reason. Each person’s reason is as unique as their artwork. The thing that’s certain is that tattoos aren’t getting any less popular.
Like DeMello theorized, the origins of tattoos have changed.
Much like how MTV’s Pimp My Ride commercialized the world of car modification, the tattoo reality shows can trivialize the meaning of tattoos. The people involved in this art are real people. They have jobs, children and contribute to society. There is a departure from those aspects when watching the glamorized reality show of tattoo artists.
Netana Whakaari of Waimana, a native of New Zealand who bore the traditional tribal tattoos of his people, once said of the intimacy one has with their tattoo, “You may lose your most valuable property through misfortune in various ways.? You may lose your house, your wife and other treasures.? But of your moko (tattoos), you cannot be deprived except by death.? It will be your ornament and companion until your last day.”
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