Human canvas

Before a client gets his or her lover’s name permanently inked on to their body, tattoo artist Margaret Bushell steps in as counselor.

“How long have you been together?” she asks. “Are you married?”

If the answer is no, Bushell suggests they reconsider or get the tattoo done in a color that can be easily covered up.

Bushell, 42, said that many people come into her shop, Painted Lady Tattoos, located on the corner of South Avenue and High Street, many times a week to get names tattooed, only for them to return two or three weeks later to get them covered up.

She recalled one woman who got her boyfriend’s name tattooed in blue, only for her to come back crying two days later — her breakup as fresh as her new ink.

Like Bushell, many local tattoo artists consult with customers on issues like these on a daily basis, ensuring their well-being and safety when committing to a tattoo. They work hard, often going beyond their scheduled hours to learn new techniques and skills, and are passionate about what they do.

“This is not my shop. It is my home, my church,” said Alley Cat tattoo artist Christ Porter, 34. “This is where I live.”

The industry requires dedication and practice, with the first step being an apprenticeship.

Kathy Roderick, 40, the owner and tattoo artist at locally owned shop Artistically Inklined on South Main Street described her apprenticeship as the “old-school form” where you “watch, ask questions, tattoo grapefruits and practice on your friends for free.”

She spent months practicing on herself, at first tattooing a curly little vine on her ankle. The first tattoo she did on someone else was a St. Louis Cardinals logo on a man she worked with at her second job.

“It didn’t take a lot of convincing,” Roderick said. “Most people knew I could draw.”

Porter said his apprenticeship was doing basically whatever he was told.

“You watch, draw, paint, clean … It’s been a year and a half since I’ve felt responsible for cleaning.”

Today in the state of Virginia, an aspiring tattoo artist must first obtain an apprenticeship before he or she can even begin the licensure process. They must then receive the necessary certifications in bloodborne pathogens, CPR and First Aid. After a lengthy application process with the Virginia Board for Barbers and Cosmetology, they are then able to apply for a tattooer license.

An apprentice must complete 1,500 hours of in-shop learning facilitated by an apprenticeship sponsor, with a curriculum ranging from microbiology, to professional standards, to the actual practice of tattooing. They must also complete a total of 100 small, medium and large tattoos. When the criteria are met, the apprentice must pass a state exam to be able to practice on his or her own.

Bushell, who has her own apprentice, Jacob Hockman, said it’s not hard finding an apprentice, but it is hard finding “the one with the right amount of drive and passion and dedication and willingness.”

Hockman, who has been apprenticing since June of 2010, began working with Bushell while he was still a full-time student at JMU and bartending at Buffalo Wild Wings five nights a week.

“It’s a constant learning experience,” Hockman said. “You have to submerge yourself completely.”

Before giving a tattoo, the artist and client meet for a consultation to discuss the design and location. The artist will make and apply a stencil to the area where the tattoo will go, which must be cleaned and shaved.

The needle then punches holes about a thirty-second of an inch into the skin, penetrating the second layer. With time, the holes seal up and the color stays in the skin.

Bushell equates the healing process to that of a sunburn, and emphasized the importance of keeping the area moisturized and untouched for a couple of days.

Cleanliness and sanitation are crucial skills to master.

“It is the most important thing that has to be done with tattooing,” Bushell said. “You wouldn’t want to go to a doctor and get a shot and get the same needle that someone else used.”

To avoid cross-contamination, the artist must change gloves anytime he or she touches a different surface. Bushell said that she often goes through three pairs of gloves for the set up, and a minimum of two for the actual tattoo.

Any surface that may come into contact with the gloves must also be covered. Bushell uses blue barrier film, which sheaths everything from a gooseneck lamp to the clip cord that is attached to the tattoo machine.

The used needle will be discarded into a “sharps container,” which is locked at all times. When the container is full, the owner of the shop will take it to the hospital where the needles will be incinerated.

Tattoo artists must also be aware of the importance of good customer service.

Roderick’s customers are loyal, and say that she is “like a bartender, their therapist, artist, friend.”

John Edge, a faithful client of Roderick’s has been coming to her shop since 2005. She has done eight out of his nine tattoos. Edge seems almost guilty that she didn’t do his first.

“She is so good, I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Edge said. “If she ever goes back to Michigan, it’ll be a long drive to get a tattoo.”

Many of Edge’s tattoos – a German SS symbol and his father’s signature – have helped him deal with his burdens. Roderick listened to him tell his stories, as she brought them to life in ink.

“I doubt after I die I’ll be like Picasso,” Roderick said. “But as long they live for the next 50 years, that artwork is on them. They’re gonna remember me. I’ll have something I’ve created that is out there.”