Pop culture, life events increase tattoos’ appeal among teenagers
Bethany Ray closed her eyes tight and pursed her lips, squeezing boyfriend Carl Beale’s hand as her family’s beloved African Grey parrot, Emmitt, emerged from thin black lines on her upper right arm.
Artist Tom Mangold moved the tattoo machine lightly across the pattern he’d drawn and transferred to her skin. Slowly, 14-year-old Emmitt’s feathers took on more detail, more texture and the roses arrayed around him began to bloom.
It hurt, there was no way around that, but still Bethany glanced down and smiled.
“He’s our baby,” she explained of the parrot who
lives in Texas with her parents. “It was actually my mom’s idea to do this.”
She’d scheduled the appointment with Mangold three weeks earlier and had initially planned to get a sugar skull, which her mom wasn’t thrilled about. But at 19, she didn’t need her mom’s permission.
Still: Nineteen. What might be considered fairly young to make a permanent decision. According to Mangold and other tattoo artists, though, the number of teenagers wanting and getting tattoos has been growing steadily over the past years.
“I get teenagers calling me every day, wanting tattoos,” Mangold said.
Friday’s release of the film “Divergent,” based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling young adult novel, may shed further attention on the phenomenon of teenagers deciding to get tattoos. In the story, 16-year-old lead character Tris, in keeping with the tattooing traditions of the Dauntless faction she joins, gets several tattoos, including three ravens below her collarbone.
Posters for the film prominently show those tattoos, which Tris (played by Shailene Woodley) had placed there to symbolize her parents and brother.
“That’s the important thing,” said Timothy “Lil Mex” Trujillo, owner of Native Ink in Grand Junction. “It has to mean something. If I have a teenager come in, the first thing I do is sit them down and say, why do you want this on your body? Because it’s going to be there forever.”
According to Colorado’s 2001 Body Art Act, those under 18 must have parental consent before getting body art and tattoo artists who don’t get that consent beforehand can be fined $250. But it’s more than just getting permission, Mangold said.
“Any responsible artist is going to ask a teenager whether they’ve really thought about what they want,” he said. “A lot of stuff you could do at 18 might be out of spite to your parents or because your friends are doing it. So I ask, does it have significance, or is it just because that’s what’s popular right now?”
And tattoos are popular, a popularity that has steadily grown over the past decade. According to a 2012 Harris Poll, 21 percent of U.S. adults have at least one tattoo, up from 16 percent in 2003. Also, 22 percent of those between 18 and 24 are likely to have tattoos, the poll found.
Some of it’s good ink, some of it isn’t. Jeri Menzies, owner of Breeze Tattoo Removal in Grand Junction, said she removed a lot of impulsive tattoos, put in place when the wearer was fairly young.
“The majority of the tattoos I’ve got are typically people who are in their mid- to late 20s, men in their early to mid-30s,” Menzies said. “They come in and they say, I was young and I was stupid, and most of those are somebody else’s name, a former boyfriend or girlfriend, or it might be a gang tattoo that seemed very cool when they were 17, but definitely isn’t now.”
She also said she sees homemade tattoos that people gave themselves as 13- or 14-year-olds, cutting or poking their skin and then pouring in ink. However, even if the tattoo was professionally done, she said, a lot of people don’t realize that not every color is going to be easily removed: lighter colors, especially yellows, don’t respond well to the laser treatments, she said.
“Now I’m seeing a lot of tribal work from the ‘90s, and that’s all black so it comes out pretty well,” she said. “It’s just a painful process to get rid of it.”
But to imply that all teenagers don’t know what they’re doing, that all their ink is impulsive, belies what can be, for many, a deeply personal and well-thought-out decision.
Madison Slater, who turned 18 on March 2 and is a senior at Grand Junction High School, has two tattoos, both in honor of her father, Terry Dean Slater, who died Aug. 8, 2011. The first is “Livestrong” written in bold, dark letters on the inside of her left wrist.
She got that tattoo when she was 15, soon after he died and with her mother’s permission, because it helped her remember and it helped her honor him. After that one, her mother asked her to wait until she was 18, so last week she went to Voodoo Circus Tattoo and asked for one more.
This time, it was a note her father had written her several years ago for Valentine’s Day on a Snoopy card. “Always remember that I am here,” it begins, and the tattoo is that note, in his handwriting, on her ribs below her left arm.
“We decided it should be there because it’s closest to my heart,” she explained.
Regardless of a person’s age, Trujillo said, he’s honored to create tattoos with that sort of significance, that sort of lifetime meaning.
For Ray, the parrot on her arm was not only a way to commemorate a beloved family member — one whose life expectancy may take him well beyond 60 — but shows a connection between her and her mother.
Originally, when she made the appointment with Mangold three weeks ago, she thought she’d get a sugar skull on her arm.
But then, several days before her appointment at Creative Tattooing, her mom suggested a portrait of Emmitt.
“She couldn’t do it because of health issues,” Ray explained. “So, I’m kind of doing it for her. And when she suggested it I got chills, so I knew it was the right thing.”
Likewise, Beale, also 19, has the beginnings of what will eventually be a sleeve on his right arm, commemorating places in the Grand Valley and in Colorado that are important to him. The design, which Mangold created, speaks to home, Beale said.
“This isn’t a decision either of us made lightly,” Ray said. “I thought about something that I could cover up if I needed to for a job, something that I’d want to have for my whole life. I’m going to love having this.”