The squirming snake fills Beth Hill's abdomen, stretching up her ribs through a skull, pulling around her sides and diving below her waist. As she moves or stretches, so does the reptile breathing on her skin. It's a complex and colorful piece that inspires games of "can you find the bellybutton?" with her kids.
When she completes the tattoo this spring, adding the snake's head to her chest and wrapping its body over a shoulder and down her arm, the 34-year-old South Hill mother of two will have spent upward of 30 hours in the artist's chair on this single work.
It's dramatically more complex than the tattoos Hill first got as a Post Falls teenager, a ritual she guesses she shared with half her graduating class. She started early — 16, thanks to her apprehensive mother's permission — with a salamander design from the shop's wall pressed into her back by "a one-legged, Harley-Davidson-riding, cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed" artist.
She went back for what she jokingly refers to her as "masterpiece," a tribal tramp stamp, followed shortly thereafter with another "classic," the Japanese word for "naughty" etched on her chest. Even though those teenage tats hold some aesthetic regret, Hill still recalls how great she felt when she walked out of the shop, newly inked.
"Instantly, once I had it, I loved it," Hill says. "I loved the idea of being able to add to your body to make it something different, a walking piece of art. It was still a rite of passage in Post Falls. You were definitely grown up when you got a tattoo."
Hill is not alone. As she's grown from a curious teen with a few small tattoos into an adult with ever-more-intricate artwork spreading across her body, so has the acceptance and celebration of tattoos across the Inland Northwest and the rest of the country, to the point where one in five American adults now say they have some permanent artwork adorning their body.
The ink explosion is especially evident in Washington state, where the number of licensed tattoo artists has spiked nearly 400 percent — from 388 in 2010 to 1,443 in 2014.
"It used to be you could talk to somebody with tattoos because you had something in common with them," says local tattoo artist Walt Dailey. "Now, everybody has tattoos."
Turn on your TV or surf the Internet and you'll witness a glowing gallery of body art. Watch a basketball game and you'll witness a cavalcade of images on the players' arms, legs, chests, necks and faces. Fire up YouTube, and tattoos formerly reserved for metal bands and punks now serve as "edgy" adornments on the most saccharine of mainstream pop stars, from Selena Gomez to Justin Bieber to the One Direction lads. Oscar winners, reality stars, politicians, TV chefs — tattoos are everywhere, and on seemingly everyone, in 2015.
Those celebrities, in turn, inspire our friends and neighbors to line up for the most permanent of fashion choices. Asked why so many people in 2015 are sitting down for the decidedly annoying and painful experience of having a small needle repeatedly jabbed into their skin, Dailey of Spokane's Tiger Tattoo quotes The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter.
"How do we begin to covet, Clarice?" asks the gruff and gray 65-year-old Dailey with a smirk. He's one of the longest-working local artists, with nearly 40 years of tattooing in Spokane behind him, and his former apprentices dot other shops in the area. "It's all about the TV. We see and we covet. 'I see that, I want it. I want to be like that guy. I want to be like that girl.'"
Dr. Nina Jablonski says mankind has a historic tendency to decorate its skin. The Penn State University anthropology professor and author of Skin: A Natural History believes we're living in the peak of tattoo popularity. The tattooed and famous, she says, have a lot to do with it.
"A lot of popular movie stars and sports figures have visible tattoos, and these are sort of sexy figures who people want to emulate," Jablonski says. "People are always seeking examples close by, or status symbols, to legitimize their own yearning to have something like this."
Aaron Cheney's teenage fandom of Mötley Crüe inspired the 32-year-old Spokane kitchen supervisor to get his first ink — a homemade Crüe tattoo — back in high school; now he sports ornate "sleeves" covering his arms. And one of 42-year-old Spokane native Heather Upshaw's first tattoos was a KISS logo on her ankle. "I guess I grew up with music in my life," Upshaw says of her teenage trips to the tattoo shop. "You see all the musicians and a lot of them have tattoos."
Celeb worship might be a prime factor, but people have been tattooing themselves for far too long and in far too many different cultures for it to be the sole factor in why we're seeing so much ink.
Jablonski notes that tattoos "have been one of the most important modes of human self-expression for thousands of years, and we find it in virtually every group," including the Paleolithic era in Japan, the mummies of ancient Egypt, and among various tribal communities across dynastic China, Northern Europe and the Polynesian Islands. In 1991, the preserved body of "Otzi the Iceman," estimated to have died around 3300 B.C., was found in the Alps between Italy and Austria with more than 50 tattoos on it.
You might have seen images of Otzi on the red carpet — Brad Pitt has a tattoo of the 5,300-year-old on his inner left forearm.
REACHING the peak
Jablonski's idea that we're living in an era of "peak tattoo" is borne out by the numbers, across the country and closer to home. A 2012 Harris Poll shows that 21 percent of American adults say they have a tattoo, up from 14 percent in 2008. And far from being reserved for the young and impulsive, the same survey shows middle-aged adults have more tattoos than those barely legal. Thirty-eight percent of adults 30 to 39 have a tattoo, along with 27 percent of adults 40 to 49. Only 22 percent of adults 18 to 24 responded in the affirmative.
Spokane artist Duffy Moon, 55, has worked alongside Dailey at Tiger Tattoo for the past 18 years and has been getting tattooed by Dailey for 30. He recalls when Spokane only had three tattoo shops in the '70s and '80s, and it was the early-to-mid-'90s before more started opening across Spokane. "It just amazes me how many shops can stay supported in this town," Moon says.
The local tattoo scene has grown exponentially since that time of three shops. According to the Washington State Department of Licensing, Spokane County had 42 licensed tattoo shops in 2014, the third-most of any county in the state. (Idaho doesn't require licenses for individual artists and has no special classification of business licenses that would indicate how many artists and shops operate in the Gem State, but a cursory search for tattoo shops in and around Coeur d'Alene, Post Falls and Sandpoint turns up about a dozen, a number nearly equaled in the Moscow-Lewiston area.)
The prevalence of tattoos around the Inland Northwest is obvious to the artists competing for business, to the customers tasked with finding someone for their work, and to anyone who sees all manner of ink on their doctors, personal trainers and — in part thanks to Starbucks' recent change in its tattoo policy — baristas.
It's a whole different world than when most tattoos were left to bikers or military men. Mary Kosut, associate professor at the State University of New York at Purchase, wrote about the increasing acceptance of tattoos in a 2013 article for Cultural Sociology, noting that in 1962, tattooing was illegal or tightly restricted in 32 states.
"By 1968, 47 major U.S. cities had enacted ordinances prohibiting tattoos" altogether. Now, Kosut writes, "tattoo has undergone a process of being cleaned up (literally and symbolically), authenticated, and ultimately valued."
Anthropologist Jablonski notes that for thousands of years, people have used tattoos as a means to "signify membership in a group or belief system." It might be a shamrock for someone proud to be Irish, a swastika for someone in the White Power movement, or a bulldog to show you're a fan of the Zags.
Maegan Cantu, a 29-year-old Spokane resident sporting a half-arm "Raptor Jesus" inspired by a 4chan meme, was introduced to tattoos through that groupthink dynamic when she was growing up in Orange County.
"Everyone has tattoos, everyone has piercings. It was skate culture, it was surf culture, punk culture, goth culture," Cantu says. "If you're any subculture, you want a way to differentiate yourselves from the 'normal' people."
For Blake Ellert, a 24-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan, joining the service gave him the perfect excuse to get some of the tattoos he always knew he wanted. He required "sort of traditional ones tied to a culture, because those aren't going to go out of style," and he spent his leave time in Spokane making appointments to add a massive ocean scene of burning ships on his back, birds on his chest — swallows representing each 5,000 miles spent on his navy ship — as well as anchors, hearts and others representing the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines he sailed with out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
"There are a lot of reasons to get tattoos, and I think to some degree, you have this vision of how you should be in your head," says Ellert, who is studying at Spokane Falls Community College to eventually work with fellow veterans as a clinical psychologist. "I had that 'I want to get these kind of tattoos and look like this, because that's awesome! That's the kind of person I want to be. I want to look like the full sailor guy.'"
Shann Ray Ferch, a clinical psychologist, author and Gonzaga prof, attributes tattoos' modern popularity to people's desire to push back against authoritarianism and a white patriarchal culture that labeled any outsider a "renegade."
"It makes sense if you look at that part of history — industrialization, the Great Depression, World War I, World War II. There was a concept of severity binding the world," Ferch says. "Then, coming out of that, you get the civil rights movement, Vietnam, free love. By then we're seeing, 'Let's individually decide what we want to do.'"
That sense of tattoos as a cultural indicator of rebellion is probably history at this point, given how common they've become, and how few restrictions there are to their public display. Among people under 40 who have grown up during the boom, tattoos are considered "somewhat mundane and nothing warranting much comment," Jablonski says. But they still represent that old anti-authority spirit in some families and social contexts, she adds, and she talks to plenty of students who get their first tattoo and "feel a sense of tremendous exhilaration and excitement, and want to share it and talk about it."
"It may have lost its shock value as a societal phenomenon, but it still has a tremendous impact on individuals and what they are saying about themselves when they get tattooed," she says.
For Hill, the skull and snake covering her abdomen aren't about rebellion, but she admits those first tattoos back in Post Falls as a high schooler were probably inspired by "just youth, and that I could."
The skull and snake on her stomach, the tattoo she's spent dozens of hours sitting for, has more to it. A few years ago, Hill battled cervical cancer, followed almost immediately by cancer in her kidneys, the disease forcing three abdominal surgeries that left her scarred — literally and emotionally.
"I just wanted to look in a mirror and not see the scars," Hill says. "I wanted to see something beautiful. I know the scars are under there, and after what I went through, I just wanted to see something happy and beautiful and colorful instead."
Unless Hill wears clothes meant to showcase her work, you'd never know she's a tattoo junkie. If you were to see her walking across campus at SFCC, where's she's studying to eventually teach English Lit to college kids, Hill would look like exactly how she describes herself, a "pretty normal 34-year-old female. A mom."
JOBS AND BACKLASH
As commonplace as tattoos have become, not everyone is sold. In most of corporate America, you're not going to find CEOs showing off their full sleeves at board meetings. Two business professors at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi recently published research showing that many businesses discriminate against employees with tattoos, and the courts have ruled that discrimination isn't illegal because tattoos are considered "alterable characteristics," not viewed as "speech or expression" under the First Amendment.
Hill knows she'll most likely have to cover her tattoos when she's standing in front of a college classroom. Cantu has to keep her Raptor Jesus covered as a matter of company policy when she's working at her job as a chocolatier at Spokandy.
Outside the workplace, there's also still some stigmatizing of the tattooed masses. In the Harris Poll, questions put to the non-tattooed respondents were telling. Forty-five percent said tattoos make people less attractive, and 39 percent say they make people less "sexy." Twenty-seven percent say people with tattoos are "less intelligent," 25 percent consider them "less healthy" and "less spiritual."
Harsh stuff. Worse still for people still holding onto the idea that getting a tattoo gives them some outlaw cool is the news that fully half of non-tattooed Americans don't think tattoos are at all "rebellious."
Friend and family attitudes, too, can keep some tattoo enthusiasts covered up in public. One retired couple of tattoo lovers in their 60s and living in a Spokane retirement community demurred at having their photo or names revealed because of concerns about how some of their retired friends and neighbors might treat them when they found out — not to mention the expected disappointment from the woman's 98-year-old father living in the same community.
INKED UP FOREVER?
There's little reason to think that the tattoo boom in Spokane and elsewhere will abate any time soon. If anything, it just seems to be picking up steam as artists and their clients find ever-more-creative ways to illustrate skin.
The old-school "street shops" like Tiger Tattoo are still going strong, doing traditional work that never goes out of style. And there's been an infusion of fine artists into the field, people like Beth Swilling at Mom's Custom Tattoo & Body Piercing. She got into tattooing in her late 30s after realizing the techniques she learned at art school could apply to working on people's bodies as well as canvas. Now 53, Swilling went from a small one-room studio on the Northside into a new, bigger space at Kendall Yards nearly two years ago.
"There's a utilitarian foundation, and that's how tattooing started," Swilling says. "Now you're seeing this evolution of artist types and it's really going crazy. People aren't just seeing them on their neighbors, they're seeing them on Reddit and TV, and they say, 'Oh my God, is that really a tattoo? They can do that?'"
Jablonski, the anthropologist, can see it going even a step further, into something "more exciting" like implants of tiny LED lights under the skin, lighting up with bright colors.
"I think tattoos are going to continue for a long, long time," Jablonski says. "People do want to express themselves through their skin. It's the first thing people look at, so they want to be able to show their creativity and express themselves somehow in this way.
"You can do that through body paint or cosmetics, but tattoos offer a level of permanence, of significance. They tend to have a deeper meaning." ♦