Some people rely on their shoddy memory to preserve life’s special moments. The more adventurous turn their bodies into walking diaries, tattooing milestones — their child’s first words, the painting that made them pursue a career in art — forever onto their person. “There are all sorts of reasons to get a tattoo,” says Paul Roe, founder of Britishink and a featured artist in Strathmore’s new “Skin” exhibit (see box below). “It’s decorative, it’s in memorial, it’s to join a group, even if that group is one.” No longer just for jailbirds, tattoos are popping up on everyone from Harley riders to mini-van owners. If you’ve been considering ink and need some not-so-gentle prodding, consider this a very preliminary guide to three common styles — plus pointers from some of the District’s most reputable parlors.

Traditional Japanese
Irezumi, or the ancient art of tattooing originating in Japan, dates as far back as the Paleolithic period. Designs signified a person’s status, religion or spirituality or served as a means of punishment. “They weren’t using electric tattoo machines like you see today. They were doing this by hand with bamboo shoots,” says Fatty, the owner of Fatty’s Custom Tattooz (1333 Connecticut Ave. NW, #300; 202-452-0999). The style is categorized by large-scale, elaborate designs with a prominent image in the center, usually a symbol such as a koi fish or dragon, offset by dark wind bars or crashing waves. There’s often subtle color gradient and heavy shading.

Fatty’s Words of Wisdom: “Don’t rely on Yelp reviews. It’s a matter of finding that artist you connect with not only artistically but also personally.”

Traditional American

The father of American tattooing as we know it is Norman Keith Collins, aka Sailor Jerry. Collins joined the U.S. Navy in 1930 where he gave tattoos to sailors as a means to commemorate their travels. Colors are saturated, and figures are small, though exaggerated. “Most people would call it cartoony,” says Nick Barkley, manager at Tattoo Paradise (2444 18th St. NW; 202-232-6699). Think swallows with embellished features or pouty pinups with way-beyond-Barbie proportions.

Nick’s Words of Wisdom: “Get the tattoo where you want it, not where you think will be the least painful. Pain is temporary — you want the tattoo in the right spot.”

Advancements in equipment have made photo-realistic designs, such as your beloved greyhound or your favorite cast member of “The Golden Girls,” a possibility. “Usually we work right from a photograph,” says tattoo artist Matthew Wojciechowski at Jinx Proof (3285½ M St. NW; 202-337-5469). “When you translate it to a drawing, it ends up really nice because we add contrast and shading.” While impressive when well executed, photo-realistic tattoos tend to lose their likeness as the skin ages and ink fades.

Matt’s Words of Wisdom: “It’s hard for an artist to understand what a client wants from looking on a phone. Print out your design; make a drawing, even if it’s a stick figure.”

“Skin” Showing

If every tattoo tells a story, consider the Mansion at Strathmore’s “Skin” exhibit an unabridged novel about the history of body modification (10701 Rockville Pike, Md.; 301-581-5109; open now through Nov. 3). Featuring the work of renowned tattoo, henna, makeup and body-paint artists, the show explores ways in which people voluntarily alter their physical appearance. “Never mind that our bodies change themselves without us doing anything,” says the collection’s curator, Harriet Lesser. “I wanted to explore ways we can present ourselves as a canvas to the public.”

Highlights include line drawings and photographs of an elaborate peacock tattoo by Paul Roe of D.C.’s Britishink (508 H St. NE; 202-302-1669) and an uncanny rendition of Jack Nicholson’s face from “The Shining” positioned on a man’s calf by Robby Latos of Gaithersburg’s Raw Ink (7601-D Airpark Road, Md; 301-355-5666). Also included: photography from Silver Spring artist John Borstel that examines how people present themselves through cosmetics; work in henna by Clarksburg, Md., artist Bhavna Naik; painter Craig Tracy’s acrylic body art; and an installation pitting a 1930s tattoo salon against a modern-day parlor.

Be sure to make it to the exhibit before it closes, because unlike a tattoo, it won’t be here forever. “Tattoos mark something that cannot be taken away from you,” Lesser says. “You can lose your car, your house, a relationship, but the tattoo stays. Even when you remove it, it’s still there.” H.S.