It's 1945, and you want a tattoo. You drive to the part of town your mom warned you about, past scruffy bars and burlesque shows, and arrive at a tiny shop offering maybe 200 designs in three or four colors. An ex-sailor who just clocked out of his day job rinses off his tattoo machine. Five minutes and $2 later, your arm bears a patriotic eagle - a nifty example of Traditional American artwork, although no one will call it that for decades.
Now it's 2011 and you want a tattoo. You comb through online portfolios to choose an artist and call to discuss the design and book an appointment. When the day arrives, you drive to the funky-hip part of town. In a private room, the gloved artist unwraps sanitized equipment and chooses from dozens of colors of vegan-friendly ink. Six hours and $1,000 later, you're wearing a custom piece of art - possibly in the retro-cool style of Traditional American.
While getting a tattoo can still feel like a walk on the wild side, it's a pretty safe one these days. Few government entities police tattooing because it is considered to be a cosmetic procedure rather than a medical one. But tattooists have largely cleaned up their own industry, beginning in the 1950s in response to awareness of blood-borne illnesses.
Organizations such as the Alliance for Professional Tattooists say safer practices protect the clients - and the tattooists. ("I got hepatitis at Joe's Ink" is not a good advertisement.) Many top tattoo studios advertise their autoclaves and hygiene standards on their Web sites, right next to their artists' portfolios.
But that kind of public image has been a long time coming.
"Society wasn't ready for tattooing back in the day," said Terry "Tramp" Welker, owner of five tattoo studios and an ink company in the Detroit area. "They thought, if you have a tattoo, you must be a bad guy. People would say, 'We don't want a tattoo shop on Main Street! Next there'll be a whorehouse next to it!'"
In the late 1970s and early '80s, tattoo magazines and conventions began to let artists share ideas, and pro athletes and MTV implied that tattoos were cool. Painters and sculptors trained in fine arts migrated to tattooing, looking at skin as a living canvas.
"Modern tattooing was all in place in the 1980s and just waiting for the world to come around," said longtime tattoo artist and historian C.W. Eldridge of Winston-Salem, N.C.
A revolution in ink-making provided the consistent textures and nuanced palettes needed to produce a higher level of art. (Welker's company, Eternal Ink of Brighton, Mich., now makes 97 organic, vegan-friendly colors.)
Soon the Internet connected artists and clients around the globe, and reality shows let suburban viewers peek into tattoo shops from their sofas.
Tattoos are still not for everyone, but they cover a lot more people than they used to. According to a 2008 Harris poll, nearly one in seven U.S. adults has a tattoo, and a 2006 Pew survey claimed that nearly 40 percent of adults under 40 had one.
Women get inked at least as often as men, according to most tattoo professionals interviewed for this story. Mary Skiver, who owns a shop in Cumberland, Md., said most of her clients are 40- to 80-year-old women, and they're not just biker ladies. "They've raised their kids and their kids' kids, and now they're ready to be themselves," she said.
The surge in popularity has a downside. Established artists lament that untrained people - "scratchers," they call them - think they can make a quick buck and churn out cheap, low-quality work. "Everybody's watching TV and they think they can just get a starter kit and call it a day," said Anna Paige, a third-generation tattoo artist in Waikiki who learned the craft in a four-year apprenticeship. "My grandmother says it best: Any idiot can tattoo. All you have to do is pick up a needle, stick it in the ink and poke it. Voila! You're a tattoo artist. But you won't know the history, and you won't be respected."
The artistic and financial gulf between brilliant and lousy is vast. Top tattooists command up to $300 an hour for large, custom work that can take 40 hours or more.
"It's like we're chefs," said Paige's husband, Bill Funk of Philadelphia, who has been tattooing for 34 years and whose family organized the first U.S. tattoo convention in 1979. "You can get a $2 cheeseburger and you can get a $20 cheeseburger. Our field is no different."
The recent D.C. Tattoo Arts Expo in Crystal City featured artists who fit in the $20 cheeseburger category, handpicked by organizer Gregory Piper of Manassas. Artists in most booths worked on clients who had booked them months in advance.
While there were plenty of outlandishly inked bodies, plenty of others came straight from the mainstream, picking up tattooists' business cards as they monitored their iPhones and BlackBerrys.
One man was texting with his left hand while getting tattooed on his right biceps. "Office doesn't know I'm here," he mumbled, declining to give his name.
Across the room, Jason Adkins of Atlanta was lettering "Lucky Man" below the clavicles of D.C. special education teacher Adam Wells. A few booths away, Seattle artist Aaron Bell was working on a Japanese maple motif that covered the entire back of electrical engineer and bonsai enthusiast Brandon Dunn. Tattooing may have progressed, but it still hurts, and Dunn wasn't smiling much - but his wife was.
"It's like waking up and looking at a beautiful piece of art," said Allisyn Dunn, a Virginia Tech doctoral student.
Some of those getting tattooed were artists themselves, such as Amber Rose, 21, an apprentice in her father's shop in Raleigh, who was having a skull inked into her left armpit. Several artists said having a tattoo was a basic qualification for the job.
"I never would've believed that there would one day be these tattoo shop owners with no tattoos," said Jack Rudy of Los Angeles, one of the pioneers of a style called fine-line black and gray. "They just think of themselves as some sort of entrepreneur, and even though that's true, this business is so personal to us that are in it. That's like a vegan owning a steakhouse. It's not against the law, but why would you even want to own a steakhouse if you're only going to eat the steamed vegetables? But people don't think twice about owning a tattoo shop and not having any tattoos. They think of it as the same thing as a doughnut or dry cleaning franchise."