The world’s oldest known tattoos adorn various parts of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in the Alps on the border of Austria and Italy in 1991. Ötzi has at least 61 of them, and scientists believe there was far more to his body art than a collection of cool-looking designs. Instead, researchers believe Ötzi’s tattoos served a physically therapeutic purpose: relief from joint and spinal pain. The Copper Age man’s artwork—a crude cross, rings around his wrists and simple straight lines, among others—appear to be clustered in and around the affected areas on his body, meaning it’s probable he was tattooed in a ritualistic stab at medicinal aid.
"Approximately 80 to 85 percent of Ötzi's tattoos line up with classical acupuncture points to relieve rheumatism, or they align with meridians," Lars Krutak, research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, tells SFR. "In this sense, his tattoos seem to have had some therapeutic value."
Other ancient mummies, like the famous 2,500-year-old Pazyryk “chief” of Siberia discovered in 1947, had tattoos on his lower back and ankle similar to groupings on the Iceman, Krutak says. The art form has, of course, persisted since Ötzi and the chief. It has evolved, too, from symbols marking rites of passage in cultures around the word to signposts of empowerment over physical and emotional pain.
These days, it's not uncommon for folks to go under the needle after losing a loved one or to cover scars from burns or a mastectomy.
Similarly, collectors mark positive life events such as the birth of a child or marriage. Tattoos have always been available during our lifetime; the traditions, however, have morphed, making the field entirely more accessible than it was even just a few years ago. Tattooed people have become more common than ever, with a noticeable spike in the last 15 years alongside the advent of reality shows such as LA Ink and the rise of photography phone apps like Instagram.
Santa Fe, small as it is, is no stranger to this trend. Even a decade ago there were few options for quality work to be found locally, but as more people take the plunge, more shops have opened. The number of professional tattooers here has nearly quadrupled in the last five years, and they embody evolving traditions and practices. But as more collectors emerge and the industry gains traction, there is much to consider before deciding on a tattoo of your own. Whom should you visit? What's the etiquette? How much should you spend? These are valid concerns, especially since the modern-day place in the overall tattoo gestalt can or should be almost holy. Collectors get work for countless reasons, but the concepts of therapy or achievement still ring true.
The Rise of the Internet and the Quality Experience
"The internet changed everything, and I mean everything," tattooer Guido Baldini (@lostctg) says. Baldini, who opened Lost Cowboy Tattoos and Gallery with his apprentice Owen Lostetter just over four years ago, has been professionally tattooing for 23 years. He says he's seen the craft change from a world for misfits and rebels to a widely-accepted phenomenon.
“You don’t have the intensity there was before, the genuineness, the exchange with the customer,” Baldini says. “Everything is disposable, and right now there’s a very big instant gratification thing with tattoos, fundamentally.”
Baldini is from Italy but has lived in the states for nearly 15 years. In Santa Fe, he's worked alongside locals like Four Star Tattoos' Mark Vigil (@markvigiltattoo) and Dawn's Custom Tattoo proprietor Dawn Purnell (@dawn_purnelltat2). "You always expect that a person comes to you because they checked out your work and they wanted your vision," he continues. "I believe if you're getting a bad tattoo today, something really went wrong."
The opening up of the industry has yielded a burst of talented artists and artistry. But for Baldini, it isn't just about the complexity or technical prowess of the work, it's about the self. "You're going to get to know yourself more; you're going to learn more about how you can do your job in a more professional, calm, welcoming way," he explains. "We're at the point of amazing tattooing, but people are asking for a good experience as well, and not everybody can do that—getting tattooed is painful, so you can go and get an amazing tattoo, but if you have a bad experience, it's going to be a nightmare."
As for the therapeutic aspects of tattooing, Baldini likens the ritual to acupuncture. "Your body is getting shocked when you get tattooed, and when you get shocked you have a reaction," he says. "It's not as much about the pain, but you move things emotionally and there's a lot going on in a very deep way."
Women Who Have Tattoos, Women Who Give Them
"My favorite things to do are random," Talisman Body Art's Nikki Temer (@looney_nikki_temer) says. "I love when someone brings in a sketch or they've just got an idea, and I wish I could put a USB plug in their head and just see what they want."
Temer has been tattooing about eight years, two of those as an apprentice. It’s a career she’s wanted since she was young. “I started drawing before I could write my own name,” she reminisces.
Temer grew up in Arkansas, the daughter of biker parents who collected tattoos. "I watched my dad get a skull in our kitchen—and mind you, this was the '80s—and I just remember standing there, watching the whole time," she says. "I remember there was a female artist, and this was back then in the South, so … I loved sitting there watching all these men and women get tattooed, and she would cover me in stencils and give me a handful of markers to 'tattoo' myself."
Temer says she considers herself an artist and loves to paint and draw but, more than anything, she's excited about the rising number of female artists working in the industry. "It's a very male-dominated field, and women are taking a huge leap into it, which is amazing," she says.
Temer also advises collaboration. With the rise in accessibility, newer tattoo collectors are prone to rookie mistakes, such as price-shopping, rudeness borne of fear or ignorance and the ever-irritating pitfalls of being a know-it-all.
"I don't think any one style is the best and I don't think any one artist is the best," Temer cautions. "I love when people give me a ton of ideas and let me create for them."
Temer sees the uptick in local shops as a positive, like healthy competition. "Not everyone is the same, and the arrogance should be diminished because we're all trying to achieve the same goal," she says.
Across town in the Santa Fe Village, Kristina Tafoya (@tinas_ink_tattoo_gallery) of Tina's Ink has similar feelings. Tafoya, a nine-year veteran, worked previously for Talisman and The Dungeon before breaking out on her own with a small boutique shop. "Each artist can have a different style," says Tafoya, "and our own way of seeing designs."
Still, Tafoya has seen the industry's ingrained misogyny. She's been told she doesn't fit the "type" to get tattooed, that she'll regret being tattooed herself one day, and everything in between.
That's an age-old trope. For example, researchers believe tattoos were exclusively given to women in ancient Egypt, circa 2000 BC. Men dominated fields of archaeology and Egyptology, leading mass excavations during the 1920s and 1930s assumed these markings signified a certain station: prostitution, or "dancing girls," as described in field notes of the era. Early forays into studying body art were, as such, often overlooked in terms of historical or artistic significance. Joann Fletcher, then a research fellow in archaeology with the University of York in England, put the lie to that idea in a 2007 interview, hypothesizing that those old Egyptian pieces may also have functioned therapeutically for women.
Misconceptions about who gets tattooed and why have drifted down through the ages, Tafoya says.
"There was definitely a time when tattoos were more for people in the military or criminals," she says, "but some people still don't see the artistic side of it."
Tafoya aims to expand some day and may soon offer piercings. In the meantime, she's open to working with guest artists and, thanks to recently giving birth, is working on an appointment-only basis.
In Talis Fortuna (@talisfortunatattoo), her private shop off Baca Street, longtime local artist Crow B Rising has stitched together a practice that pulls from centuries of tattooing traditions. She uses modern-day equipment and also runs the only shop in town that officially offers handpoke pieces (a machine-free style that is, in a word, badass). Rising has tattooed for eight years, four as an apprentice under Four Star Tattoos' Mark Vigil. The other years have been at Talis Fortuna, where Rising recently bought out her original partner, Jason Metka (who now works for legendary tattoo artist Aaron Bell at Seattle's Slave to the Needle).
Rising’s views about tattooing are a bit unorthodox for 2017. “We’re cabinet makers, not artists,” she says. “And I think there’s a difference between being a tattooed person and a person with a tattoo.” She bemoans the loss of tattooing’s grittier side in the modern day. “Get tattooed for 10 years; want it; earn it,” she says. “People idolize these Instagram-famous tattooers, and yeah, it looks cool, but it’s really hard—you’re hurting people, you’re hunched over, you can’t mess up. … Tattooing is really humbling, because your shit’s around forever and you wanna be better. I’m so hard on myself to get better.”
Interested in work from Rising? Email her first. "You have to make an appointment to even get in and talk about the tattoo," she says. "I just don't need to do walk-ins anymore."
Obviously this creates a more exclusive or serious feel, but it's a system that allows her to be more choosy in which tattoos she takes on. In other words, if you're kicking around a dandelion bursting into a bunch of bird silhouettes (which you almost definitely shouldn't be), make sure you don't just pop by and expect it to work out immediately.
The Local Legends
"You can still tattoo and be successful without using Facebook or Instagram," Four Star Tattoos owner Mark Vigil says. "It's just a lot more work if you're not established."
Four Star has won Best Tattoo Shop in SFR's Best of Santa Fe poll more years than most can recall and is easily the most well-known shop in town. (Full disclosure: I worked the desk at Four Star some years ago.) And though Vigil, who has tattooed for 25 years, does use both of the aforementioned social media platforms, he's more about the soul of the work and the pursuit of artistic self-improvement. Some vapid online fan base isn't his aim. "I think a lot of people still understand that it takes time for tattoos to happen," he continues, "and it's a small percentage of people who want something right away."
In areas of the globe as far-flung as Nubia, Peru, Siberia and Polynesia, ancient tattoos were a more soulful pursuit, says Krutak of the Smithsonian. In many cases, body art was meant to signify culturally significant events or to memorialize milestones. "Apart from the therapeutic value of tattooing, most of the tattoos I study are linked to tribal identity and/or mark individual accomplishment and achievement: important life events, rite of passage ceremonies, war or hunting honors, etc.," he says. "Tattoos permanently record and celebrate this ancient ancestral knowledge that ultimately gave rise to these indelible traditions."
Vigil laments the more recent trend of instant-gratification-fueled lust spawned by reality TV programs, many of which would have tattoo newcomers believe that back-piece or sleeve they’re dreaming of can be knocked out quickly. It can’t. Big work requires many hours and multiple sessions. There’s still the option to choose a quick flash piece from the walls of Four Star or any of their many design books. But even that selection method is shifting in borderline absurd ways, Vigil says.
"The funny thing is, people come in saying they don't want to get the tattoos on the wall because everyone has that," he says, "but then they show you the stuff on the Internet that everyone else has."
Instead, Vigil urges potential customers to embrace the idea of original work created through collaboration. Yes, there is a tremendous level of trust involved in allowing a stranger to basically cut you for hours on end. But professional artists who offer up advice or suggest compromise aren't trying to wrest control; they're trying to create the best tattoo possible. Longtime Four Star artist Scott Buffington agrees: "We're not as worried about how it's going to look right when it's done, we're worried about what it'll look like in 20 or 30 years."
Both, by the way, espouse the concept of tattoo therapy.
"When you have someone who goes through a procedure, like a mastectomy, that's completely life-changing, and I think it's amazing for someone to come in and change that for the better," Vigil explains. "It's doing something that's super-empowering and not looking at a situation like a victim, but like a survivor."
Vigil's former partner, Dawn Purnell of Dawn's Custom Tattoo, shares that view. Purnell and Vigil opened Four Star together in 1999 but parted ways in 2005. Purnell, who has 24 years under her belt, strongly believes in tattooing as a means to self-empowerment.
"Even just one aspect is that it's so painful," she says. "If the end result is that they proved to themselves they could do it, when they walk out with a tattoo, they were able to go through something challenging; they're happy; they're elated." Purnell says those who seek tattoos are generally experiencing something emotionally deeper than their own consciousness can grasp.
She'll also be moving Dawn's Custom Tattoo in mid-July to Hickox Street. "The neighborhood shop is something that's been a sweet dream of mine," she says.
Fading Over Time
Even as more people embrace body modification, the Smithsonian's Krutak says there are important factors to consider from historical and anthropological vantages.
"Indigenous tattooing traditions are rapidly vanishing across the world today," he tells SFR. "These customs are some of the oldest human expressions on earth. I can't understand why there are not more international research projects devoted to recording them before they disappear forever. I would encourage UNESCO, Google Cultural Institute, international science foundations or whomever to do something now before it's too late, because we are losing touch with an incredibly unique aspect of global cultural heritage that defines what it means to be human."
It seems the more tattoos are normalized within polite society, the further we move away from their roots or even indigenous or shamanistic purposes. That means we lose the cultural significance of the ancient art form. No one is casting aspersions on that lower-back butterfly (they're actually super cool), but it's hard to envision future scientists citing such pieces as historically or culturally notable, especially given the dearth of photographic evidence online.
"The clock is ticking," says Krutak, "but if organizations devoted just 10 to 15 percent of the annual research monies they devote to rock art studies, we'd be in a much better place."
Thinking of getting your first piece? Good for you! Just don't be an asshole about it and heed the following advice, all of which comes from interviews with local tattooers (though who said what shall remain anonymous).
Don't go into a shop and say stuff like, "What do you think I should get?" If you don't have something in mind, it's not an artist's responsibility to make your decisions for you. At least sleep on it.
Know Thy Artist
Do a little research and find an artist who specializes in a style you like. It's not hard, thanks to Instagram, and every shop has portfolios of their artists' work you can peruse. They like when you do that.
For the love of God, if you have a specific image in mind, print something up and take it with you. That tiny pic on your phone is helping nobody and shops shouldn't have to spend all their money and printer toner helping you prepare.
Don't be a Biter
Think of it this way: If you'd collaborated with an artist you admired for some cool original piece, would you want some yahoo someplace else walking into their local shop demanding the exact same thing? Hell no. Further, most artists don't exactly love being put in what we'll call a "tracer" situation—these are actual artists who've worked their asses off to get here.
Stop. Collaborate. Listen.
Your artist isn't trying to do anything other than make sure you walk away with the best work he or she can muster.If the tattooer tells you something won't work or needs to be altered, you should listen. These people 100 percent have your best interests in mind. Note, also, that your skin is not paper, and just because something looks so cool in a sketchbook doesn't mean it'll look so cool emblazoned on your arm.
Change Your Perspective
Yes, this is a permanent thing that will be on your body forever and that is sacred and requires massive amounts of trust, but the other side of that coin is that your artist's name is forever attached to the piece. If you bully them into doing something they advised against, or if you don't take good care of your piece, anyone who asks where you got that old-timey heart that is now destroyed by sun damage will associate it with that artist. This is not a good endorsement for them, nor does it properly represent their abilities.
The industry standard for hourly work hovers around $150, though shops will sometimes charge a flat fee for smaller one-off pieces. Some places charge less, some more. If you want to work with a shop or artist, you'll work it out. After all, you wouldn't walk into a grocery store and tell them you didn't want to pay what they were charging for milk unless you're a real jerk. Or a crybaby. Oh, and tip 'em. Seriously.
No More Zia Symbols
Everyone hates doing these, by the way. Enough already.
Seriously, just be cool. You don't have to prove you're an expert, because you surely don't know as much as your artist.