Tattoo artists work with symbols, needles and soft music

After David Dettloff completed his master's degree in painting and drawing at Northwestern University in 1993 he put his artistic talent to work creating colored images with an electronic needle.

For the past 10 years, Dettloff, owner of the Ink Lab, 919 W. Lake St., has made human skin his medium.

"Most tattoo artists have been drawing most of their lives," said Dettloff, who still picks up his brushes and pens and puts them to canvas when he gets home. "When you boil it down, tattooing is like any other classic art form; it stands the test of time by craftsmen."

Once considered the mark of convicts, sailors and "primitives," tattoos have become mainstream. Dettloff said when celebrities (including Drew Barrymore, Nicholas Cage, Gillian Anderson, Will Smith and countless others) started getting tattoos, the stigma dramatically decreased.

All tattoo artists have multiple tattoos themselves as a statement in support of their art, Dettloff said. His personal preference tends toward Japanese-style tattooing; his tattoos recall traditional Japanese wood block prints, and there are so many of them, he said, they are slowly turning into one.

Skin as canvas

When not tattooing, the four artists at Uptown Tattoo, 614 W. 27th St., also draw and paint. However, Nic Skrade, who has been in the business 13 years, said it takes more skill to draw on skin.

Skin is alive, and quite often, moving.

Artists have to contend with people tensing up or pulling away. Arms, legs and ankles are easier to work with than the flaccid, sensitive canvas of stomachs.

According to local tattoo artists, the arm is the most popular place to get a tattoo. And Celtic and tribal styles are big these days, as well as popular cultural icons, including cartoon characters.

A good tattoo has a clean outline, bright solid colors with clear images that flow with the body's contours. A poor tattoo scars and leaves little ridges. However, modern, more refined and gentle technology makes botched tattoos less likely to occur.

Tattoo artists use an electric hand-held machine with a needle that moves rapidly back and forth, shooting ink into the skin. Local tattoo artists say that it feels like being scratched on most parts of the body.

Uptown Tattoo only does custom tattoos. Skrade begins by hand-drawing each tattoo on paper. He prefers the art nouveau style of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, whose influence can be seen in Skrade's sensuous, curvaceous style.

Next, like many tattoo artists, Skrade scans in his drawing and uses his computer to render the image in Photoshop. He "paints" the tattoo on a pressure-sensitive tablet that shows up on the computer screen; this allows him to experiment with different shading and color tones.

Next he prints out a line drawing of the tattoo-to-be and inserts it into a thermal fax machine. The thermal fax basically makes the drawing into a professional version of a temporary tattoo, printing the design on temperature-sensitive paper that is then placed on moistened skin. When it's pulled away, the tattoo outline remains.

Next, the tattoo artist fills in the outline, starting with the darker colors: first black, then the cooler colors -- purple, green, blue -- then the warmer colors -- red, orange and yellow.

"The darker colors can affect the lighter colors," explained Claudia Boca, a tattoo artist at Saint Sabrina's Parlour in Purgatory, 2751 Hennepin Ave. S. "If you do yellow and then wipe excess black ink over the yellow color, it could change it. You have to keep it separated. Lighter colors cannot effect the darker colors, so it doesn't matter if I have black, purple and blue on the skin and then use yellow or pink."

Though there might be slight differences in their technique and skill level, Skrade and Boca said all tattoo artists use the same process. Artists learn through apprenticeships. However, it's a lucrative trade no one gives away easily -- most tattoo artists charge $150 per hour. While smaller tattoos can take less than an hour to complete, larger ones can take up to 40 hours and dozens of sessions to finish. Custom shop artists may do three or four tattoos a day, one that works with preset or "flash" images can do as many as 20.

Who's the artist?

Boca encourages her customers to use the standardized "flashes" or tattoo designs in her shop as a reference. "Most people need visual aids," she said. "They let me know what they like and what they don't like about a certain image, and we can change it in size, color or specific features to make it unique."

Most of the time, tattoo artists refrain from judging the content of a customer's tattoo and focus on its design or form, making sure it is laid out and drawn well.

Boca said she often finds herself offering her opinion because many people don't understand good composition and color schemes. Skrade often has to work with people on their color choices. "They might want to put two dark colors on top of each other, and I don't recommend that," he said. "Either the foreground has to be light and the background be dark or visa versa to make it stand out."

There is a physical intimacy to tattooing as well. People disrobe and expose their skin. Tattoos are found on breasts, the inside of the thighs and buttocks.

"We make everybody feel comfortable," Dettloff said. "Especially when we deal with people who are afraid of needles. We try and keep them calm and relaxed." They play soft music and talk to customers in a friendly manner, in a quiet tone.

Jon Weiss at Uptown Tattoo painted murals before becoming a tattoo artist, and after his needlework, he still paints at home. Weiss is also a tattoo art "collector," meaning that he has more than a dozen tattoos.

"You can't ever lose them," Weiss said. "It depends on your skin, but unless the sun fades them, they can last 30 years."

Weiss' tattoos span a wide range of styles. He said that after years of being around tattoo art, he doesn't think as much about the deeper meaning behind a given image as some do. Most people pick cultural or religious symbols.

Art Ley, 53, who works at Tatu's by Kore, 611 W. Lake St., has 19 tattoos on his arms, thighs, neck and less-public locations. Ley said he picks images "that resonate" with him; as a result, they are as eclectic as he is. On one butt cheek, he has cultural icon Betty Boop; on the other, a green infinity sign -- his partner got a blue version when they married nearly nine years ago. Ley also loved the movie "Finding Nemo" and has colored portraits of Nemo, his dad Marlin and Dory.

Jimmy Cummings, 20, who works at Uptown Tattoo, has two sleeves and tattoos on his chest and back. Many are Japanese Kanji art images that reflect his Okinawan ancestry. Currently, Skrade is drawing an original design of a woman floating under water in a swamp on Cummings' leg.

"The choice of a tattoo is very personal," said Cummings. "The reason people get specific tattoos really varies to the point that it is hard to even speculate about it. I am sure a lot of people look at me and say, why would you want that tattooed on your body? But what it comes down to is that it is your tattoo. As long as it resonates with you, who cares what other people think?"