Watch tattoos go from rebellious to traditional

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Although tattoos have long been seen as a symbol of rebellion and alien status, nearly one in five people in the United States have one, and they’re even more common among Millennials, of whom nearly 40% have one. Despite the fact that tattooing was illegal in many places in the United States, some as recently as 2006, the number of people with at least one tattoo rose from around 6% in 1936 to around 21% in 2012. simultaneously increasing the need for tattoo artists. .

One place that has seen such a surge is New York, where tattoo artist Michelle Myles co-owns a tattoo parlour. For AtlanticIn her series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Myles about learning to tattoo while the practice was illegal, how she saw the tattoo community grow, and stereotypes about the art. body that have faded. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Adrian Green: What prompted you to get into the art of tattooing?

Michelle Myles tattoo (Michelle Myles)

Michael Myles: I’ve always been an artist and came to New York to attend art school at Parsons School of Design. The tattoo is such a part of who I am on so many levels, even literally. I started getting tattoos when I was in high school; whenever I had the chance, if I had a little extra money, I would get another tattoo. Sometime around 1989, I had a friend who had a starter kit to start tattooing, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I could try that too.” It wasn’t common for women to tattoo, and there was no traditional apprenticeship available because tattooing was illegal in New York until 1997, so I stumbled for the first two years. In 1997, when tattooing was legalized, I opened my shop with my partner.

When I started tattooing maybe people took me less seriously as a tattoo artist. In the long run, it’s something that has helped me stand out. There are definitely more women in the industry now, but it’s still a guy club system.

Green: What was it like trying to hone your skills when it was still illegal in New York?

Myles: It took me a little longer to get good because it was illegal, because you get better working in a store and having artists around you. I feel very lucky to have been able to work before the ban was lifted, because it was a completely different kind of community back then. Everyone knew who was tattooing in town, and there were these underground meetings called the Tattoo Society. You hadn’t advertised that you were doing tattoos and there was no sign outside; people should call [to the meeting place] be admitted, but at the same time the ban was not enforced. The cops came to get tattoos. It was not a criminal offence. It sounded more like a violation of the health code.

Green: What does a typical day look like for you as a tattoo artist?

Myles: Usually in the morning I draw what I have to do for the day and then I go to work. I try to register in time to take care of the business of the shop, because I own it.

Green: You mention that when you first started tattooing it was pretty quiet. How have you seen the industry grow and change now that tattooing has become mainstream?

Myles: Tattooing was such a foreign thing when I started. It was not something that was common. This was not acceptable, especially for women. You haven’t even really seen that many heavily tattooed people. Now, no matter where you go, people are exposed to it. Even if you go to more conservative areas, they get the same tattoo reality shows and are much more aware of the industry. When it comes to types of people, literally everyone has tattoos now.

Also, it’s changed quite a bit technically, in terms of the types of artists that are in the industry. Now, with social media, everyone has huge resources to consult for reference and inspiration. When I started tattooing, we didn’t have Google or anything like that. You just used your private reference library. Artists are improving so fast now, because they’re looking at all this other work. It pushed the aesthetic a bit.

A tattoo by Myles (@daredevilmichelle / Instagram)

Green: Have you noticed any tattoo trends?

Myles: I would say that I am very influenced by traditional American tattooing: bold outlines, bright colors and gradients. I’ve been tattooing for 25 years, and when I started tattooing in the 90s, people didn’t want to do traditional tattoos. There was this rejection of that look, like people were saying, “I don’t want it to look like something my grandfather had.” Then traditional tattoos became very popular where that was all people got. People really wanted to have all this history and reference all these old drawings and artists and everything.

There were also all those highly skilled tattoo artists who worked with super-hyperrealism or watercolor tattooing. The strangest thing I’ve seen lately is people getting very crude tattoos: they want it to look like a tattoo of their grandfather which might not be executed well, or even be done. [without the use of a machine]. There is no sophistication in the design. You have these tattoo artists doing things that look like they could have been done in prison.

Green: What’s your favorite tattoo you’ve ever done?

Myles: Perhaps my favorite tattoo I’ve ever done would be the one that hooked me up with my husband. I met my husband 15 years ago and he wanted to get tattooed by me. I had a 1966 Buick Riviera and a friend of mine was rebuilding the engine. My husband was friends with this mechanic, and he stopped by the store to say hello, so I got to know him. He wanted me to tattoo him, and at some point I realized I had a crush on him, but he had never hit on me.

Then when he came to get a tattoo, he wanted some sort of sexy Statue of Liberty. I drew it, and I did a color study, and I showed him the drawing. I gave her blonde hair and said, “You like blondes, don’t you?” He was so embarrassed that he couldn’t even look at me. He said he was waiting to ask me out until I had him tattooed so he wouldn’t flirt with me on the chair like he thought most of my clients would.

Green: There was definitely a time when there was a stigma surrounding getting a tattoo. Have you noticed any changes in stereotypes about what kind of people get tattoos and who gets them?

Myles: One of my favorite sayings is, “Before, you used to get tattooed to be outdoors, and now you get tattooed to be indoors.” I would say that is very true. Now, with all the tattooed celebrities, they are very visible to people. There are almost no more stereotypes. A 57 year old woman came to my shop yesterday and got a big snake tattoo on her forearm for her first tattoo, and she worked for the BBC. It’s really crossed in every class, age, gender and background.

My doctor has both arms fully sheathed. I have a friend who’s a corporate lawyer, and she’s working on her suit. I think what surprises me is that you see quite young people in conservative fields getting tattoos that are really noticeable. I think the workplace is more forgiving. I’m sure there are cases where that’s not true, but if you go to Starbucks, the barista might have a big tattoo on his neck. It’s definitely something you wouldn’t have seen a few years ago.

Myles: My biggest challenge is balancing being a business owner and being a tattoo artist. The bane of my existence is trying to keep up with all the paperwork. I’ve learned to delegate some things, but I still manage many aspects of the business myself. I always say if I didn’t own the shop I’d be a better tattoo artist, and if I wasn’t a tattoo artist I’d probably be a better business person. I think the two move away from each other, but at the same time I know that tattoo artists appreciate working for a tattoo artist rather than someone who is just a business owner.

The most rewarding is the small community of artists and customers that I have brought together in my shop. Everyone helps each other with their drawing and work, and people encourage each other. Then we have all of our customers that we have come to know over the years. We have people who have been coming for years and years who we are very good friends with.

Green: Your shop has a tattoo museum. What does it include?

Myles: New York is actually [considered] the birthplace of modern American tattooing. We are located on the Lower East Side on Division Street, and at the other end of this street is where the modern tattoo was invented. This is where Samuel O’Reilly worked. He patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, and our museum collection includes works by him and one of the Thomas Edison engraving pens on which the first electric tattoo machine patent was based. We have a bunch of artwork from some of the Bowery artists and other influential American tattoo artists.

I made a map that documents all the tattoo artists working in this area as far back as 1859. Tattooing in New York dates back to before the Civil War. It’s pretty cool to be where we are and to be able to document this history and to be able to show people that this is where it all started.


This interview is part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a hairstylist, porter and dog groomer.

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