Bodies of art

Evolving tattoo culture on display in the Denver metro area

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Although Ryan “Cactus Jack” Clement was nervous about his first tattoo, it was nothing as nerve-wracking as jumping out of a plane — which he did in his military training.

That’s when he got a biohazard cross symbol tattooed on his calf.

“I dealt with nuclear biological and chemical weapons” in the military, he said. So “I felt it was something I had to have.”

Today, Clement, 38, has spent 309 hours “under the needle” getting tattoos, which cover about 75 percent of his body. He has been a tattoo artist for nearly 15 years and is owner of Castle Rock Tattoo and Laser Removal Co.

Tattoos are a life-changing experience and a way of expressing yourself with adornment, he said, and “they’re becoming more accepted as a work of art.”

Where once tattoos were typically associated with bikers, sailors and outlaws — a rough-and-tough side of life — they have over recent decades become a form of artistic self-expression that is showing up on everyone from the waitstaff in the local neighborhood diner to business executives.

“Your doctor or banker, even a police officer, could have a tattoo and nobody would give it a second thought,” said Jill Raynor, 45, of Centennial, who has been getting tattoos since she was 17. “It’s just not so taboo anymore.”

The rise of tattoos

The Smithsonian suggests tattoos date back more than 5,000 years, discovered on mummified humans from ancient Egypt; and on Ötzi, also known as the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived between 3,400 and 3,100 BCE. Sixty-one tattoos were found on Ötzi’s body.

In the U.S., tattoos can be connected to mid-18th century Native Americans, states TIME magazine, and became part of Western culture in the mid-19th century when Martin Hildebrandt set up shop in New York and tattooed Civil War soldiers for identification purposes.

Modern tattoos might be attributed to Norman Keith Collins and his Sailor Jerry tattoos during the World War II era, said Bart Leonard, 28, a professional tattoo artist for nearly five years who recently started working at Adroit Tattoo in Golden.

They started to become more mainstream during roughly the 1960s-1990s, associated with rock-n-roll and punk, and gained momentum into pop culture in the 2000s, he said. The internet and social media may have helped, Leonard added, but especially reality TV shows such as “Miami Ink,” which aired from 2005-2008.

Being a good tattoo artist used to be a “secretive craft,” in the sense that it was part of a subculture, and tattoo artists held onto their secrets, Leonard said. Nowadays, he said, perhaps because more of the public is excited about getting tattoos, more people are pursuing the trade. “It’s starting to open people’s eyes to the possibilities and all the cool artwork others are doing.”

But downfalls do exist, he said. The increased accessibility to the profession — he points out all the equipment can now be bought online — contributes to people tattooing others without proper training or sterilization techniques.

And, of course, there’s always the chance of a lack-luster tattoo.

Tattoos are addictive — it’s rare for a person to have just one, said Billi Carwile-Braukoff of Centennial who, at 39, has tattoos on about 40 percent of her body. Anybody who has many tattoos has at least one he or she isn’t fond of or would have rather done without, she said.

“Some people get them covered up,” Carwile-Braukoff said, “but some people keep them because they’re a conversation starter. They’re a part of a story.”

Finding the right tattoo artist is key

Part of what’s cool about the experience of getting tattooed is that it’s a permanent change, said Russ Pearson, who opened True Blue Tattoo in Lakewood in 2008.

“With a little effort — and a bit of pain and money,” he said, “you’ve made a forever change to your body.”

Everybody has his or her personal reason for getting a tattoo, Raynor said, and the experience for each person is just as diverse as buying a car, choosing a neighborhood to live in or pursuing a career path.

Tattoos can be a way of self-expression, a life guidance such as a biblical quote, a work of art, a tribute or a way to remember an experience, Raynor said.

Raynor points to her sugar skull tattoo — a tribute to loved ones she’s lost. Sugar skulls are a representation of death and mortality and traditionally used to decorate the gravestones on the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos.

“Every time I look at it,” Raynor said, “I remember and celebrate their lives.”

No matter if it’s your first tattoo or your 50th, it should be a fun experience, said Samantha Schneider, 27, of Thornton who got her first tattoo — a small treble clef — as a birthday gift from her parents when she was 16.

Therefore, she said, it’s important to research the tattooist’s artistic style as well as his or her personality.

“You’re going to be there for hours, so you want to be super-comfortable and make sure you vibe with them,” she said. Not only that, a person should lean on the artist’s professional input, so “you want to make sure the artist is going to guide you in the right direction for a tattoo that’s true to what you want.”

Carwile-Braukoff admits the actual experience of getting a tattoo is unpleasant — it hurts and being in the shop for a lengthy amount of time can get uncomfortable.

“But that doesn’t keep me away,” she said. “I love the way they look when they’re done.

Lakewood resident William Ryan, 48, got his first tattoo in 1996. It is a symbol that represents his name.

“For me,” he said, “it was rediscovering my identity after my divorce.”

Since then, he’s gotten some tattoos that he’s “extremely proud of” and others that he regrets— all are “windows” of his journey.

“They are permanent benchmarks of milestones in my life,” Ryan said. “They let you look into a past experience and remember when and why you got it.”

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