Downtown Ink: Tattoo Culture in Happy Valley

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With autumn’s brisk arrival, layers upon layers of clothes will soon be covering up the plethora of tattoos in State College. The layers may come, but the ink will still flow thanks to the six tattoo shops located downtown.

Tattoos have been around since long before sailors and sideshow freaks, long before Kat Von D and the many tattoo reality TV shows. I went on a mission to find out all I could about State College’s tattoo culture straight from the sources. I visited every shop in State College to talk with anyone who would give me the time of day to see how many people they’ve inked in Happy Valley, what kind of stuff makes them cringe, and whether they had any particularly good stories after working in a business that was born from the taboo.

Tattoo Mark’s, 127 E. Beaver Ave

Timmy Tats

Tattoo artist “Timmy Tatts” is known for his Americana style, but he’s no one-trick pony; he emphasized that his talents are well-rounded, and he does all kinds of tattoos. Timmy has been a tattoo artist since 1994, and he came to work in State College in 1996. The walls here are covered in original art that he and his fellow artists at Tattoo Mark’s painted themselves. While many people take advantage of the originality that Tattoo Mark’s artists offer, Timmy’s colleague Ronnie said that plenty of people still show up with their own concepts, which the staff doesn’t mind. If these two had any juicy stories about the inking business, they kept ’em to themselves. That said, they were nice enough to let me interview them while they tattooed loyal customer Chris Brida, and they even let me get a picture of the process.

Ikonic Ink, 127 W. Beaver Ave

She was a sport for letting me take this picture (She wasn't really smelly)

She was a great sport for letting me take this picture (don’t worry, she didn’t stink!)

Next, I visited my old friends at Ikonic Ink. I covered their grand opening a couple of months ago, and I was confident that they could tell me some wild stories. I caught Shawn Elliott on his smoke break and we chatted a bit. He told me about the rough side of of tattooing, like the time he was tattooing a woman’s chest and her breath “smelled like six pounds of dog shit.” He talked about how people often come into Ikonic Ink smelly and sweaty after a long day of work, and then for the next two hours an artist has to sit there trying not to breathe in their stench. Be considerate to your tattoo artists, people! Shawn also told me about one of his customers who sticks strictly to getting satanic tattoos. Needless to say, sometimes the clientele is the most colorful part of the industry.

SteamPunk Ink, 213 E. Calder Way

A work in progress until they can work out a time

A work in progress, to be continued later in the month

I made my way to SteamPunk, where I spoke to an artist named Angel. Angel has been in the tattoo business for nine years, and he has been working at SteamPunk for seven months now. The top line of his business card says “No Cry Babies,” and it must be working, because he says that he hasn’t had too much of an issue with whiny customers recently — that is, except for one girl who lost it while she was getting her side done.

One problem the SteamPunk staff faces, given how busy they are, is difficulty trying to book long sessions for people. As a result, some tattooing sessions end with a “work in progress” on someone’s arm, leg, or any other ink-able body part, and they sometimes remain “works in progress” for weeks on end. SteamPunk is open late into the night trying to alleviate that issue, and sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning.

They are also located right next to the Gaff, which can cause some problems — people drink themselves silly, smoke a pack of cigarettes, and then bravely attempt to go down the stairs to SteamPunk. According to Angel, one time two guys were fighting outside of the Gaff and made their way into the parlor to continue the brawl. A broken picture frame and an unlucky sucker punch later, the altercation ended, but needless to say, being next door to a bar isn’t always great for the tattoo industry.

Evolution Tattoo Studio, 411 E. Calder IMG_2404

Evolution Tattoo Studio seemed different from the rest of the shops right off the bat. There was minimal artwork on the walls, and when I walked in, I was greeted only by a front desk and waiting room, with the studios on either side in separate rooms. The place looked weirdly professional for a tattoo parlor. I approached the desk to find the shop manager, Stevie Ray. He showed me that Evolution tattoos features the art of Austin Grove and Billy Steele whose portfolios on the front desk exemplify their skill and dedication. Then he went straight into the life lessons.

Stevie had some words of advice for the young men and women who believe think their mom is going to kill them for getting inked: “If you think your mom is going to kill you, either don’t get it or cut the umbilical cord.”

As for the popular text tattoo across the wrist, he says that artists usually get a kick out of asking clients if they want the text facing outwardly or inwardly. He says that lots of people go for the inwardly-facing text, and their excuse is usually that they want it to face inwardly because they say that the message is for themselves. “If its just for you, then why get a tattoo? Keep it in your head,” Stevie Ray says. “People get tattoos for other people to see them.”

When I asked Stevie Ray about the more unusual requests his parlor gets, he said they receive a decent amount of phone calls asking about butt cheek tattoos. Clients are often surprised to find out Evolution generally charges around $150 for such a service. Why so much, you may ask?

“Would you really want to tattoo a guys ass for a half hour?” said Stevie Ray. According to Ray, a man came in for some butt ink a few weeks ago after losing a bet to a friend. The middle-aged dude good-naturedly hopped atop the table to receive his punishment, a tattoo featuring a drunk monkey holding a bottle of Budweiser, forever inked on his ass cheek.

Good & Evil Tattoos, 225 W. Beaver Ave

good and evil

At Good & Evil, I met Tony Campbell who has worked in State College for 18 of his 19 years in the tattoo business. Tony currently owns and operates Good & Evil by himself, and he’s moving next year to a new location where the Artemis Massage Studio used to be on Beaver Ave.

Tony’s shop is street style, which means they specialize in all kinds of styles, but his favorite tattoos to do are black and gray. With nearly two decades in the business, Tony has seen some shit — literally. He claims to have seen about 200 people pee themselves and at least five or six crap themselves while in the chair. Tony explains that the phenomenon is caused by people passing out in pain or shock.

“If you pass out, you’re going to go,” he said.

Tony says that he also had a customer’s buddy throw up in his shop before. Tony told the customer, upon seeing his roughed-up friend, that if the friend puked, the customer would have to clean it up with his own shirt. Sure, enough the customer’s friend vommed, and the customer immediately stripped off his own shirt, cleaned up the acidic puddle, and then mopped the floor. Tony has implemented a no cell phones rule because people were answering their phones mid-tattoo, thus messing up the work he was in the middle of completing.

Despite all of that, Tony loves what he does, and says it helps to have a fan going 24/7 to keep the smells of the business from getting to him. Be warned, though — when it comes to ridiculous requests, Tony says he doesn’t do stupid tattoos.

“I have to be smarter than you to keep you from making a life-long bad decision,” he says. “It’s always dudes, too. Girls never come in wanting something ‘funny’ on their ass.”

Ink Inc., 110 Hetzel St

inc ink

Ink Inc. owner and operator Paul has a big reputation around State College. Paul has 30 years of tattooing experience himself, and his father was a tattoo artist as well. He has been working in our area for 28 years, 22 of which have been at Ink Inc. He is basically the ink God-Father of State College, and some would say on the East coast as well. He was doing tattoos long before they were even legal in State College, and had to operate underground until the ban on this town’s tattoo shops were lifted and he could legally open up shop.

Paul received major attention from an article in Playboy back in the day for being the first place to do some of the more “extreme” piercings out there. Long before the the craze of infinity symbols and Celtic knots, Paul was doing hundreds of Tasmanian Devil tattoos, which were evidently the big fad back in the day.  A couple of decades ago, he was living in Coney Island inking up side-show entertainers. Paul lived and worked in the days when being covered in tattoos was enough to qualify you as a “freak” that people would actually pay to see.

Paul is not a fan of Kat Von D

Paul is not a fan of Kat Von D

Paul has stories that would make your skin crawl, and he doesn’t even flinch as he tells you about the outlandish things he has seen and done.When I asked him what the craziest tattoo he had given was, he just shrugged — none of it seemed crazy anymore. Than he nonchalantly mentioned that he has tattooed inside of someone. I asked with a slight stutter, “You…you mean like, their inner lip?” He just shook his head, leaving me to my imagination.

Paul has gone to BDSM parties on a house call to give gauged piercings long before gauges were a thing, on parts of people’s bodies that I dare not mention. This man lives taboo. Pretty much the only thing he finds to be “too much” is when college students come in asking for their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name to be tattooed on themselves. “You’re on a four year drinking trip, what are you thinking?” Paul says.

He finally admits that there was one tattoo over the years that really stood out to him. A guy came in with a barcode from some product, and he wanted it to be tattooed onto his left butt cheek, which wasn’t so out of the ordinary. Out of curiosity, Paul asked the guy what the barcode was for. The man’s answer? “KY jelly.” I’ll go ahead and guess that Paul didn’t even bat an eye at this bizarre response. What a badass.

psu

All in all, the common complaints I heard from all the aforementioned artists were these: although just about everyone wants text based tattoos, the consensus of all of the dudes I met was that no one wants to read you, and that their skills are wasted on endless requests for lyrics, quotes, and sayings that people will undoubtedly get sick of in a few years. That — along with smelly people, celebrity inspired tattoos, and the endless lines of people asking for a copy of the latest trend (from koi fish to the Tasmanian Devil to infinity signs or anything else) — was the only real issue these people had with their jobs.

The tattoo culture is alive and kicking here at Penn State, and with the competition of six different shops, the customer always wins. If you are thinking about getting ink, don’t be stupid about it. Do some research, meet with the artists, come up with a concrete concept, and do it right. Whether it’s a Penn State memento or a tattoo of Betty White riding a narwhal and throwing ninja stars, you can find the perfect artist for you if you put some time into it.

Photo By: Steven Boyle
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