Body ink has gone mainstream, and Centre County tattoo artists are thriving
Once considered taboo, something mostly for sailors or rebels, tattoos are now seemingly everywhere.
You might see one poking through on the arm of a businessman when he rolls up his sleeves. Or maybe you see a beautiful design on the shoulder of a mom holding her baby while her other children play at the park. At church, you might see a grandmother with a tribute to her growing family etched on her forearm. A runner might jet by on the sidewalk with a tally of all the difficult races he’s run etched on his body. While out to eat, tattoos can be seen on the bartender who hands you your drink and the barista who makes your latte.
Yes, tattoos have gone mainstream. Just ask the many tattoo artists in Centre County, who seem to always be busy with customers. They are ready to help you find the perfect art to fit your skin.
‘I was right all along’
Tim Sellers got into tattooing as a punk-rocking teenager in the 1980s. He has been a tattoo artist in State College for more than 25 years and now owns King Cobra Tattoo at 127 East Beaver Avenue with his brother Justin.
Sellers remembers a time in study hall after he got his first tattoo. Teachers gathered around him and asked him if he needed to see the school psychologist, because they felt there must be something wrong with him.
“It was all a completely different era and I loved that. I loved that there was so much shock,” he says. “That was part of punk rock, too. It was shock. I mean, it was like, are you seriously getting bent out of shape over something so trivial? So flash forward to now and it is mainstream. And I made a career out of it. And I put myself through college doing it. I am tattooing (the kids) of all the people that were in my classes. See what I am saying? So I won, I was right all along.”
After starting at a community college, Sellers worked his way to Penn State, tattooing all along the way to support himself. Now, here he is after all these years, still at it and still looking as punk rock as ever, running the shop with his brother.
The shop feels and looks almost as cool as Sellers. It is a throwback, a classic tattoo shop with a swinging wooden door that leads visitors back from the counter area to the chairs, where the needles always seem to be buzzing. The walls are covered with classic tattoo designs like the king cobra after which the shop is named, along with such images as tigers, dragons, and skulls. And while Sellers likes classic-style tattoos, he wants the customer to find the design that they love. After 25 years, he can handle just about all of it.
A matter of trust
Adam Zimmer was working as a graphic designer when he had an epiphany, realizing his hard work could be deleted with a single keystroke.
“I wanted to do something so that if I was going to put all this time into it, it was going to stick around for a while,” says Zimmer. A friend mentioned tattooing, and it stuck. After 10 years as a full-time tattoo artist, he has become one of the most sought-after tattooers in the area, specializing in watercolor, abstract, illustrative color, and black and gray tattoos.
“I would do this job every day for free if I could. I don’t do this for the money,” says Zimmer.
Zimmer found his match in Jordan Haines. While studying fine art at Penn State, Haines took her brother to get tattooed by Zimmer and she couldn’t stop asking questions. Soon, she was getting tattooed herself, sharing her art with Zimmer and still asking questions. One day Zimmer offered her a job. At first she thought he was joking, but after a week to think it over, she came back and asked if he really meant it. He sure did, and she started as his apprentice.
Apprenticeships are how most tattoo artists learn the trade, because no matter how good the artist is on paper, tattooing something permanent on a person’s skin is a big deal. Haines learned quickly and their bond grew strong. Zimmer describes Haines as a daughter, and he has been amazed watching her art grow, as she develops her own unique style.
“Adam gave me a life. He gave me a purpose and an opportunity to provide art to other people and influence their lives, something that you wouldn’t imagine that you could do with paper or canvas, but tattooing is beyond that,” Haines says. “You are bringing joy to somebody’s life through their own body, and that is a very rare opportunity, especially from a female perspective. To have that chance to make somebody love themselves a little bit more is the biggest gift I have ever been given,”
Eventually, the pair started their own shop, Paper Moon Tattoo Company, at 125 South Push Street. They take the time to get to know each person and provide an atmosphere that will leave a positive impression every time that person looks at their body art.
“You are trusting a stranger to completely change your appearance forever … that person will look at their tattoo and remember who did it and how they felt during it, not the pain, but the atmosphere,” says Haines. “We want to set up a safe place that shows that we care about how you feel, not only about the tattoo and the design. That people can trust us.”
One big family
As a single mother of four, manager Stephanie Hutton can’t help but feel motherly toward all the people who come into Ikonic Ink Tattoo and Piercing Studio at111 West Beaver Avenue. She offers suggestions and feedback, making sure people understand exactly what they want. And, boy, do they come in. The shop has at least four artists working at all times and offers a wide variety of body jewelry, so there always seems to be a line of people waiting for a piercing or a free tattoo consultation.
“We are like one big family; we care about each other. I would go to anyone here if I needed something and I am pretty sure the feeling is mutual. And I think that carries over to the way we feel about our customers,” Hutton says.
Artist Joshua Kunkel agrees. He says that with four skilled artists with different specialties on hand, the results turn out great.
As tattoos become increasingly popular, more people are taking up the craft, but is important to go to somebody you trust, somebody who knows what he or she is doing, Kunkel says. After all, he understands what it means to have something you are not thrilled about on your body. He is currently undergoing the process of having an old tattoo on his arm removed. He got the sleeve work done when he was younger and it was not the best job. For someone who tattoos for a living, it was “almost embarrassing.”
He is ready to redo the sleeve with his favorite comic-book characters when he was growing up, Deadpool and Gambit.
Hutton says she sees a variety of people come in to get work done, including moms and dads getting their first tattoos, college students, and regulars who keep coming back for more.
“Not all tattoos have a special meaning, but they all mean something to someone,” says Hutton.
Some people cover scars with ink. A few times a year, the shop offers tattoos that have special meaning, such as the semicolon that symbolizes moving on from a suicide attempt or ribbons for cancer survivors. During these specials, the shop puts any profits from the day toward nonprofits in support of those causes.
One day, an older old man walked in, asking about a tattoo for a “friend.” He was asking how tattoos would look on stretched or wrinkled skin, and when Hutton finally asked him if the tattoo was for him, he admitted it was. His tattoo was the number 78 with a box and a check mark, and the words “Get a tattoo.” Item No. 78 on his bucket list was checked off.
Just a ‘hot scratch’
Tucked away in a little cove at 411 East Calder Way, 814 Tattoo Co. is an old shop with new name. Tony Campbell has been working as a tattoo artist in State College for 24 years and he has seen it all. After working at the location when it was Evolution Tattoos for four years, he took over the shop last year and renamed it.
Business is good for the heavily tattooed Campbell. He is 70 percent covered in tattoos, including on his face and neck. Campbell loves to draw and is confident as he works the needle.
“The old stigma is gone; everyone has them now,” he says.
Getting a good tattoo is an investment, costing anywhere from $100 to $300 per hour, and while some pieces can be finished in a half-hour, others require a person sitting in the chair for hours and coming back for multiple sessions.
Technology has helped artists sketch their work on electronic pads and adjust their work to a client’s liking. Most artists then print out the design and transfer it on the skin, following the sketch with the needle.
“It think it feels like just a hot scratch, like someone taking a toothpick over your skin a little hard, not too bad,” Campbell says
Artists won’t copy another tattoo, and Campbell says that when people come into the shop with a picture of something they like, the artist will use the image to make a similar original design. Each artist has his or her own favorite style, but should be able to do any type of tattoo, he says.
“In this business, you shouldn’t specialize in anything; you should be able to do it all, but if I were made to pick a favorite, it would be black and gray work,” says Campbell, who enjoys the depth of gray shading.
Water-color tattoos that show the vibrancy of paintings are huge right now. Old standards like quotes and different tribal designs are always popular, and in this town there are always people looking for Penn State tattoos, he says.
While walking down the street in Bellefonte a few years back, Gab Yunis saw the perfect little location tucked away beneath an old building and she got an idea: her own tattoo shop.
After the shop in State College where she started tattooing closed, she decided to move on her idea, but she learned that tattoo shops were not allowed per a Bellefonte zoning ordinance forbidding them as “adult use” businesses.
In a sign of the changing times, the ordinance was amended to allow tattoo shops, and Yunis was surprised at how helpful the borough was and how quickly it all went. It’s all part of the progressive changes Bellefonte has made to become a destination for younger people while maintaining its Victorian charm, says Yunis.
Now, the intrepid young lady with an art history degree from Penn State is an extremely busy small business owner. She opened High Street Tattoo, at 203 West High Street, in a town that embraces it.
Her small studio offers a one-to-one client-artist interaction without the distractions and possible discomfort of a busier shop. She loves the personal nature of creating pieces of art for her customers that will be with them wherever they go.
Yunis says the tattoo culture in Bellefonte is thriving and she is often booked solid with people who love her work. Yunis loves the uniqueness of each tattoo, and is glad she gets to share it with the world.
“It is cool to see people collect art from all different kinds of tattooers. It is cool to see people who appreciate that each artist is different and that every piece is its own little work of art,” says Yunis. “Tattoos are really just a different way of applying art to everyday life.”
Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.