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Friday, October 23, 2020


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It's all about the ink

Dzzt. Dzzzt. Dzzzzt. The tip of the needle pokes 300 to 2,000 strokes per second. Droplets of blood come out. Ink goes in.

In Richmond alone, there are about 30 shops where needles buzz, deftly moving in the hands of artists to create crimson, midnight black and plum purple skulls, snakes and even the occasional Freddy Krueger. For Mike Ivey, owner of Journey's End Tattoo Shop in Carytown where he works with Joe Thurston, it's a sign of tattooing gone mainstream.

Ivey, 42, chain smokes cigarettes. His forearms are covered in a mess of black and red shapes he calls "biker crap," that he's not eager to talk about. He has a blond ponytail, rimless glasses, three gold hoops in his right ear and a lot of attitude about "bum" tattooists, state regulators and an art that's gone "fluffy and sissified."

Ivey apprenticed with a man named Lizard back in the 80s. On his first day, Ivey tattooed one of Lizard's friends.

"A hardcore biker, not a sissy weekend doctor wearing a brand new leather jacket, but a real biker full of crystal meth and god knows what kind of alcohol and with a 45 on the side," Ivey said of Lizard's friend. "[Lizard] sat him down and said, 'Here tattoo him.' That was my audition so to speak. I had never touched a real tattoo machine. He showed me how to set it up, and I just drew a little skull on him and I didn't get shot so I guess it was pretty good."

Tattooing, Ivey said, was a secret society back then. You'd get physically thrown out of a shop if you asked about learning to tattoo. "Now it's completely lost its soul and character," he said. "Now it's gone Hollywood."

Along with mainstream attention, tattooists face medical and licensing requirements today, Ivey said.

"People have called for the regulation of tattooing for years, but it's so ridiculous," he said. "They call for this regulation, screaming and whining, 'There's a need for regulation. The reason they do that is because of the ***holes who work in their mom's basement, in the ghetto, in some project apartment, in the trailer park. It's those bums. Regulation affects them in no way, shape or form. All they're doing is hurting the people who give a damn and are doing the right thing. You can't hurt the bad guys, because they don't care."

The Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation controls licensing and regulation of 514 tattoo shops in Virginia, including those in the Richmond area.

The department's website states that its mission is to "protect the health, safety and welfare of the public by licensing qualified individuals and businesses and enforcing standards of professional conduct." The investigations and licensing examinations they conduct "need to be valid, reliable and legally defensible. They must measure entry-level knowledge and skills, and be developed with the ultimate goal of discriminating between competent and incompetent candidates in order to protect the public."

Ivey began his career in tattooing as a child when he would draw homemade tattoos on himself and his friends. "I did a lot better than my other stupid friends did, because I could draw, but that is the wrong way to do it," he said. "I would never recommend it to anyone," he said as he popped open a Coke Zero and lit another cigarette.

Ivey shares his beginnings with many tattooists. "Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing" reveals that, "Many [tattooists] said they had played with tattoos as youngsters - collecting "lick and stick" tattoos from bubblegum packs, marking themselves and friends with ballpoint pens and doing homemade tattoos with India ink and sewing needles stuck in pencil erasers." India ink is a simple black ink made of carbon, gelatin and water, commonly used for drawing.

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As Ivey performed his work on client Cindy Miano he was intent on his art, yet he talked nonchalantly. He created the black design of the name "Jade" with two paw prints on Miano's foot to memorialize her pitbull, Jade who she was having euthanized that day after nine years of friendship.

"I will have other dogs," Miano said, "but there will never be another Jade. Ever. I don't care if you get the same breed, the same everything, you just know there's never going to be another one like that one."

This was Miano's third tattoo. She couldn't remember how painful the other two were, but she thought this tattoo might be the most painful, she said as she gripped the edges of her chair.

"[Tattooing is] kind of like drawing, just infinitely more complex because you're doing it on a live body instead of on paper or canvas that's not gonna whine, cry, bleed, move and other things," Ivey said, which is why clients like Miano try hard not to let their pain get in an artist's way.

Ivey finished the black outline. He added jade-green coloring into the 'J' and the 'D.' The distinctive buzzing of the needle filled the room. A small lamp shone directly on Miano's foot, which allowed Ivey to see what he was doing and illuminated the lines of concentration on his face like a spotlight.

During the tattoo process, distilled water is used to wash excess blood off the surface of the skin. Tincture, a mixture of water and alcohol, sanitizes the skin. The dark colors are tattooed first, then black. The needle penetrates the skin between one sixteenth of an inch and one eighth of an inch depending on what part of the body is tattooed.

Although it's not visible to the casual observer, Ivey engages his whole body while tattooing. A tattooist must stretch his client's skin in all directions while maneuvering the needle into a design at the same time. Stretching the skin ensures the needle pierces it rather than bouncing up and down on the surface, causing pain and tissue damage. This puts pressure on an artist's hands, back and joints.

"You can ask Mike," Joe Thurston said. "He's got a bit of a Carpel Tunnel Syndrome and has some shoulder issues. Over the years, it's kind of dangerous." Thurston has heard of artists needing surgery due to years of tattooing.

After each tattooing session, Ivey and Thurston clean up their work stations. They remove the plastic covering they put over the workstation, lamp and tattoo chair. They throw away products that they can't put into the autoclave machine for cleansing. Then they wipe down the workstation and the chair with Madacide. This potent cleanser is intensely stronger than Lysol. "It will kill everything, including you, if you drink it," Ivey said.

Tattoo removal involves a machine known as the Q-switched laser and several trips to the dermatologist. The Q-switched laser is generally most effective at removing black, blue and green inks. If used improperly, the laser can lead to irregular pigmentation of the skin as well as a change in skin texture. It can take between four and six laser treatments to achieve between a 75 percent to 95 percent clearance of the original tattoo.

Ivey himself has suffered skin damage because of tattooing. Inexperienced tattooists can damage and traumatize the skin, he said. "Massive scar tissue will stay with you for the rest of your life."

Clinton R. Sanders, the author of "Customizing the Body: The Art and Culture of Tattooing," concluded that within conventional society, "the decision to be tattooed is rarely presented as having essentially 'healthy,' pro-social, self-affirming roots; most studies are premised on an assumption of pathology." In fact, most "conventional members of society [tend] to define people with tattoos negatively." The book also says, "For the tattooist, the overriding problem inherent in his or her occupational situation revolves around the public's continuing negative definition of tattooing, tattooists and tattooed persons."

Tattooists are seen as outside the norm, outside the mainstream, Ivey said. "Folks think there is something scary or dangerous about us," he said. "They say the most asinine things about us, having no knowledge of the situation at all. Mainstream people just do that. They assume we're all f*?!ing pimps and drug dealers, and murderers and thieves and all that s*** and that's just completely foolish."

Contact staff writer Marina Askari at

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