Marked for Life: Tattoo Parlors
by Mark Byun
I chose to do my field observation on a tattoo parlor. I had many assumptions about the type of people that get tattoos and work at the tattoo parlors. They gave off a sense of fear and mysteriousness to me for the reason that I did not know very much about them. I talked with Robert, a friend who has tattoos and plans to get more. I told him about my project and I asked him to help me with my observations. He agreed to help me and take me along when he was to get another tattoo. I never knew how much history there was to tattoos. The people that got tattoos can be anyone from bikers, to businessmen, to any average kid.
I followed my friend Robert to Sunset Strip Tattoo to start my observation. They were closing in fifteen minutes so he was not able to receive his next tattoo. Therefore, we just left Sunset Strip Tattoo and we were driving around Hollywood. We saw a bright red tattoo sign so we went in. We talked to the workers and my friend got all his questions answered that other people were not able to answer. The workers were friendly enough to help me with my field observation. Robert and I returned in a couple days. He started on his tattoo and I started on my observation. We not only got tattoos we made new friends. This place I did my observation on was a place called Black Wave Tattoo.
I was lucky enough to make friends that worked there. That made my research a lot easier. They were very friendly people, which totally contradicted my opinions about people who work at tattoo parlors and the people get them. I thought they would be mean to me because I was young, an Asian American, and I would give them no business being a spectator. The last reason is because I remember Robert saying, "I hate it when people come in just to watch." That made me realize I might not be wanted when he was getting his tattoo. I felt a little discouraged to go on with the observation, but I stuck to it. Hoping that they would accept my presence. Robert and I arrived at Black Wave Tattoo. He got started right away and I did not want to bother him or Mike who was doing his tattoo. I sat down for a while and there was a woman name Angela who was sitting there. I asked if she was a worker and told her about my field observation, she was more than happy to help me. I asked for an interview and she was my key informant. She worked there for more than five years. Angela is also married to the owner of the place, Freewind. Then I started to ask questions and I started my interview. It was very easy to talk to her about anything, she was one of the nicest people I have met and she made me feel very comfortable. I believe she knew it was my first time at a tattoo parlor.
I was shocked at how friendly they were. I made many assumptions to who wants and gets tattoos, the reason being I did not know. I thought only bikers, gangsters, and others of that rebellious type get tattoos. However, I saw males, females, kids, adults, businessmen, and anyone who I thought would not get a tattoo coming in asking questions. They did not dress or act differently. They were just I guess normal people. It felt like a McDonalds were all sorts of people come in to eat, but instead of eating it was getting tattoos. I was the only one in the place who did not have a tattoo, but I always wanted one. However, that would make me the type of person that I assumed to be the rebellious type. I thought over and asked Angela why would you get a tattoo other than it looking good on someone? She replied, "It's like wanting some of your culture back." I was confused to what she said. I asked her, "What do you mean?" She said, "Tattoos were here from the beginning, they were used for hunting. Man stabbed himself by accident and it made an imprint in his body. That would make him look like a leopard and help him in his hunting by camouflaging himself. So from then they made tattoos more ritualistic for tribes as a sign of when a boy becomes a man. Tattoos later on became a sign of royalty, for instances Queens had tattoos of bracelets on their arms. Then later soldiers from the Navy got them. Then it was widespread and people got them with their family sign. They had little designs showing they were from a certain family and they would get tattoos of that. A lot of Filipino kids are coming in wanting tattoos of design from the Philippines, it part of grabbing on to there culture, going back to their roots.
In America we are so mixed that we don't have a culture, we have apple pie but that not a culture. Every one of us came from somewhere and there are very few Native American Indians. I went to New Zealand and there were people who can trace their families back 200 or 300 years with patterns that they wear I fully felt lost." I was amazed by the knowledge she had and the information she threw at me. She had a lot to say so I asked her how is the process of actually getting a tattoo. She told me to watch my friend. I saw Robert getting ready for his tattoo. He was getting stenciled on his back. By stenciling I mean there is a paper that is see through and this paper is carefully placed then marked. Then a special liquid is applied to make the stencil imprint ink on the skin. Next, the needle is prepared. There are two needles, the outlining needle and the fill-in needle. The outline needle consists of approximately three needles, thin enough to get the outline and thick enough to be seen. The fill-in needle consists of approximately seven needles. Then the tattooing begins, it is constantly wiped so that the line that has been tattooed can be seen and the temporary ink is erased. Then the tattoo is filled in. I stayed to watch my friend getting his tattoo and it was a very long process. I watched and actually felt that I wanted one after hearing that explanation from Angela. When Robert went in for a second session I decided that I am going to get a tattoo myself. He replied, "It's about time." I went in, waited for my turn, because all the workers were busy helping other people. Around 11:30 p.m. I got started. I went through the same process as my friend. The preparation time made me nervous. The worker doing my tattoo was name Yetti. I guess my nervousness showed, because he asked if this was my first tattoo. I replied with an embarrassed, "Yes." He said its not going to hurt that much. It's funny that I was going to ask him that very question he gave the answer to. I went through it and afterward I felt more accepted by the workers Angela gave me congratulation, telling me welcome to the club. It felt as though I had to get a tattoo to be accepted. So it's a club that anyone can join.
This culture shows the wanting of their culture and the need for acceptance. It makes people feel part of a group and it identifies who they are and where they are from. I was at the gym the other day and I saw someone with a tattoo that was in the Black Wave portfolios. I asked him if he got the tattoo from Black Wave Tattoo. He was amazed at how I knew and I told him I went there and I got a tattoo and I saw his in the portfolio. We talked and we worked out together and it was like a togetherness that we had as strangers. We had a commonality in wanting part of this culture.
Next time if I were to research on tattoo parlors I would want to know more about their history and their origin. I would focus on how it came about. More detailed explanations in their history, how it came about and what it's used for other than hunting and tribes for rituals. Other aspects that I was interested in was answered by Angela.