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Tattoo Shops Thrive as Industry Gains Acceptance

Tattoo Afterlife co-owners Timmy Barnes and Matt Olivieri

Tattoo Afterlife co-owners
Timmy Barnes and Matt Olivieri

When Timmy Barnes was busy drawing on his friends in high school, he never considered making a career out of tattoos.

But it wasn’t long before he was making a more permanent impression, tattooing customers out of his basement. Licensed in Massachusetts since 2005, he’s now known widely — internationally, actually — as Timmy B, and co-owns Tattoo Afterlife in Northampton.

“Most people get tattooed for the same reason they buy a certain type of clothing or get plastic surgery: it’s an expression of themselves,” he told BusinessWest. “When you see a tattoo, you instantly know a little more about that person without them having to say anything.”

At the custom shop he opened with business partner Matt Olivieri, customers don’t pick images from a book; the artists who work there, in a converted auto garage on Pleasant Street, are aiming for something more unique.

“You come in and tell us what you like, things about your life that you want to showcase, and we will make you something we feel best represents you,” Barnes said. “This is a shop that people seek out, rather than walk in and wing it.

“A lot of people can mimic what we do, but it’s not the same,” he added. “It’s like a pair of shoes you really like — you’re not going to pay for a knockoff; you’ll pay for the version you really want. There is a difference.”

Olivieri, who also owns a line of organic skin-care products (more on that later), isn’t a tattoo artist himself, but has long loved the craft.

“I’m somebody who gets tattooed because I like the art. Some of mine have personal meaning, but I’d say 80% don’t. I like to get tattooed by friends, people I trust, and I let them run with the art. Then again, some people only want something on their body that has meaning. It’s really all about you and how you want to express yourself.”

Scot Padgett, the resident artist at Living Art Studio on Main Street in Northampton, has been practicing body art for decades, and has seen attitudes toward tattoos shift dramatically over the years.

Scot Padgett

Scot Padgett, whose work is seen here, says custom tattoos have become increasingly popular as clients have become more savvy.

“Make no mistake, there was a lack of social acceptance years ago,” he said. “Today, if you walk down the street here, it’s not unusual to find arm sleeves and body pieces and even people with work on their faces, which a lot of us in the businesses don’t necessarily agree with. There is a level of social acceptance now. For that reason alone, there’s a whole additional clientele who, maybe 20, 25, 30 years ago, wouldn’t have even considered it.

“We used to deal with the 18-to-25, male demographic,” he continued. “Today, the median age is around 40, and 70% female. Before, people were covering stuff up so they wouldn’t give their mother a heart attack; now they’re coming in with mom — or grandma. I definitely think there’s been a lessening of the social stigma.”

Mary Bowen, shop manager of Off the Map Tattoo in Easthampton, sees the same, ever-widening range of customers.

“We have lots of 18-year-olds getting their first tattoos, and 75-year-olds getting their first tattoos … someone working on a full body suit to someone pretty committed to getting just one,” she said.

Bowen recalled a three-generation appointment, where a woman came in with her mother and her 89-year-old grandmother for matching tattoos. “When we say you’re never too old, we mean it literally.”

Padgett welcomes the new openness to tattoos, which first became legal in Massachusetts in 2001. “People ask how long I’ve been doing this, and I say, ‘since before it was cool,’” he said. “When I got into this, you were just as likely to be ostracized by your own family members than by the community at large.”

Moving the Needle

Padgett tattooed in Connecticut for more than a decade before the Bay State came calling in 2001, and he worked with Northampton’s Board of Health on the language regulating tattoo shops, which vary from community to community.

“Unlike many states, there’s no statewide regulation,” he said. “I think there should be a federal mandate that, if it’s legal in one state, it should be nationwide. Not only is that not the case, but our state has put the onus on individual municipalities.”

Like Barnes, he emphasizes custom tattoos, a philosophy that has gained a significant foothold in the industry.

“In the old days, you’d have what was known in the vernacular as ‘flash’ on the walls,” he said, referring to stock art that tattooers would reproduce on clients. “There would be commercially available flash that people would buy and sell and circulate around the industry. When you’d go into a shop, you’d see the same designs hanging on the wall, and typically people would come in and choose from the commercially available product. It was not unusual to see the same eagle or sailing ship on other people — hundreds of people.”

Not only are custom tattoos more gratifying for him, they also allow the customer to fully embrace the experience, which results in fewer regrets.

“You’re less likely to make an error in judgment if you take the time to think about it, make an appointment, show up for the appointment, talk about it, as opposed to walking in off the street on a whim and pointing to a piece of art,” Padgett said, noting that he emphasizes the education and information aspect of his trade. “I’d rather you call me Tuesday and say, ‘I’m not sure about Wednesday’s appointment’ than call me Thursday and say, ‘I’m not sure about Wednesday’s appointment.’”

After all, he added, “it’s not like getting a bad haircut.”

Padgett, a widely recognized artist, recently tattooed a customer from Iceland, and attracts repeat business from far-flung tattoo enthusiasts. “I have clients from all over the place. That’s not a ‘hooray for me’ thing; it’s just that people have a comfort level for certain people. We try to provide an experience. I think that’s what brings a lot of people back.”

Tattoo Afterlife is a much newer presence in Northampton, having opened just five months ago.

“Business has grown every single month,” Olivieri said, adding that the shop will soon offer the services of six artists. The other side of the business is Tranquillity Massage, with two full-time massage therapists offering five types of massage, for customers who want to relax before getting inked. “We try to take care of our clients, make it a whole experience for them. We want them to feel as comfortable as possible while they’re here.”

Tattoo Afterlife has also made connections with local businesses — a hotel, restaurants, a neighboring bar — to offer discounts to customers, especially those traveling to Northampton from far away. And many do — the weekend before speaking with BusinessWest, Barnes tattooed clients from New Jersey and Australia, who had come specifically to seek him out.

“It’s a huge thing, with people from all over the world seeking out their favorite artists and turning appointments into vacations,” Olivieri said. “At the end of the day, it’s permanent, so if you’re going to fly across the world, you might as well check out the scenery and what’s going on locally. We try to be a part of that whole process when people come to town. We want to bring something to the table.

“At the end of the day, this is a service industry,” he added. “We’re all about customer service.”

Global Outlook

Gabriel Ripley, who opened Off the Map nine years ago and has since expanded it to shops in Oregon and Italy, got into the field via a different type of customer service: by using his computer-programming expertise to launch tattoonow.com, which develops and designs websites for tattoo artists. From there, he branched out by opening a tattoo shop, which features seven artists in Easthampton alone.

Mary Bowen

Mary Bowen says today’s tattoo enthusiasts often seek out favorite artists, and appreciate the fact that Off the Map brings in guest artists regularly.

“We’ll also bring in guest artists regularly — from all over the country and overseas as well,” Bowen said. “It’s great for the tattoo artists here because everyone can continue to learn from each other, and it’s great for the clients, who get access to these artists close to home. As custom tattooing is becoming more popular, people are becoming collectors of tattoo artists. The old-school way was to buy from the same person forever; now people seek out a specific style for each tattoo.”

She said the people have myriad rationales for wanting body art. “Oftentimes it’s a celebration, or people get a memorial tattoo to deal with life changes, whether it’s dealing with grief or getting a new job or getting divorced. Everyone has their own personal catalyst.”

Olivieri tells a similar story. “The other day, we had a guy who fought in Vietnam, 60 years old, who had never gotten a tattoo but was intrigued by it. Timmy has tattooed rock stars, medical doctors, and kids who turned 18 and just wanted a tattoo. It used to be that, if your were tattooed, you were looked at as a certain genre of human being, but that has now vanished. It’s now mainstream and socially acceptable to get tattoos, so all those people who were on the fence all those years are making appointments. They know they won’t be frowned upon or looked at differently.”

Bowen agrees. “They might have been thinking about this for years, if not decades. But reality shows have brought tattooing to the forefront, and it’s become more socially acceptable; at this point, it’s almost more unusual to meet someone who doesn’t have a tattoo.”

Still, she added, it’s a decision that shouldn’t be rushed. “It’s important for people to look at websites, do some research, check out the quality of the work, call the studio or stop in. I’ve gotten comments here like, ‘you’re nicer than I expected; you’re not scary at all!’ There’s this old-school perception of bikers in leather and jeans, smoking cigarettes and doing tattoos.”

Though the reality, in most cases, is far more pleasant — and sanitary — “the anxieties about getting a foot in the door are pretty significant for people,” she continued. “It’s a lifelong choice, so we don’t want them to feel pressured.”

That said, “we’re definitely growing. We’ve officially maxed out our space. Most of our artists are booked out weeks, if not months, ahead of time. A lot of times, it’s the guest artists who take walk-ins. We have a large clientele and huge support in the Valley,” Bowen said, citing several best-of citations in Valley Advocate reader polls. “It’s wonderful to hear that positive reinforcement. And we’re certainly not slowing down.”

Piece in the Valley

Olivieri and Barnes opened their first venture on Long Island, but weren’t happy with the lifestyle there, so they opened Tattoo Afterlife in Northampton, not far from Barnes’ hometown of Belchertown, and put the custom nature of the shop’s art front and center.

“You can’t come in here with a photocopy and say, ‘put it on my body,’” Olivieri said. “Every single person here is an artist. Tattooers understand the trade and can take anything and put it on your body, but here, everyone has an art background; they strive to give you something 100% original and custom, one of a kind. They’re trying to create art every single day.”

Olivieri focuses most of his energies on running the business end of the shop and selling products, particularly Redemption Aftercare, an organic, vegan, petroleum-free balm designed to be applied during and after a tattoo. A New Yorker named Bili Vegas created the formula, and he and Olivieri own and market the product. He also sells tattoo and skin-care products from other companies, including Eternal Ink and Stencil Stuff.

Redemption Aftercare, Olivieri said, “is the only balm in the world that’s USDA-certified organic and contains no chemicals and no petroleum — both things that stop the healing process. There’s a huge niche for us, as people are starting to become more aware of what they’re putting in their bodies.”

That’s particularly true in progressive Northampton. “It’s a very liberal town, and it’s open to new ideas,” he said. “And, frankly, there are five colleges with 65,000 students within a 15- to 20-mile radius. With tattooing becoming more popular, kids want to get tattooed, and lot of kids here are well-off. It’s a very good market for what we do.”

Northampton, Barnes added, “has everything you want from a big city, but mom-and-pop versions of it. All the businesses know each other, and all the employees downtown know each other. It’s an easy place to market and cross-promote. Everyone is on each other’s team.”

In that spirit, Barnes wants Tattoo Afterlife to become known for more than body art, as he and Olivieri plan a series of community events and fund-raisers to boost the profile of their craft.

“Tattooing has always had this stigma, but it’s getting harder to stereotype us,” Barnes said. “How can you call us a bunch of gnarly drug addicts and bikers when we’re raising money for children’s charities? I want to take this thing to the next level, to push the boundaries. We’ll always do tattoos, but what else can we do?”

Cost and Effect

Bowen admits that tattoos can be a significant financial investment, but added that enthusiasts are willing to pay the artists they admire. “You have to keep your budget in mind, of course. But the choice shouldn’t be made solely on price; if someone is very inexpensive, there’s probably a good reason why.”

The other big anxiety, beyond price and permanence, is pain.

“Lots of people get nervous about the pain; it’s not a pain-free process,” Bowen said. “A lot of times, people have nerves, but in the end, it’s not nearly as bad as they thought it would be. The mental is often far more significant than the physical pain of it.”

Usually, a glass of water or coffee is enough to calm a new customer’s nerves, Olivieri said, but for others, “we have a good rapport with the bar across the street. If they need a couple of hours to think about it, they can go there and have a drink. There’s no pressure here. Our job is to make the client feel as comfortable as possible.”

That said, “people are more excited than nervous,” he noted. “Timmy has a six-month waiting list, and some customers have been waiting years to see him, so when they get here, it’s like Christmas morning. They say, ‘you don’t know how long I’ve waited,’ and we say, ‘no, we get it.’”

Bowen likes to quote Ripley, her shop’s owner, in explaining that kind of excitement.

“One of the phrases Gabe uses is ‘making the world better, one tattoo at a time.’ We hope, by creating art, we’re positively impacting people’s lives — helping them move their lives in a more positive direction.”

Making art, in other words, that’s much more than skin deep.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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