Growing up in 1980s Harford County, I knew of only two kinds of people who had tattoos – members of the military and members of rebel motorcycle gangs.
Back then, the faded blue and gray images were largely unrecognizable in shape or design. Any lettering had long since bled into an amorphous set of unreadable characters. Tattoos weren’t considered artwork as much as they were branding – an anchor on the arm, an eagle on the back, the initials of a long lost love on the shoulder. It wasn’t pretty, but it was still rare enough that neighborhood children gathered around to gawk when the local biker rolled up his sleeves to work on his hog. It was still ink injected into skin. It was a tattoo.
Today, ink is everywhere. It is becoming rarer, at least in my circles, to meet someone who has a body completely untouched by ink. It’s virtually a requirement for a musician or actor to have some sort of body art done before they reach stardom. There are magazines, reality television shows and web sites devoted entirely to tattoos, the artists who create them and the bodies who serve as the canvas.
Long gone are the days when inked arms were reserved for hardened criminals and punk rockers. Let’s face it, tattoos have gone mainstream and they’re spreading like wildfire through suburbia.
Forgive me if I’ve overlooked anyone, but at last count there were 13 separate tattoo parlors in rural/suburban Harford County.
Artistic Armor Tattooing– 3940 Conowingo Rd, Darlington
Doc’s Tattooz– 2122 Pulaski Hwy, Havre De Grace
Dominant Art Tattoo & Body Piercing– 3011 Pulaski Hwy, Edgewood
Flaming Dice Tattoos– 4043 Federal Hill Rd, Jarrettsville
Flaming Dragon Tattoos– 3478 Churchville Rd, Aberdeen
Flesh Tattoo Company– 1716 Harford Rd, Fallston
House of Ponchos Tattoos– 4305 Pulaski Hwy, Abingdon
The Ink’s Inn Tattoo Shop– 358 Pennington Ave, Havre De Grace
Main Street Tattoo– 1812 Pulaski Hwy, Edgewood
Manic Tattoos– 2821 Churchville Rd., Churchville
Precision Tattoo and Body– 1967 Pulaski Hwy, Edgewood
Sins of the Skin and Iron Lotus Tattoo– 521 Pulaski Hwy, Joppa
Skin Images– 2003 Pulaski Hwy, Edgewood
To put that into perspective, there are only 12 high schools in Harford County – and that’s including the Harford Technical magnet school, the new Patterson Mill middle/high school and the Restoration Academy charter school. And there are only 11 branches in the Harford County Public Library system.
It’s the law of supply and demand. Right now Harford County residents would rather pay to have someone forcefully inject ink into their skin than take home a library book for free. And those numbers may be a big understatement. I’m not even going to delve into the world of those who scratch out an existence as tattoo artists working out of basements, garages and bedrooms.
If you studied the map, you might have also noticed that 7 of the 13 tattoo shops in Harford County have Pulaski Highway addresses. It seems as the adult video stores have been burning to the ground, the tattoo shops have been rising from their ashes.
So what’s really going on here? Why the proliferation of tattoo parlors? Seriously. I mean, there’s a spot on Route 40 in Edgewood where I swear you can see four tattoo shops at once.
For some answers, I ran the question past Chris Oppenheim of Manic Tattoos in Churchville. Oppenheim, who has seen the world from the wrong side of a set of prison bars, now looks out through the many windows of his fancy new tattoo shop on Route 22 in Churchville. In just a few years, he has turned his artistic skills into a profitable business that is finding success where it was formerly shunned – in middle class America.
Oppenheim, who lives in Baltimore County, said there are a number of reasons tattoo shops are fanning out from American cities and into the surrounding suburbia. For starters, many of the still-rural counties around Baltimore have never had to deal with tattoo shops before and don’t have any laws, regulations or even guidelines in the books on how to deal with a prospective shop opening.
When he approached the Harford County Health Department about what sort of licensing and permitting he’d need to open his tattoo shop, Oppenheim said they simply handed him a brochure to read over.
Here is what the Harford County Health Department says on the matter:
Tattooing and Body Piercing Facilities are NOT licensed by the HarfordCounty Health Department. The Health Department DOES investigate complaints in accordance with requirements outline in the Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) 10.06.01. Additionally, all operators are provided a packet of information alerting them to pertinent regulations and responsibilities.
Please be advised that the three incorporated municipalities, Aberdeen, Bel Air, and Havre de Grace, have their own internal procedures and policies regarding tattooing and body piercing operations. The City of Aberdeen does not permit such operations within city limits. The Town of Bel Air has its own ordinance regulating tattoo and body piercing services. Approval must be obtained through the Town’s Board of Appeals. Please contact the Town’s Planning Department at 410-879-9500. The City of Havre de Grace requires potential operators to submit an application for a Use and Occupancy Permit through the City’s Department of Planning and Zoning. City officials may be reached at 410-939-1800 for more information.
By contrast, here is what the Baltimore City Health Department requires before a new tattoo parlor can open:
How do I apply for a tattoo license? (If renewing, jump to step 4)
Step 1: The Office of Zoning Administrator, located at 417 E. Fayette Street, must approve a new tattoo business.
Step 2: Upon Zoning Board approval, apply for a Use and Occupancy Permit at the Bureau of Buildings, Division of Zoning, also located at 417 E. Fayette Street.
Step 3: Schedule a Health Department inspection with the Bureau of Ecology.
Step 4: Upon approval of a Health Department inspection, complete the Tattoo License Application, which includes registering all tattoo artists who will be practicing at the location
Step 5: Bring completed application and appropriate fee ($200 for a one year license, $100 for a temporary license) to the Customer Service Counter at 210 Guilford Avenue, Baltimore MD 21202, 2nd Floor.
Note: Licenses must be renewed every year.
So, essentially, it’s much easier, cheaper and quicker for someone to open a new tattoo shop in Harford County vs. Baltimore City.
Another reason for the influx of tattoo artists to Harford County might be clientele. Suburbia is where the money is and as tattoos become more culturally acceptable, it makes more sense for the ink artists to go to where the market is, rather than expect young college students to flock to the inner city for their body work.
But why are tattoos now considered the norm in society? Maybe it has to do with the fact that members of the ‘Baby Boomer Generation,’ famous for their free forms of expression and drug experimentation, are now the mothers and fathers of many of today’s twenty-something tattoo enthusiasts. Perhaps, given another decade or so, tattoo parlors will pop up in shopping malls much like the ear-piercing stations of the 1980s.
Oppenheim said another reason for the relatively recent increase in the popularity of tattoos can be attributed to the relatively recent increase in the artistic abilities of those who operate the needle. Not that old tattoo artists are learning new tricks, but that new inkers are taking pride in exhibiting the ‘art’ part of being a tattoo artist.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try comparing a traditional tattoo from pre-1990s to some of the work being painted into bodies today. Rather than aiming for a showing of their artwork at a local coffee shop or studio, young artists are increasingly picking up the needle and letting their artwork flow out onto limbs and appendages as their canvas – a moving showcase of their work that lasts forever and brings in a little coin at the same time.
A 20-year-old girl would likely never associate with anyone with a crude anchor scratched onto their arm, much less get the same image inked onto their own body. But show them how a brilliant, multi-colored butterfly with flowers and raindrops would look on their shoulder, ankle or lower back and the same girl would gladly fork over the cash for the tattoo.
According to Wikipedia, the occasionally incorrect online encyclopedia relied upon far-too-frequently by journalists, a poll conducted online in July 2003 estimated that 16% of all adults in the United States have at least one tattoo.
The highest incidence of tattoos was found among the gay, lesbian and bisexual population (31%) and among Americans ages 25 to 29 years (36%) and 30 to 39 years (28%). Regionally, people living in the West (20%) were more likely to have tattoos. Democrats were more likely to have tattoos (18%) than Republicans (14%) and Independents (12%); approximately equal percentages of males (16%) and females (15%) have tattoos.
It doesn’t seem likely, even in this latest surge of tattoo acceptance, that Harford County’s ink market will allow for more than a dozen tattoo parlors to coexist in such a small area. But there are more people moving to suburbia every day and more kids being born every day (only 18 years until they can start filling up with ink).
Of course, there are also those people, myself included, who held out for years and never thought they’d see a drop of ink, other than newsprint, on their bodies. There’s a whole lot of pink skin out there and a whole lot of tattoo artists waiting to decorate it.