Special to The Union
People get tattoos for some of the most heart-warming – and heart-rending – reasons imaginable.
David Cain of Nevada City is having 27 roses tattooed on his arm for each year of his marriage.
And recently, a woman who underwent a double mastectomy had nipples tattooed on her reconstructed breasts.
“That was a heavy day,” recalls says Cory Norris, an internationally recognized tattoo artist and owner of Classic Tattoo Studio in Grass Valley. Fortunately, “She was so happy with the results she’s showing her friends.”
Not all clients have such touching reasons for getting a tattoo, but all three artists at Classic Tattoo say most clients do have very specific emotional motives.
For some, tattoos are a kind of “living diary” of significant events in their lives explains Mischa Matulich, who apprenticed under Norris. Many of his own tattoos are souvenirs of places he’s visited around the world.
Other people find tattoos “empowering,” adds Danny Warner, who after earning a B.A. in biology from California State University at Sacramento, decided his true calling was to be a tattoo artist, not a dentist.
An upscale tattoo parlor
When you walk into the studio, you actually do get a feeling of entering the waiting room of a dentist’s office – comfortable chairs, magazines on the table, and a faint whiff of antiseptic in the air.
And you hear the faint buzz of precision, pain-inflicting machines.
One look at the walls, however, reveals a wild and amazing array of artwork, ranging from disturbingly gruesome to stunningly beautiful, startlingly photorealistic to utterly fantastic.
Heavy metal music replaces prosaic Muzak.
Clearly, it’s not a medical office, but nonetheless, the feeling you are in a clean, professional environment is inescapable.
Addicted to the needles
Like a dentist’s office, pain is involved.
“It’s definitely uncomfortable,” concedes Norris as he uses a latex-gloved hand to wipe the blood off the thigh of Chris Merchant of Grass Valley. He is using a sterile 13-needle tattoo machine that injects ink 90 times a second into the elegant and colorful Thai mask he is creating on Merchant’s leg.
However, for many tattoo enthusiasts, “It’s really addictive. Every time I hear that [tattoo] machine, I want it to be me,” says Norris’ father Jerry Norris.
Over the past six years, Norris has tattooed a “full body suit” on his father. “All I’ve got left to do is my armpits,” says the elder Norris, who describes the experience as a way of bonding with his son.
A passion for the profession
And the addiction goes both ways. All three of the artists have a deep, abiding commitment to their art.
“It was the best decision I ever made, for me,” says Norris. “Not many people can say they love what they do and look forward to coming to work every day.”
“You almost have to let it consume your life,” explains Warner. “I live, eat and breathe to tattoo.”
Matulich is so committed to his career that he “hung out” in the studio every day for two-and-half years working for free before Norris decided Matulich was worthy of an apprenticeship.
He held various night jobs so during the day he could draw designs, learn how to repair and sterilize the equipment, and be a general “go-fer” for whatever errands that needed to be run.
“This is my profession,” he says with deep conviction. “I have no desire to do anything else.”
Standards of excellence and ethics
Traditionally, tattoos have been regarded as a lowlife art form favored by society’s rebels and rejects. But, “It’s coming out of the back alley,” Norris asserts.
“My whole goal is to give tattooing a new face,” he says. “We see all walks of life,” including soccer moms, skateboarders, grandmas and newspaper publishers.
(Jeff Ackerman, publisher of The Union, and members of his family recently got pink ribbon tattoos in support of breast cancer awareness. His wife LaVonne is a cancer survivor.).
While some might find some of the tattoo art offensive, it’s hard to deny the remarkable artistry of Norris’, Warner’s and Matulich’s work. Norris, alone, has won more than three dozen awards internationally for his work.
Grinning skulls, raging dragons and other disturbing images are all in a day’s work, but the artists are just as likely to create colorful floral displays, classic Oriental art or strikingly realistic portraits of grandchildren.
At Classic Tattoo Studio, you can get pretty much anything you can imagine – and afford (tattoos don’t come cheap). But, “I absolutely refuse to have any racist or religiously offensive tattoos come out of this place,” Norris states flatly.
Warner and Matulich are equally adamant on this point.
“I won’t do swastikas,” says Warner.
“Some people get mad, but mostly they get embarrassed” when they are refused a tattoo, reports Matulich.
As for why people might want to get tattooed, Jerry Norris has a simple philosophy: “Your body is your castle, so why not decorate it?”
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