Thu, Oct 22, 1998 (10:08 a.m.)
We remember the snappy sailor’s uniform, whistling corn-cob pipe and chronically closed right eye.
But what really sold that purveyor of punishment, Popeye, was the tattoo: a macho, black anchor inked on his bulging right forearm.
But these days, in the ever-expanding and increasingly accepted tattoo industry, it’s anchors away. Customers have become veritable works of art, roving tributes to the tattoo practitioners who, justifiably, refer to themselves as artists.
The days when a simple heart bearing the word “mother,” are waning. Now a customer can have a bouquet of roses on his chest, American Indian tribal art on his back, a wedding portrait on his shoulder or even Wonder Woman on his rear end.
The artists are eager to oblige nearly any request.
“I’ve always been into art,” said 22-year-old Adam Siehr, a tattoo artist since age 18 and one of the busiest employees at the city’s largest tattoo shop, Diversity, on the Strip across from the Holy Cow Casino Cafe and Brewpub. “I’m a chronic doodler.”
And he’s armed with a rapid-fire, ink-filled needle gun and fertile imagination.
“This is a type of art form that’s permanent and we take what we do very seriously,” Siehr said. “I’ve always liked artistic impression.”
Siehr — a native of Milwaukee whose method of “artistic impression” once included decorating freight trains with spray cans — says he’s typical of artists who have turned eccentric artistry into a career.
“The difference is, there’s work here for us (in Las Vegas),” Siehr said. “Where I come from, there’s not a lot of work compared to here.”
A time for tattoos
Following a national trend that has resulted in tattooing becoming a mainstream fashion statement, Las Vegas’ body art industry has boomed in the ’90s. Lonnie Empey, the environmental health supervisor at the Clark County Health District, estimates that the number of Las Vegas tattoo businesses has tripled in the past five years.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase,” said Empey, who monitors the shops’ safety and health records. “I’m up to my ears in work, and that’s one of the biggest reasons.”
Statistics provided by the Clark County Health District show a rapid rise in the number of permits granted to tattoo businesses. In 1993, the county issued 12 permits to businesses practicing tattooing and/or permanent makeup procedures.
In 1998, because of the swelling popularity of tattoos and other forms of physical embellishment such as body piercing and branding, the county issued 57 this year.
“Before I came here (in 1994) there was hardly any interest at all,” said Shahram Sheikhan, who owns Diversity’s three Las Vegas shops, as well as one in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Now there is a large number of young artists and we get all kinds of customers: police officers, lawyers, doctors, family people.”
One first-time subject who ducked into Diversity’s shop on the Strip was a tourist from San Francisco, 26-year-old Albert Rios.
“I was goaded into it, basically,” said the San Francisco State University graduate student, who was accompanied by a pair of giggling, tattoo-bearing buddies for a Friday night session. “My friends have been trying to get me to do this for a long time.”
Rios chose a maniacal court jester tattooed to his right shoulder for his virgin flight.
“I like it,” Rios said. “I’d better. It’s here to stay.”
Not necessarily. One of the evolving artistic methods in the tattoo industry is the “cover-up” — specifically, modifying a tattoo that has, for whatever reason, worn out its welcome.
“We do a lot of that type of work (on) people who after a while don’t want a name on their body anymore,” said a 26-year-old Diversity artist who asked to be identified only as “Tempt.”
Tempt then flipped open his portfolio — all of Diversity’s artists boast extensive and varied pictorial accounts of past masterpieces — and showed a woman who had a skull covered up to make a bouquet of roses that spread across both breasts.
Tempt said that his female customers outnumber his male subjects 60 percent to 40 percent.
“We get a lot of dancers, a lot of people in the entertainment industry who expose their bodies,” Tempt said, “but (the tattoos are) not always on the breasts or private areas. Only about one in 20 women will have their breasts done.”
Tattoo dos and don’ts
Tattoo sessions can last from five minutes to six hours. Rib cages and stomaches are usually the most difficult body regions for artists to navigate.
“They’re really fleshy,” Tempt said. “You have to be careful. There’s a fatigue factor, too. After a couple of hours you just get tired.”
Despite their adventurous reputations, artists have established ethical boundaries. Most won’t tattoo a certain sensitive area of the male anatomy, or service a customer younger than 18 (which is illegal anyway). And rare is the artist who will take the needle to a face, neck or hands.
“It’s not a good idea,” Siehr said. “If you’re in a job interview, you might not want tattoos all over your face or hands. That’s a big no-no because a lot of people don’t think it looks professional and want it covered up while you’re working.”
There are also specific tattoos — rendered hackneyed through popularity — the artists dread.
“I hate ‘Taz,’ ” Tempt said, referring to the Tazmanian Devil cartoon character. “I will not do ‘Taz.’ Don’t even ask for it. The whole ‘Taz’ thing got going in the ’80s, and it hasn’t stopped.”
In fact, it is a company-wide policy at Diversity not to do “Taz” as a form of artistic statement.
“I’d rather do custom work than anything people pick out of a book of samples,” Siehr said. “It’s like a musician. You want to create your own work instead of copying what someone else has done.”
Customers frequently present photographs for reproduction, or maybe a family crest. Some simply describe their request and turn the artists loose.
It’s not without risk, however. Prior to sitting with an artist, customers are required to sign a form freeing the artists from any “accidents.”
“If there are any mistakes or accidents with the design, we don’t want to be held liable,” Siehr said. “It’s up to the customer to give us the right spelling of a name or word they want.”
Keep it clean
The shops are quite clean, even clinical. The booths at Diversity look more like a dentist’s office than what one might expect from a tattoo parlor.
“People think we’re stinky and dirty, but we’re not. We’re very clean and professional,” Sheikhan said. “But there is that image, that we have only bikers, gang members and criminals in here. Whenever I try to buy property to open a new business, I go out of my way to show that it’s not what people have grown to expect.”
A glance around Adam Siehr’s booth shows that nearly every instrument is sterile and disposable. Needles are never used twice and used instruments are disposed of in a nearby biohazard container.
“We make sure the equipment is sterilized and they’ve maintained proper records of their customers to show that they’re not carrying communicable diseases,” Empey, whose department conducts random inspections every six months, said. “If there is a problem, they’re issued a warning and if they don’t comply, their permit will be suspended.”
However, Empey said suspensions are fairly rare. And the businesses continue to expand, with Sheikhan planning a new shop in west Las Vegas within four months and an additional outlet in San Diego early next year.
“It’s growing steadily,” Sheikhan said. “It’s a true form of expression and it’s becoming universal.”
The artists pride themselves on rich and famous customers who happen into Diversity’s shop on the Strip. Siehr points to a photo, dated April 30, 1997, which shows him servicing one of the more recognizable sports celebrities on the planet.
“There’s me with Mike Tyson,” Siehr said with a grin. “He got a big white tiger on his right forearm before the (Evander) Holyfield fight, when he bit him. But he was great to me. Tyson was really cool.”