Valley of the tattoos

With a rise in interest, body art is expanding regionally

By Ryan Cornell

As society grows increasingly accepting of tattoos and the artists who design them, more and more people in the Shenandoah Valley are getting inked.

The spike in popularity has meant big business and space for new parlors, such as Dog House Custom Ink. Artist D.J. Ownby, who is the sole tattooist at the Woodstock studio, said he’s had so many customers he barely has time to sleep and can only answer a fraction of the phone calls that come pouring in.

Most of these customers are women. Ownby said his clientele has been about 70 percent women and has been this way since the studio opened in March.

Kim Taylor, tattoo artist at Colorworks Tattoo Studio in Front Royal, said she’s been tattooing large pieces on women more frequently than ever before.

Taylor, who has 12 years of experience, said the most popular designs lately have been a feather dissolving at the tip, which gradually transforms into a flock of flying birds, or a dandelion, with its seedlings blowing away and spreading across the rest of the body.

“Before, people would walk into a studio and choose one of the designs plastered on the walls,” she said. “Now, the Internet has everyone going to Google search or Pinterest for their tattoo ideas. A lot of people get the same stuff everyone else has because they’re going to the exact same resources.”

She said lettering, such as song lyrics, quotes and bible verses, also are common. Meanwhile, tattoos of stars and Asian characters have tapered off, according to Jon Palm, tattoo artist and owner of Exquisite Ink in Stephens City.

Palm said he’s tattooed three different Monster energy drink logos.

“You try to warn them, but that’s about all you can do,” Ownby said. “When you turn 35 and Monster’s probably going to be not even in existence anymore, replaced by some other energy drink called ‘Crazy’ or whatever, then you got a bunch of people running around with these weird M’s and nobody knows what they mean.”

Ownby said other logos people want include Browning, Adidas, the Nike swoosh and album covers.

Other tattoos are less ubiquitous. Taylor said people get the names of celebrities tattooed on them when they read in a magazine that the celebrity is single again. Ownby said he tattooed the word, “Diabetic,” on a man’s arm along with the rod of Asclepius, so that if he passed out from a diabetes problem, people would know it’s from an insulin issue. Palm said he tattooed a woman who gets a new one every year for her birthday.

One man brought a pencil drawing done by his 4-year-old daughter to Palm, of “little stick figures, messed-up lines and her name, Charlie, underneath, who had her ‘a’ backwards.” Palm tattooed it exactly as it was.

And, of course, there are the misspelled tattoos. Although the artists offer multiple opportunities for their customers to double-check their ideas, from the creation of the stencil to the time before the tattooing when it’s applied to the body, the misspellings and misplaced apostrophes are alarmingly pervasive.

A girl who was going to be a bridesmaid came to Ownby looking to correct a tattoo; lettering from her shoulder to collarbone proclaimed, “Beautifil.”

“I would say the number one misspelled word in the entire tattoo world, just saw a guy in Hagerstown, and someone in Ohio with wings and ‘All of the angles have fallen from heaven,'” Palm said.

Taylor said many people these days don’t seem to care about what the tattoo says; they’re mostly in it for the experience.

“It’s a fix and they [tattoos] are very addictive,” she said. “I have over 50 tattoos and I still get nervous every time. It’s like going to King’s Dominion. The drive kind of sucks, which is the waiting, and then you’re standing in line and your heart’s pounding and you get a little sweaty and start wondering ‘maybe I don’t have to ride this.'”

She said she’s had to reject customers who have wanted racist and gang tattoos. She refuses to work on people’s faces and also will reject doing tattoos on people if she feels like they’re being pushed into getting one. Palm once turned down tattooing a pentagram, with a goat in the middle, that a customer wanted on his back.

Tattoo laws, which are mandated by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulations, state that it’s illegal for anyone to get a tattoo under 18 years of age unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.

“Early in my career, I made the mistake, a mom and dad brought in a 13-year-old,” Palm said. “They thought she was ready because she hadn’t changed her mind for a year about what she wanted…she was in no way prepared for what it was actually going to feel like. Halfway through, she was in tears, begging me to stop.”

He said the girl’s parents coached her through another 20 minutes so he could at least get the outline completed. Today, he doesn’t tattoo anyone younger than 16.

The artists agree tattoos hurt more in different places depending on each person, but noted the fingers, sternum, feet and ribs as particularly painful.

The department also oversees the licensing of tattoo artists. Palm said before they take the test, applicants need to show they have a state-regulated apprenticeship and have completed 1,500 hours of study time, including learning about art, skin biology, skin anatomy, cross-contamination and aseptic technique.

The apprenticeship is standard in the industry; it’s basically the equivalent of an unpaid internship for liberal arts graduates or residency for medical students.

“They teach you little by little,” Ownby said. “It’s like Kung Fu. You never stop learning how to tattoo. Everyone who says they’re fully done learning is fooling themselves.”

Taylor said artists also need to take courses in blood-borne pathogens and keep their CPR and First Aid certification current to keep their licenses.

Like every tattooist, Ownby advises against getting the tattoo of a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name, but not everybody listens.

“We know the curse will pretty much run its course and they’ll be back in six or eight months,” Ownby said. “I’d say about five percent of people actually survive the curse. I’ve had people literally kirk out on each other while I was putting the name on the guy. And literally, the relationship all but ended before I finished putting the name.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or