Explore the colorful world of Charleston’s tattoo community

Inked up

The methodical, low hum of a tattoo machine emanates from an artist’s booth like the sound emanating from a beehive. The clean, sterile smell of green soap, an eco-friendly plant product used by tattoo artists and piercers to cleanse and soothe skin, fills the air. Framed tattoos of all sizes, shapes, colors and styles adorn the walls. You have just walked into a tattoo parlour.

Twenty years ago, this experience was unheard of in Charleston, or anywhere in South Carolina, when the state banned tattoos in the 1960s after a national panic following a hepatitis outbreak in New York who was believed to be related to a Coney Island tattoo artist.

As a result, many states moved to ban the practice, leading to decades-long legal battles to bring tattooing back. In 2004, when South Carolina lawmakers lifted the restriction, Palmetto State and Oklahoma were the only two states that still banned tattooing.

After the new law was passed, it took another two years for stores to open in Charleston due to local zoning laws which can still make it difficult to open a new store today due to restrictions specific regarding the size of the space and the locations where the stores can operate.

Growing popularity

Despite the obstacles, tattooing has become a common practice in Charleston and across the country.

According to a poll conducted by Ipsos in 2019, 30% of Americans have tattoos compared to 21% in 2012. Among those who have at least one tattoo, 92% say they are satisfied with the decision. The study found that young people tend to be more likely to get tattoos – 46% of people aged 18-34 and 36% of people aged 35-54 said they had at least one.

Butler | Provided

Tattoo artist Betsy Butler, who works at The Gilded Mermaid in Ravenel, said she receives clients from all walks of life.

“If you look at the cross section of my clients, there’s really nothing that combines them,” she said. “They are mothers, grandmothers, teachers, civil servants, doctors, bakers and everyone in between.”

Tattoos were once associated with rowdy sailors and outright criminals, but they have become embedded in mainstream culture, although some stigmas have remained.

“I think the doors have definitely been opened,” Butler said. “Having access to things like Instagram has really allowed people to do that. People are seeing their potential when they may have never wanted to get a tattoo before.

“And I’m excited to do tattoos that moms love. A lot of customers will walk in and say, “Oh, my mom is going to hate this,” and then I get a message from them on Instagram a few weeks later saying, “My mom loved it. She said it was so beautiful! ”

Misplaced stigma

Part of the stigma that remains is the misguided notion that tattooed women lose their femininity because some people still associate tattoos with masculinity, Butler said.

Ancient Ink Masters contestant Ashley B. McMullen named top tattoo artist in 2022 Best of Charleston | Photo by Ashley Rose Stanol

But there are ways to make tattoos look soft and feminine if that’s what a client wants. Women today, however, are not limited by definitions of femininity and masculinity; they get all sorts of patterns, from colorful flowers to dark skulls – and sometimes even more unusual patterns.

“Years ago I tattooed a girl who tattoos now, I think, in Tennessee. But before she was even apprenticed, we did a giant vagina with a French mustache on her hip,” said Margo Venomous who tattoos at the Holy City Tattooing Collective in West Ashley “There aren’t a lot of tattoos that I think are stupid ideas. Get the funny ones, let’s have fun and make it a great experience.

Men are also starting to move away from a strict definition of male tattoos. city ​​paper2022 Best Tattoo Artist winner Ashley B. McMullen shared a Hello Kitty tattoo she did on the middle of a man’s lower back, a placement often referred to as a “tramp stamp.”

“I also made a jeans pocket on a guy’s butt once,” she laughed.

But, a 2012 study published by Oxygen Network and Lightspeed Research found that women were actually more likely to be inked despite historical stigmas that associated tattooed women with social deviation and promiscuity. Among the tattooed population, 59% were female compared to 41% male.

Enter the women

The stigma surrounding women and tattoos didn’t just impact those who wanted to do body art. It has also been difficult for women to break into the profession.

“When I started tattooing was very different,” said McMullen, who has tattooed for 15 years and also works at the Holy City Tattooing Collective in West Ashley. “But now there is so much support for women in the tattoo industry. Some customers prefer to get tattoos only from female artists. When I started, there was no such thing. People were hesitant to get tattooed by me because I was a girl.

It’s a sentiment shared by many female artists in the industry. Venomous, now 45, attended Summerville High School and started tattooing when she was 18. She moved in 1995 and bounced around the Southeast to pursue a career in tattooing and “having affairs”.

“The only way to enter a tattoo parlor [as a woman] was learning how to drill, but I don’t like hurting people,” Venomous said. “I like the look of the piercings, but I didn’t want to do this. But, it was my only viable way to get into a store other than to hang out with a rude 50-year-old biker. I don’t even blame anyone. It was really all you could do to learn a little.

Venomous returned to Charleston after tattooing was legalized, but still faced gender discrimination and predatory behavior from male clients and tattoo artists, although she said that attitude had changed over the years.

“I like working in a mixed store,” she said of working with male and female artists, “because for a while I was the novelty and the weird. Women were fetishized in this business for a while.

“It’s amazing how it’s changed,” McMullen said, “because you can feel more comfortable getting a tattoo and being a tattoo artist.”

For Butler, who landed his tattoo apprenticeship at Blu Gorilla 12 years ago while Venomous worked there, most of his clients today are women. She speculated that perhaps more women are getting tattoos due to the changing cultural view of body art and the wider acceptance of women working in the industry.

“Margo really inspired me. Back then, there were hardly any women tattooing, let alone in Charleston,” Butler said of Venomous. “As an apprentice, it was amazing to to see someone so strong and get so much respect. She was like the main artist. She was number one and she was a mother. All the guys in the store respected her the most. And it wasn’t because it was a girl. She’s busy because she’s a badass.

Unleash creativity

The art of tattooing allows for a flow of ideas between client and artist, which can create truly unique designs. Butler is known in the tattoo world for her neo-traditional fandom art, creating colorful tattoos inspired by shows like Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings and star wars.

“I like to tattoo things that I like,” she said. “I really like plants, animals and birds. And I’m a big nerd, so I love my fandoms. I think it’s important to go to someone who also likes these things because they can have more insight, more ideas.

Butler tries to create more than just a show testimonial when she does fandom tattoos, working with clients to capture a specific feeling or memory tied to those beloved stories.

Currently, she said she is excited about a large-scale project Harry Potter piece and one star wars design as well as a full cover art that subtly depicts female Disney characters, including nods to everyone from Belle to Ursula.

Butler, Venomous, and McMullen emphasized the importance of knowing your artists and getting tattooed by someone you feel comfortable with and whose art you appreciate. McMullen said she enjoys doing the traditional American style of tattooing as well as lettering and flowers.

Searching for artists on Instagram or booking a pre-date consultation is the best way to find the right tattoo artist for you, they said.

“And trust the process,” McMullen said. “I think some people forget that as tattoo artists we know how to draw, so we’ll work with you to design something you want and love.”

Regardless of the design, getting a tattoo can be a transformative experience and help one have a sense of control over one’s own body and skin, Butler said.

“I’ve had so many clients who changed their entire lives – the way they looked at themselves, the way they dressed – based on a tattoo. And as someone that it happened to them, it’s really beautiful to see.


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About Debra D. Johnson

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