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Tattoo Culture in Los Angeles Perseveres Through Rough Economy

Estelle Berger |
September 19, 2011 | 3:41 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Despite the downtrodden economy, the tattoo culture in Los Angeles remains a powerful presence. Today, there are 150 tattoo parlors within a 10-mile radius of downtown. According to a Pew Research Report, four in ten Millennials (teenagers and twenty-somethings) possess at least one tattoo and the numbers seem to be growing. 

L.A. tattoo artists are still in business (bORjAmATiC on Flickr)
L.A. tattoo artists are still in business (bORjAmATiC on Flickr)

With the blogosphere brimming with personal commentary, it only seems fitting that people are looking for additional outlets for self-expression. This rings true even at a time when youth unemployment is reaching record highs.

Mariel Wuilloud, a recent graduate from the University of Southern California who lives in L.A., had the idea to “get stars all around [her] body for significant moments in [her] life.”

Now, the star outlined on her ribcage seems to be “more like a birthmark.” Her actual experience at the tattoo parlor was “less than mediocre” due to an insecure artist who was “not cool, but tried very hard to be.”

Regardless of her flawed initiation into the tattooed world, Mariel, like most people with at least one tattoo, “might get another,” because a “subtle, thought-out one can be very beautiful.” 

Coy Fish Tattoo, a parlor in South Los Angeles, reports that although they only have between one and ten clients per day, business is steady. Luis, an artist at Coy Fish, remarks on how the twenty-something population has become significantly more focused on the quantity of tattoos on their bodies as opposed to the quality of the design.

As a painter, Luis really values “people who do it for the art.”

With the economy in its current state, Luis has seen some shifts in his business. For instance, scratchers, amateurs inking in their garages, behind their houses, charge cheap prices, and are, as Luis says, “people…getting into it for the wrong reason…economically, trying to earn some money, gas money, [messing] up.”

But because Coy Fish is an establishment that has “learned the right way,” there will always be clients for Luis, clients who appreciate art or want a tattoo for the right reason.

Tattoos have held a unique place in society throughout history. In ancient Egypt, women had dots tattooed on their breasts and abdomens, which would then expand and supposedly protect their baby during pregnancy. The Roman emperor, Constantine, banned all tattoos because he thought to be tattooed was an insult to God as man was created in God’s image. 

Society is constantly bombarded with images from the media, and with rappers and actors getting inked from their eyelids to their ankles, so too will the common person. In a recent article in the tattoo-centric magazine, Inked, Lyle Tuttle, 80-years-old and one of the first tattoo artists to gain widespread popularity, recalls that when Janis Joplin died, hoards came to his studio, asking for her iconic wristband tattoo, which he applied freehand.

Similarly, now, at Coy Fish, when a rapper gets a new tattoo, people are walking in, paying for the same design.

 Tattooing is “the mother art,” Tuttle told Inked. So why should the inclination to bear a heart or a spear or a flower or a string of words on skin -- an instinct that far proceeds the common era -- be suppressed now?

Aida, Luis’s fellow tattoo artist at Coy Fish, paid for a pair of cherries when she was 15, and Mariel managed to finance the outline of a star when she was a freshman in college with a nearly empty wallet. Even as Los Angeles tightens its belt, it will not sacrifice its identity as a tattooed city.

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