By ERICA ORDEN, Columbia News Service
Marisa DiMattia, 33, has intricate tattoos of ancient Greek symbols covering both of her arms, her entire back and part of her front torso. She has been called a tattoo snob because of her discriminating taste in body art.
But DiMattia also possesses two other distinctions: a master’s degree in journalism and a law school diploma.
For DiMattia, who works as a freelance legal consultant in New York City and Belgium, her dual interests in body art and law don’t pose a problem. As she puts it, the “outlaw mystique” of tattoo culture disappeared “when I got my tattoo as a law student ... and Britney Spears got hers.”
But while tattoo culture was absorbed by mainstream culture more than a decade ago, it didn’t go upscale until late 2003, when the European designer John Galliano kick-started the trend by showcasing tattooed body stockings for his spring 2004 collection for the French fashion label Christian Dior.
Now a rash of premium tattoo-inspired merchandise has emerged. In December 2003, J Shoes, based in London, began selling its men’s leather dress shoes inscribed with images designed by tattoo artists. In June 2004, French designer Lucien Pellat-Finet began offering pricey ($1,200-$3,500) cashmere sweaters and diamond-encrusted watches emblazoned with tattoo-inspired skulls and marijuana leaves at his store in New York’s West Village.
And in October 2005, T-Mobile introduced a highly coveted, limited edition version of its Sidekick II mobile device designed by a famous Los Angeles tattooist who goes by the nickname “Mister Cartoon” and has tattooed rapper Eminem and singer Beyonce Knowles.
But while some upscale tattoo enthusiasts are glad their hobby isn’t being pigeonholed by leather-clad bikers with beer bellies anymore, they’re also worried about the designer marketplace co-opting a once-niche culture and possibly preventing tattoo artists from sharing in the commercial bounty.
“There’s a very mixed attitude toward this,” said DiMattia, who last year launched Needled.com, a blog dedicated to what she refers to as “tattoo couture.”
One of the more contentious issues among tattoo enthusiasts is whether companies commission actual tattoo artists to design their products, or turn to general practice graphic designers to come up with images for their merchandise.
In the most integrated example of tattooist-industry collaboration, customers of J Shoes can design a custom pair of shoes in conjunction with a tattooist as they would design an image for their body, in what the company calls a “bespoke,” or couture, process. (Customers can also purchase shoes with premade designs.)
The company sells its tattooed line at trendy boutiques like Fred Segal Feet on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and Lounge in New York’s Soho neighborhood, and the shoes cost from $200 to $750 depending on the design. They’ve been so popular that J Shoes plans to release another edition in coming months.
“They’re for the customer who’s fashion forward and a little quirky,” said Myles Levin, managing director of the company.
Artists like Takahiro Kitamura, a tattooist in San Jose, Calif., who trained with famed Japanese tattoo master Horiyoshi III, appreciate the fact that some companies are commissioning them and their peers.
“If it’s going to be done, it should be done right,” said Kitamura, 32, owner of the tattoo shop State of Grace. Kitamura has his own merchandising deals, including a coming collaboration with Nike’s Skateboarding line, for which he’ll design a limited edition series of sneakers based on traditional Asian “guardian animals.”
According to Kitamura, the designs will be rendered on the sneakers using a combination of techniques including laser cutting, silk screening and embroidery.
Kitamura acknowledges that he’s still wary of mainstream culture’s embrace of tattoos. In 1991, when he got his first tattoos, Kitamura said, “it was punk rock and cool.” Today, he gets cheerleaders in his shop. “Some of the charm is leaving,” he said.
But he is quick to add that tattoo artists have reaped financial rewards from their craft’s popularity. Kitamura says he has a yearlong waiting list for his services, and his customers run the gamut from counterculturalists to public officials, or, as he puts it, from “police officers to gang members to computer programmers.”
He’s not alone in his conflicted outlook. Taz Stickley, 49, a tattoo artist in St. Joseph, Mo., calls the growth of tattoo culture a two-edged sword. On one hand, Stickley, who has been in the business for 35 years and identifies himself as an “old school” tattooist, says the growing mainstream interest in tattoo culture has been a boon for his shop, Painted Angel, which now features “hospital grade autoclave sterilization” and which he plans to expand with a second location in Fort Collins, Colo. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” he said. “It’s a good thing because it makes us a lot of money.”
However, Stickley, who says he has covered his entire body in tattoos, agrees that the culture has lost some of its mystique.
Although the old tattoo parlors weren’t really dangerous, he said, “they gave you the feeling of doing a dangerous thing when you went into them. It’s just not like that anymore,” he said. “It’s like Tattoos ‘R’ Us.”