Badge Of Honor

Tattoos were once largely private things. Now they are turning up in highly visible places—like the neck and hands. Even some hard-core tattoo wearers say that’s a no-no.


Posted September 14, 2009

All Layney Switzer wants is true love, and at 27, it seems to elude her. That’s why she’s got it tattooed on her fingers: T-R-U-E L-O-V-E. It exists somewhere, she says. For now, it’s on her hands.

Switzer once had bright pink hair, and wore adornments in her pierced lip, tongue, and cheek. The Asbury Park woman traded most of that in for tattoos, many of which are in highly visible places like her hands, neck, and feet. Switzer, who has degrees in marketing and advertising, says she knows such conspicuous tattoos limit her career options, but she doesn’t care.

“I have no interest in what people think of me or my tattoos,” Switzer says. “If I’m going to be judged unfairly anyway, I might as well get the tattoos in places I really want them.”

Samantha Hunnewell, a 22-year-old student from Ocean Township, has the word “hope” tattooed across her fingers. And lest she and her boyfriend forget where they’re from, they each have a map of New Jersey and the words “two step” tattooed on the sides of their necks, a tribute to the club scene at which they met. Hunnewell says she was passed over for jobs as a receptionist and a bank clerk because of her tattoos, but she doesn’t mind. She knows what she wants to be: a tattoo artist.

“When people get as tattooed up as me, it’s not just a stupid fad. It’s a lifestyle,” Hunnewell says. “You’re part of a minority in a weird way. A chosen minority.”

As young people increasingly obtain tattoos—some 36 percent of people aged 18 to 25 have been inked, according to the Pew Research Center—they are getting bolder with where they place them, choosing spots like the hands, the back of the neck, even the face. The phenomenon is upsetting to many parents, but it is also drawing criticism from an unlikely source—the hard-core tattoo community.

Traditional tattoo-wearers can take decades to painstakingly get their entire bodies covered—reserving hands and neck for last. These days, young people want those parts done first. And sometimes, those are the only body parts they get done.

“It’s like they’re cutting in line,” says Paul White, a 31-year-old contractor from Brick whose body is covered in tattoos. “These are people who are starved for attention. They’re trying to be something they’re not because they don’t know who they are yet.”

White says he wanted tattoos since he was 5 years old, because his older brothers had them. He got his first one at 20, and over the decade that followed, he has had his arms, legs, and torso filled in with multicolored tattoos inspired by Japanese woodblock printer Utagawa Kuniyoshi. But his hands, neck, and face remain untouched.

“Getting your hands and neck done is considered a badge of honor,” says Robert Ryan, a tattoo artist in Bradley Beach. Besides, applying tattoos to your neck and hands, and nowhere else, doesn’t even look right, he says. It looks like they’re wearing mittens and a scarf.

Aesthetics aside, the larger problem is that highly visible tattoos can turn off would-be employers. “Hand and neck tattoos are called ‘job stoppers’ for a reason,” Ryan says. “A lot of older tattoo artists just refuse to do it.”

Ryan says he’s probably done 20 to 30 of these type of tattoos in the last several years—usually for athletes who want to look like basketball stars or musicians who want to look like rockers or hip-hop heroes. He says when he had a tattoo put on his own hand years ago, the tattoo artist in Camden scolded him before applying it. He was “old school,” Ryan says.

“You don’t want to insult someone by saying, ‘You’re a moron.’ But when they leave, everyone in the tattoo parlor will say, ‘Wow. That was a bad idea,’ ” Ryan says.

Christina White, 36, an aspiring writer who works at a café in Asbury Park and has tattoos on much of her body, says she won’t get her hands done until someone publishes her book on finding happiness.

“It would be a reward, for all that hard work and courage,” she says.

White considers the neck and hands to be sacred spots, which should not be marked up for life in the name of fashion. “It’s not like a pair of jeans or a piece of jewelry. You can’t take it off,” she says. Then she laughs: “I sound like my mother.”

Even the heavily tattooed Switzer questions the judgment of some of the young people who patronize Asbury Lanes, the bowling alley turned music venue she helps manage in Asbury Park.

“I think to myself, do you really want some girl’s name tattooed on you for the rest of your life, and then you have to get it covered up with a big black panther?” Switzer says.

It’s a sentiment shared by other tattoo wearers. Paul Mirfield, 24, of Hazlet says he had the Japanese kanji symbols for love and hate applied to each side of his neck after a friend dared him to do it. He won the dare—and $200. Now he’s stuck with the tattoos.

“They’re so visible, and they’re so big. I don’t know why I got them so big,” Mirfield says.

Worse, he met a woman who could read the characters­—she verified that the symbol for hate was accurate but said the symbol supposedly meaning “love” doesn’t say that at all. She didn’t even recognize the character. “Now,” Mirfield admits, “I don’t know what it says.”

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a psychoanalyst, says young people get tattoos for a variety of reasons, from defiance to self-expression to the desire to belong to a certain group.

“I think we can all remember when we were young,” Estés says. “We wanted to be bold and make a statement, to stand out in our own ways.”

Still, many parents find it tough to accept their children’s tattoos. “I can’t stand them, for a million reasons, but I’ll start with the obvious: you just don’t mark up your body like that,” says Randolph resident Jeffrey Propper, 52, whose 27-year-old daughter, Jessica, has tattoos in various spots on her body. “I just don’t understand the logic of it.”

Jessica, who lives in Hackettstown, began with the traditional lower-back tattoo when she was about 18 because her friends, who were into the punk-rock scene, were getting tattoos. Since then, she has added inkings on her upper back, collarbones, and wrists.

Propper says the tattoos will look particularly unsightly at her wedding next year.

“She’s going to have this beautiful white dress—with all these markings.”

It’s not just young people who are getting inked in places that are hard to hide—though such tattoos may be less life-altering for individuals who already have settled into careers. Others may choose something less risky, like a tattoo on the wrist, which can be covered up with a long-sleeve shirt.

Scott E. Moore, a television producer, musician, and father of two from Montclair, did just that when he got his first tattoo last year: a thick, Henna, vine-like chain based on the design of his wedding ring, which he had applied to his wrist like a bracelet. Moore says he got the tattoo, in part, to reaffirm his commitment to his wife. But he also wanted to express his artistic side through a piece of body art, something he says he always wanted to do. At 42, he felt he was ready.

“I’m not some 20-year-old getting a picture of Bart Simpson on my arm and then regretting it when I’m an old man. I made this decision at this time in my life because I thought I could do it confidently,” Moore says. “I doubt very much I’ll look back on this and regret it.”

But one is never too old to escape a parent’s critical eyes. When Moore visited his mother after getting his tattoo, he wore a long sleeve shirt and held the edge of his cuff tightly in his hand to make sure the sleeve didn’t ride up his arm.

“I didn’t want to get into an argument with her in front of a bunch of people,” Moore says. “I wanted to pick my moment to tell her.”

Those in the tattoo community say there’s karma to body art; you get the tattoo you deserve. If you get one for negative reasons and make a spectacle of yourself, you deserve the negative treatment that follows, Ryan says. But he adds that the tattoo artist must live with the consequences as well.

“It occupies a pretty important space in my mind—that I tattooed someone who may now never be able to get the job they want. It’s not worth the $150 to me,” Ryan says.

Another tattoo artist put it in socioeconomic terms. While his boss leaves it up to the individual artist to decide whether they want to put a tattoo on someone’s neck, face, or hands, he refuses.

“It’s a job stopper,” he says, “and I don’t feel like paying my taxes to some guy who can’t get a job because he’s got a tattoo on his face.”


Getting Under His Skin

The screen is black as the film’s opening credits flash, but the sharp, uneven scratching sound is more resonant than any image. That sound, viewers later discover, is made by handheld needles puncturing the skin in traditional Japanese tattooing, known as tebori.

Because of its longtime association with criminals, the generations-old style is barred by Japanese law, but continues illicitly. Washington Township resident and world-famous tattoo artist Mario Barth traveled to Japan to learn about the art. His journey is captured in Mario Barth: Under the Skin ( Produced and directed by Billy Burke, the film has won many accolades, including Best Documentary at the New York Independent Film Festival and the Moving Picture Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The story will appeal to those who can stomach intense, painful tattooing scenes. But the film also captures Barth’s personality, Japanese culture, and how the two intertwine.

“[Mario] has a lot of Japanese personality in his heart,” says tebori tattoo master Horitoshi in the film. The feelings are mutual: “I’m a foreigner carrying their tradition,” says Barth, who operates Starlight Tattoo studios in Pequannock, Belleville, and Rochelle Park. Clearly, Barth is a man of the world—who makes New Jersey his home. —Jessica Kitchin


Ouch! The Painful Truth About Tattoo Removal

Many people who get a tattoo think that if they ever change their mind, they can have the inking removed. While that’s true, getting rid of a tattoo is not as easy as some people think. The process can be time consuming, painful, costly, and in some cases, only partially effective.

Decades ago, tattoos were removed through surgery or sanding procedures. These days, most tattoos are removed by laser physicians. But even laser removal isn’t foolproof. That’s because each color in a tattoo requires a different type of laser, and not all practices carry the spectrum of machines needed.

“We have 60 lasers. Most places do not,” says Dr. David Goldberg of Skin Laser & Surgery Specialists of New York and New Jersey. “Unless you go to the right place, you may end up with part of the tattoo remaining.”

The process can take as many as 40 one-hour sessions—depending on how many layers and colors the tattoo contains—at a rate of $300 to $700 a session.

“This is not cheap stuff,” Goldberg says.

Unfortunately, many people who want their tattoos removed want it done immediately—often for a job—and doctors will do only one session per month. If you are talking about 40 sessions, the process can take years, Goldberg says.

As the demand for tattoo removal grows, so does the list of products claiming to eliminate tattoos without expensive medical procedures. The makers of a product called Wrecking Balm claim that through their system of skin abrasion, solvents, and chemical peels, you can fade away almost any tattoo. But according to Dr. Caroline Glicksman, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Sea Girt and Red Bank, the company will not provide customers with test or research results to back these claims.

“Sadly, many young people believe that their mistakes can be erased with a cream or lotions,” Glicksman says. “The only evidence-based, scientifically proven methods that have been shown to successfully remove tattoos range from the older surgical options to the most common method used today—lasers.”

Copyright 2009 New Jersey Magazine