“For many of us, tattooing is about a physical expression of who we are,” said Nick Cacc, a tattoo artist and owner of Skinscapes North in Mahopac.
At age 14, he began studying the art – which inserts indelible ink into the dermis layer of the skin, causing a permanent change to the pigmentation – under his father, Bob, Skinscapes’ founder. Over the years, the younger Cacc has watched as the American tattoo turned into a multimillion-dollar, reality show-spawning industry embraced by artists and athletes alike. Idiosyncratic movie goddess and eternal Goth girl Angelina Jolie has myriad tattoos in the forms of calligraphy, crosses, tigers and flora. Soccer star David Beckham is inscribed with the names of his wife and children, along with images of Jesus and angels.
The tattoo has its origins in the healing practices of prehistoric Eurasia. But the West did not really develop a taste for it until the 18th century with sailors passing through Polynesia. (The word itself comes from the Samoan “tatau.”)
For a long time in America, the word “tattoo” conjured images of sailors adorned with anchors or sweethearts’ names. But that changed in the 1960s when rebel rocker Janis Joplin got a tattoo of a bracelet with a heart charm on her left breast, courtesy of San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle. Thanks to Joplin, the tattoo took up residence at the intersection of art and popular culture.
As she demonstrated, the tattoo can be about sex, a relationship, a group, an aspiration. But always, it is about an identity.
“At its core, tattooing is the art of expressing yourself on the first canvas that God gave you, your skin,” Cacc said.
In the post-Oprah, digital age of 24/7 self-expression, the tattoo has found a wide audience. It’s not just for Popeye or the Hells Angels anymore.
“Today we get all types coming through the door,” Cacc said. “A biker can come in right after a father getting a tattoo in honor of his newborn son, and right after that, a stockbroker can be sitting in the chair.”
Sometimes, the biker, newbie dad and stockbroker are one and the same person, though, Cacc points out, he would most likely be getting the tattoo in a place usually covered by clothing.
As a practicing artist, Cacc said it is always important to be developing your skills and staying on top of trends.
“The most amazing thing in American tattooing is that it has combined all these different styles,” Cacc said. “We have some of the greatest tattoo artists in the world right here. Conventions are a huge thing today, not just to show the public what tattooing can be and mean, but because we all get to learn from one another. It’s a gathering of artists.”
Cacc said the prevalence of tattoos has also given rise to a movement of untrained and inexperienced individuals called “scratchers.” Scratchers generally buy equipment and without proper training or hygiene, begin giving tattoos out of their home.
“People who just want to prick someone and don’t care about the result belittle our entire profession,” Cacc said. “We train for years and years simply to achieve a chair and the opportunity to tattoo someone.”
Cacc said tattooing someone is an honor, because for that person it is often a significant decision. He said scratchers have become more ubiquitous since the arrival of reality television shows such as “Miami Ink,” “LA Ink,” “NY Ink,” “London Ink,” and “Inked.”
“More people think because they can sketch, they can tattoo,” Cacc said. “There’s much more experience and training to it than that. It’s really frowned upon in the industry.”
He said artistic skills are more often a prerequisite for tattooing, not a free pass to forgo the entire apprenticeship development.
Despite the scratchers, Cacc said, “It’s an interesting time in tattooing. …But at the same time in public, people will still give you dirty looks for seeing art on your body.”
However, as much as people grimace at seeing a tattoo, he said, they also stop the tattooed, ask questions and admire the art.
While the tattoo has made inroads in the creative industries, it still requires a cover-up in many workplaces.
Still, there’s no denying that the controversial art form is indelibly inked on the forearm of Uncle Sam.