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For all the arguably beautiful things it can do in the right hands, a tattoo gun makes the ugliest sound in the world — a high, beehive drone that sounds something like fine shot rattling in a beer can.
What it does when it touches your skin isn’t much prettier: a cluster of needles puncturing the dermis up to 80 times a second, each point driving a molecule of pigment down deep enough that the color will never flake or shed.
Love ’em or hate ’em, you’ve got to respect the hidden truth behind every tattoo: That change requires suffering. That nothing that stays comes easy.
That pain-for-permanence tradeoff is one that more and more Americans are willing to make. A 2006 study by the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that 24 percent of adults aged 18-50 had at least one tattoo, with the number jumping to 36 percent of those aged 18-29; the figure split almost evenly between males and females. In larger cities — particularly on the West Coast — where body modification has become more accepted by both employers and society, researchers have found that the percentage of tattooed young people routinely tops 50 percent.
While there are no current figures for the number of people with tattoos in Arkansas, the sometimes days-long wait for an appointment at the state’s top parlors is proof enough of the phenomenon. Helped along by hit tattoo-themed cable television shows like “Miami Ink” and an influx of traditionally trained artists into the field, the last 10 years have seen Arkansas’s tattoo culture make its way out of the biker bars and into the mainstream. In 1985, there was one shop in the whole state. Now there are around 140.
Though some say health and safety regulations haven’t kept pace with the growth of the industry, and others caution that it’s nearly impossible to pick a tattoo you’ll be happy with for life, one thing’s for sure: Even if they weren’t so permanent, tattoos aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Situated in a narrow, coffin-deep storefront just off Conway’s Harkrider Street, Melvin “Mel D” Dikeman’s tattoo shop, Inkjunkys, doesn’t look like the kind of place you’d shop for fine art — anything not painted on velvet, anyway.
Born and raised in Northwest Arkansas, Mel D has been tattooing for 20 years, and is recognized by many as one of the best in the state. Quick to smile, with a stud in his tongue, he got his first tattoo three weeks before his 18th birthday. Within a year, he had started doing unlicensed tattoos (which, he admits, was the wrong way to go about it). These days — heavily tattooed and license long since in hand — he talks about his work with a passion that would do the best paint-and-canvas artist proud.
“With tattooing, you’re looking at one of the last true forms of handmade art,” he said. “We’re in a digital age now. The majority of art you see is manipulated through computers or Photoshopped through software programs. Tattoos are made by the hand, and there’s no way to alter them. Once it’s there, it’s there.”
On this night, Mel D has Quaid Campbell — a 30-something systems engineer who works at Alltel — laid out in his chair, painstakingly sending the last of what will be $2,000 worth of ink into the skin of his left arm. Campbell settled on Mel D after looking at the online portfolios of over 250 tattoo artists all over the South. Campbell came in for his first session several months back, looking to pay homage to his Scottish ancestry. Twenty hours later, his arm is sleeved in an intricate patchwork of blue and green plaid, crosses, and Scottish-themed imagery. At his wrist is a castle with the full moon behind it. Even from inches away, it has the depth and richness of a black-and-white photograph.