February 26, 2010

An artist, body and soul

— Q: So is ''tattoo artist'' the preferred term, rather than ''body artist'' or whatever?

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Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette: Tattoo artist Matt Ahlsen works on Cheyanne Pelletier of Portland Tuesday Dec. 29, 2009 at Hallowed Ground Bodyart Studio in Portland.

A: Tattoo artist, body artist, tattooist, it's kind of up in the air. There's no definitive word for it.

Q: What have you done for other jobs?

A: High school jobs. I did grounds maintenance at a golf club (Purpoodock in Cape Elizabeth) for eight years. That kept me going during college and when I started doing tattoos. You need a backup job for a while. And I worked at the Cumberland Farms (at Pond Cove).

Q: What would you be doing in an ideal existence?

A: This is kind of it. I'm pretty damn happy doing what I'm doing.

Q: So, you are from Cape Elizabeth?

A: Yes. I graduated from high school in '99.

Q: Not to stereotype anybody, but yours seems an unusual career path for a kid from Cape.

A: Yeah, I was definitely not really a part of that. I just went to school there and took a different path than most. I've been an artist all my life and always have known I wanted to do something with it -- I was just not sure what. I wound up going to the Maine College of Art and five years later started doing this.

Q: You've got a busy day ahead?

A: Yeah, I've got to do a set of angel wings on a girl, actually. I have to add on to the wings, extend them farther down the back, pretty much covering the whole back. It's a big (project).

Q: Is that the most extensive job you've done?

A: No. It's fairly large, but I've done bigger -- more coverage. I've done some where there's literally no skin tone left to see, it's just one big image that wraps around. Those take a long time.

Q: How long has it taken you to do the wings art?

A: Let's see, I started working a while ago. About three sittings of maybe four hours each. They're pretty large wings, each shoulder blade. Today I have to go down to the bottom of the back.

Q: What's the most expensive job you've done?

A: That's tough to say. We give better deals to people when they continue coming in, and we enjoy doing the larger pieces more than the small stuff. It's hard to estimate how many hours go into one piece. You tend to forget about the time and look at the final product.

Q: Could you give a ballpark figure?

A: It's about $100 an hour. Depending on what it is, it could run from $250 to $300 for three hours. An all-day sitting, for seven hours, might run $500. If you're looking to cover a whole arm, you're looking at 10 to 20 hours, depending on the degree of detail.

Q: Do you work in other art forms?

A: I draw on paper a lot, dabble in sculpture for fun. But I don't have much time because of the work here, which isn't a bad thing.

Q: How did you get into tattooing?

A: I went to school for graphic design and had good computer skills and wanted to follow that avenue. In college I started getting tattoos and doing artwork and designs for myself and others, and finally my teachers at MECA recommended that I look into doing it. At first I said, ''No, I can't do that. There's blood and people and stuff like that.'' And then I kind of manned up and dived into it. It's the greatest thing I could have done. I think, ''It's gotten me this far, I've done something right.''

Q: How far back does Hallowed Ground go?

A: We opened this place in March of 2006. Since then we've renovated twice. We were in the spot above us until the one below became available. We're just finishing up new renovations. We've built Jen (Jacques) her own station, hired an artist, another piercer. We've come a long way in almost four years. Once everything's up and running, there'll be six tattoo artists and three body piercers.

Q: Where did you learn to tattoo?

A: From another guy I work with, Paul LeClair. He owned Bombshell Tattoo for quite a few years. But another artist moved in and it was tight for three people, so we decided to open a new place with a new name.

Q: So you need a license?

A: You get a license from the state, which tests your ability to sterilize the work area, keep everything clean, treat clients exactly by the book. You do a one- to two-year apprenticeship, basically standing over someone's shoulder and watching what they do. It's also a matter of getting used to using heavy machinery, using a metal pen -- that's probably the hardest thing to get used to. Learning to deal with body parts and skin types, there's way too much to learn. It's always a learning process, and you're always checking out the way other artists do it. It really is an art.

Q: Have you ever declined a job?

A: Sometimes people want a thing like really small lettering. But over time, within a decade or so, ink spreads out under the skin. The very small lines tend to blend together, over time, and a really tiny word can turn into a blob. It's not always advisable or worthwhile, so I'd tend to steer people away from something like that.

Q: What do you most like doing?

A: I like to do a lot of 2-D design, black and white space. I love doing illustrations. Flowers are lots of fun. But there isn't one single thing I do more of. I do just about everything.

Q: Are there copyright issues for band logos and things?

A: I wouldn't say so, necessarily. People have been doing it for years, and it's done behind closed doors, and then what are you really going to do about it? But one thing I don't do is like Mickey Mouse or Yosemite Sam, Disney characters. That doesn't seem right, not that I get asked about it very much anymore.

Q: What's the age range of clients?

A: It varies. Sometimes people are 18, sometimes they're over 70. Sometimes, later in life, people say, ''I've never done it, I guess I'll try it.'' Which is pretty awesome. Both men and women, yes. More often, clients are in their 20s to 40s, roughly. It's not just for prisoners and sailors anymore.

Q: Ever done sailors who wanted ''mom'' or anchors?

A: Yeah, I love doing those. There's always a way to put my own artistic spin on it, so it's fun to do. There are a lot of popular spots. One now is behind the ear, so that it looks almost like an earring.

Q: What about erasing?

A: Um, we can't really erase. We don't do laser surgery or anything. We can put a design over another one. We do a lot of cover-up jobs. I've blacked out some names before. You might suggest something innovative, but they say, ''No, just put black over it, that's all I want.'' OK.

Q: Any drawbacks to the job?

A: Being self-employed can be a rough thing sometimes. It's not like getting a check every week with the taxes taken out. Health insurance? It's all individually based.

Q: Ever just get grossed out?

A: It's happened occasionally, either just a person you don't want to deal with, or the place. But you just kind of deal with it and make it work for the client.

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