September 1, 2013

Tattoos are a hot brand

The dry dictionary definition of 'tattoo' (to puncture {the skin} with a needle and insert indelible colors so as to leave permanent marks or designs)


Open any Maine travel brochure and count iconic images: Lighthouses, lobster, blueberries, moose. And now tattoos? Maine's next era of branding might be literal -- body art -- and it reflects the popularity of tattoos throughout the nation. With waiting lists of up to six months and clients of all ages traveling long distances to work with renowned Maine artists, Maine's tattoo culture is among the most vibrant in New England.

click image to enlarge

Chris Dingwell of Chris Dingwell Studio in Portland is part of the new wave of tattoo practitioners, college-educated businessmen with detailed professional portfolios. Dingwell, shown working with Jen Parker of Brattleboro, Vt., considers himself a tattoo “artist.”

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Chris Dingwell works on a tattoo for Jen Parker of Brattleboro, Vt., at his Chris Dingwell Studio.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below


1846: The year German immigrant Martin Hildebrandt set up one of the first documented tattoo establishments in New York City.

1978: The year tattooing became legally regulated in Maine.

82: Age of Thomas J. “Tatts Tommy” Breitweg of Maine, the oldest practicing tattoo artist in the United States at the time of his retirement in April 2001. According to Wiz Tattoos in Brewer, he held Maine’s first tattoo license until his death in June 2001.

196: Licensed tattoo practitioners in Maine.

11: Maine health inspectors.

18: Age of consent in Maine.

1: Bags of cocaine found in the wall during the physical renovation from Zootz nightclub to Sanctuary Tattoo in Portland. (Also found during the renovation: A Meat Men setlist and a fully functional pizza oven.)

18 to 86: Age range of clients at Tom’s Terrific Tattoos in Ellsworth.

20: Number of practitioners required to host a tattoo convention in Maine.

250: Cost in dollars to apply for a tattoo license.

0: Years of education, apprenticeship or formal training required to become licensed in Maine.

25: Approximate percentage of female tattoo practitioners in Maine.

0: Cigarettes that may be smoked while giving or receiving a tattoo in Maine.

2: General body areas that practitioners are typically reluctant to tattoo: Neck and hands.

0: Animals that can be legally tattooed in a Maine establishment.

1: Museums dedicated to displaying tattooed human skin: The University of Tokyo medical museum; accessible by appointment only.

50: Estimated percentage of tattoos commissioned in Maine as cover-up or reworking of existing tattoos.

75 to 150: Average dollar cost per hour to obtain a tattoo in Maine.

50 to 100: Average dollar cost per square inch to remove a tattoo in Maine.

500: Maximum fine in dollars for tattooing in Maine without a license.



Shop around. Get recommendations, and visit several shops. Ask for examples of work. Be observant -- is the shop clean? Are they following proper safety procedures?

Make an appointment, and be patient if there is a wait.

Know what you want. Pair up with the right artist. Establish a rapport and good communication.

Don't micromanage. Don't complain.

Some people tip, some don't. Tipping is never expected, but it is always appreciated. For tipping guidelines, think of what is customary for a restaurant meal or hair stylist.

Tattoo practice spans centuries and cultures, but the art of Maine ink dates to at least 1925 with Peter D. Jongeleen's "Electrical Tattooing" shop at 320 Fore St. in Portland. Once primarily associated with American sailors and outlaws, tattoos were largely popularized in the United States when tattoo legends such as Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins began inking World War II-era servicemen. Many iconic nautical-themed images (think anchors and sailboats) can be traced directly to his Honolulu studio.

Now, with 196 tattoo licenses issued in Maine so far in 2013 -- already matching the total for all of 2012 -- the industry is undeniably mainstream. Visible body art is encouraged at many local venues and lauded as an extension of personal expression. Instead of apprehension, tattoos are apt to inspire conversations like "Who did your work?"

In Maine, there are as many approaches to the practice as there are designs. Even the language is complex.

Phuc Tran of Portland's Tsunami Tattoo earned degrees from Bard College and the University of Massachusetts, but he eschews the "artist" title and refers to himself as a "tattooist," or a "tattooer." "The phrase 'tattoo artist' is kind of redundant. It's probably a holdover from when tattooers wanted some legitimacy. I prefer tattooist. That's what I do -- I tattoo."

However, "Many tattooers also think that the term 'tattoo parlor' is antiquated and harkens back to the olden days of tattooing," he said. "I know that I would cringe at 'parlor.' "

Like Tran, Chris Dingwell of Chris Dingwell Studio in Portland earned academic degrees, but he considers himself an artist, not a craftsperson. Rather than a wall of stock designs, or "flash," both men maintain detailed and professional portfolios for clients to review.

"We're breaking away from the biker aesthetic. Back in the 1970s, that rigid perception was accurate, but now it's reversed," Dingwell said. "We're college-educated folks with an art background. You are commissioning an artist." 


The Maine Department of Health and Human Services -- specifically, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Environmental Health -- oversees the licensing process, and health inspector Joel Demers settled the semantic debate.

In the official regulations, Tran and Dingwell are both considered "tattoo practitioners," and the legally preferred term is "establishment," not parlor.

There are no apprenticeship or education requirements for obtaining a tattoo license in Maine.

"Our program, and therefore our regulations, is focused on disease prevention," said Demers. "Many people think that the quality of the work, the 'artwork,' is part of that licensing process. It's not."

Education and apprenticeship rules vary by state, but the response among Maine tattoo practitioners is generally positive. While some would prefer a level of formal training, many are comfortable with Maine's common-sense approach.

"The regulations are rigorous without being onerous," said Tran.

The camaraderie within the profession is evident in Portland, Tran said. When he moved from New York to Portland, he noticed the difference immediately.

"New York is incredibly cutthroat and turf-driven, and other shops are seen as competition," he said. "Portland's tattoo community is much more friendly."

Also surprising? The percentage of women in the industry.

Danielle Madore is one of three women who practice at Portland's Sanctuary Tattoo. Together with Carrie-Anne Vinette and Jennifer Moore, they are among the 25 percent of Maine's female tattoo practitioners.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Chris Dingwell at work at his Chris Dingwell Studio says, we’re breaking away from the biker aesthetic. We’re college-educated folks with an art background. You are commissioning an artist.”

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Chris Dingwell at work on a tattoo for Jen Parker of Brattleboro, Vt., at his Chris Dingwell Studio.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Using a magnifying “needle eye loupe,” a tool of the trade, Phuc Tran inspects a needle for flaws or damage that could cause infection.

Photo by Greta Rybus

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Phuc Tran works with a customer at his Tsunami Tattoo.

Greta Rybus photo

click image to enlarge

Phuc Tran of Tsunami Tattoo, in Portland, is part of the new wave of tattoo practitioners, college-educated businessmen with detailed professional portfolios. Tran considers himself a “tattoist” or “tattoer.”

Greta Rybus photo


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