“Flash” pieces drawn by tattoo artist James “Rocco” Hodgdon on the wall of his Westbrook shop. A “flash” piece is a tattoo design that has already been designed by the artist. Chance Viles/American Journal

WESTBROOK — Since opening Death or Glory Tattoos in Westbrook 13 years ago, James Hodgdon, better known by his professional name of “Rocco,” has watched the negative stereotypes about tattoos fade, his clientele turn mainstream and the business evolve.

When Hodgdon opened the business, he felt targeted by a new ordinance pushed by the police chief, but now, nobody bats an eye at his tattoo shop. A big part of that change comes from the popularity of TV shows like “Miami Ink,” which premiered in 2005 and introduced tattoo art to a wider audience, he said.

Hodgdon flips through a book of samples to help a customer decide on a style of a phoenix. He will create a unique design influenced by the client’s taste. Chance Viles/American Journal

“When that show came out, it was so fast, all of a sudden any type of person was coming in to get tattoos, all different styles,” Hodgdon said. “People really started to see tattooers as artists, and the clientele flipped, which has progressed into more and more people getting tattoos, and now everyone can identify with them.”

The city’s only tattoo parlor, Death or Glory, made waves when it first opened in 2006. In March 2007, Hodgdon recalls a series of City Council meetings that to him were “baffling.” He’d been operating Death or Glory at the Cumberland Mills intersection for a year when he heard the council was discussing a new ordinance that would prevent owners who had committed crimes of “moral turpitude” in the past 10 years from opening tattoo parlors. The ordinance was proposed by then-Police Chief Paul McCarthy.

“I remember at the meeting (McCarthy) stood up and talked about how the shops will bring crimes, gangs, all of these kinds of dated views of tattoo shops. It blew my mind, coming from owning a shop in Austin (Texas) where nobody blinks an eye at it,” Hodgdon said. “When I opened the shop, I went into City Hall with my paperwork and just opened the shop with no issue, so it was weird that it came up later.”

Brad Sawyer works on some sketches in between clients at Death or Glory.

Hodgdon and some city councilors criticized the ordinance as being subjective and unnecessary, but it passed 5-2, April 2008. No new tattoo parlors have opened in the city since, but Hodgdon’s business was unharmed by it.

“From then, fast-forwarding to now, tattoo shops just are not a pressing issue for most towns. They are now viewed like salons or something. They pop up all over the place compared to how it used to be,” he said.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant agrees.

“Perception in society has changed, and government usually follows a healthy distance behind those changes. I think the whole consumer base and business model of what we used to call ‘ tattoo parlors’ certainly has changed and evolved, and I think that it does not have the negative stigma that it once had,”  Bryant said.

Aaron Signore, 19, of Sanford, shows his tattoo right after it was done. After healing, the piece is no longer red or swollen, and Singore is pleased with the result. Courtesy photo

“A lot of folks are ecstatic to see them, even older people. It has changed a lot. My parents have tattoos,” he said. It used to be “for jobs, if you had a tattoo showing it was out of the question, but more and more people have them and it’s becoming normal,” Client Aaron Signore,19, said.

Even his parents have come around to tattoos, Signore said.

Tattooing as a career is attracting people as well, Hodgdon said.  

“We have art teachers at the school reach out to see if we would show students our shop or have them job shadow because they want to get into it,” he said.

“You can buy tattoo equipment online for cheaper, you can search up how to do things. Before we had to know someone who would teach us how to tattoo (safely), there was no internet,” he said.

That’s a big change for an industry, which even though it is state-regulated, used to raise eyebrows, including in Westbrook.

Death or Glory’s walls are lined with intensely colored traditional tattoo art pieces, ranging from smiling skulls to pin-ups fit for a World War II bomber. Hodgdon, who dresses all in black and is covered in tattoos himself, may appear intimidating at first, but he’s friendly and works well with customers. He’s been a tattoo artist since the mid-’90s.

Before 2000, tattooing was a “secret trade,” he said.

Brad Sawyer and James “Rocco” Hodgdon sell other art in the shop as well. Chance Viles/American Journal

“I got into it slow. I was a bouncer at a club in Austin, and in my spare time I would draw. Someone saw me drawing and asked me to come and do some art on their (tattoo) shop,” he said.

Hodgdon began to spend more time at the tattoo shop, until one day, they got him equipment and just began teaching him.

A few years later, he opened up shop in Austin with a friend. They took on apprentices and taught students, too.  Later, he returned home to Maine, married, had a child and opened up Death or Glory.

“Back then you really knew your roots as an artist. You knew who taught you, who taught them, and you could trace back your tattoo lineage and really see where you fit into the art,” Hodgdon said.

He’s not sure how he feels about the widespread popularity of tattoos. While his business has grown, with the flood of new, self-taught tattoo artists the rich history of tattooing is becoming watered down, and the secret trade’s die-hard culture is becoming obscured through popularity, he said.

The business has books clients from all over. People have traveled to Westbrook from as far as Australia for one of his tattoos, Hodgdon said.

Client Aaron Signor, 19, is from Sanford, is a fan of Hodgdon’s work.

“I thought they were awesome, Rocco was great,” Signore said this week. “I got a skeleton dancing with a woman, and he put my girlfriend’s tattoo on the (woman), it was a cool touch. I showed him what I wanted and he drew it up on the spot. I wanted something a little different from his first sketch, he was happy to change it and I loved the finished result.”

 

James “Rocco” Hodgdon gives a large tattoo to a client. The orange lines help guide his tattooing. Courtesy photo

Death or Glory Tattoos, has been operating at 415 Main St. in Westbrook for 13 years.

Woodcuts, by Hodgdon. Chance Viles/American Journal

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