• Katie Wallach

The Joyful Vulnerability of Getting Tattooed

On one level exhilarating, tattoos have the ability to empower and inspire those who get them in unique and liberating ways. Katie Wallach speaks about her own experience with tattoos and hears from a local shop, Gypsy Tattoo Parlor.

Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Images: Unsplash

The buzz of the gun. The stinging on the skin. The smell of sanitizer. I know the sensation well. For some, there is a stigma around tattoos, and in some ways that sounds reasonable – if you have never gotten one. Once taboo – reserved in the popular imagination for sailors, gang members, and bikers – tattooing has seeped into modern American culture as something of a norm. Getting tattooed is no longer an indication of being edgy or scary; it’s about individuals expressing themselves. It’s empowering instead of alienating. It’s about being visible, being noticed, and not caring. It’s the ability to define yourself on your own terms, using the images and words of your choosing.


Looking at Pittsburgh, one can’t help but notice the number of tattoo shops – last time I counted, East Carson Street alone had at least twelve. There is no real comprehensive timeline of how Pittsburgh grew into the tattoo city that it is today, although it can loosely be traced back to J. G. Russell and Ned Resinol. Russell, born in 1876, began his career working as an electrician at an energy plant. It was there that he developed a love for casting metal and creating frames, which led him to later get involved in creating and manufacturing tattoo machines. Resinol, born in 1907, was known for his brass tattoo frames and his ability to produce a solid tattoo, which made him somewhat of a legend across the country. Pittsburgh’s history in steel production lent itself quite nicely to developing the technical side of tattooing, as tattoo machines are entirely dependent on what type of metal the frame is made out of. Each artist may want a different metal depending on their hand size and strength, which made a steel-producing city like Pittsburgh perfect for this kind of trial and error.


Today, having an abundance of tattoo shops makes it easier to find an artist and style that you like. While the traditional style of tattooing is still extremely popular – bold, thick lines typically depicting Americana iconography like roses, eagles, and daggers – there is a broad art scene emerging with millennials and Gen Z. The rising popularity of illustrative realism, minimalism, color blasted, and blackwork tattoos have turned tattooing into an artistic movement in its own right. What would have been considered too fussy when the likes of Sailor Jerry reigned supreme are not only commonplace now, they’re encouraged. I cannot stress the importance of finding a shop and artist that represents both your artistic visions and personal beliefs. That alone is enough to make or break the tattooing experience as a whole.


To learn more about the experience of tattooing from the perspective of a tattoo artist, I got in touch with Pittsburgh’s Gypsy Tattoo Parlor on Penn Avenue. Michelle Joy, the shop’s owner, responded, explaining, “All of us as artists at Gypsy wanted to foster a studio that was inclusive and a safe space to collaborate with our clients to make beautiful tattoos. Although there were many shops in Pittsburgh when we opened 10 years ago, we didn’t feel there were many shops that focused on creating a space where all people could walk through the door and feel welcomed, respected, and celebrated.” At the shop, this welcoming atmosphere is also extended to the artists themselves: “We wanted a place where we could also work collaboratively as artists and express our own diverse artistic styles and backgrounds.” To me, this is why tattooing is so special. It has the ability to give both clients and artists a freedom of expression rarely found elsewhere. Joy added, “Through the years, we have had the honor to tattoo so many wonderful people. Many of us have tattooed the same clients for a decade and have formed long lasting bonds through the years. Tattooing has given us the opportunity to create art and to share our lives and stories with our community. We are grateful everyday to work as a team and to foster trust and creativity with our clients.” To be able to gain the trust of clients, as Gypsy Tattoo has, and have those clients return for years, speaks to the importance of the bond between artist and client.


At the end of the day, tattooing is a personal process. It all comes down to what the person getting tattooed wants. It’s about their connection with their artist. It’s how they feel about the energy in the shop. It’s invasive and painful and personal. It’s also incredibly fun. Most of the joy in getting tattooed is the reckless nature of it all. It is a controlled chaos – the perfect adrenaline rush if you’re like me and have no desire to jump out of a plane. There are people who get tattooed to honor a loved one or to commemorate an important moment in time. There are others who get art that they think is funny, or get tattooed just for the sake of doing it.


As someone who has both a tattoo to honor my family and a tattoo born of Tuesday night boredom, it’s all the same experience, which is to say it is all fun. I love the art of dumb tattoos. There is a certain level of joy that is reached when something permanent is able to feel so insignificant. It feels like a warm summer night, when the sun sets at 8:00pm and the breeze hugs your skin, and you wish you could bottle it up and open it on a cold fall morning. It feels like the way life is meant to be lived, worry-free in a childlike haze. It is the feeling of not caring what time curfew is because, what’s the worst that could happen? To me, there is no greater feeling than putting something on my skin forever. There is an ease of being when the importance is removed from the permanence of it all. Think of it like a scar on your leg: over time it becomes a part of you. Mindless and unaware of its presence most of the time, many of us carry permanent reminders of things we have experienced. Why are tattoos any different? Just because you decide to commit to something, that doesn’t mean it suddenly carries weight on your person. It is the same as anything else: it is only as important as you make it.


Is my dumb tattoo going to sit in my skin for my whole life? Most likely. Does it bring me immense joy? Absolutely. To some, tattoos can seem unprofessional, and there are concerns over out-growing them. The beauty in getting tattooed, though, is that once you do, all of those concerns seem so insignificant and small. It is about the joy of doing, the freedom of choice, the quest for individuality. There is nothing greater than letting people be themselves in whichever way feels most authentic to them. ▲


Katie Wallach graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Media Studies. Her two favorite things are watching The Truman Show and forcing her friends and family to watch The Truman Show.