Sacramento Bee, The (CA)
September 25, 2005

Spiritual gallery
The significance of a tattoo often goes more than skin deep

Author: Alison apRoberts

Bee Staff Writer

Section: SCENE
Page: L1

Getting a tattoo can be a response to the most superficial of impulses.

Your friends got them and they looked cool. It was the best way you could think of to bug your parents. You were drunk and it seemed like fun.

But getting a tattoo also can go much deeper than the skin. It can be a spiritual act, says John Rush, a local professor of anthropology, a naturopathic doctor and the author of a new book, "Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants" (published by the Frog Ltd. imprint of North Atlantic Books, $17.95, 200 pages).

"In a secular world, we need to invent religious experiences," Rush says as he lies down for more of the enlightenment he has found - and studied - at the tattoo needle's tip.

Looking remarkably relaxed and maintaining an academic manner that fits in with his day job as a professor of anthropology at Sierra College, Rush settles in for a session of inking at the steady hand of Kim Forrest, a tattoo artist at the Wild Bill Tattoo studio in Roseville.

Rush says tattooing has become a 21st century American ritual marking significant beginnings and endings in our lives.

"We don't have rites of passage here in this country; maybe getting your driver's license or getting to drink in a bar, but it's not the same," Rush says. "For most of the young people who go out and get these tattoos, it has a lot of meaning to them. They gave me some pretty spiritual stuff."

Whatever the reasons, more people are answering the call of the tattoo.
"Tattoos used to mean you were a biker, a criminal or a sailor," says Forrest, 36, who has been inking others for 13 years. "Now, we do a lot of housewives."

Although the taboo has not been entirely erased from the tattoo, the body art is coloring way outside the old lines, leaving its marks on physicians, firefighters, cops, stay-at-home moms, attorneys and conservative Christians. Tats seem to be required for professional athletes. (Forrest has inked several Kings players, including Mike Bibby and former team members Bobby Jackson and Jason Williams.)

A Harris Poll in 2003 found one in six American adults has at least one tattoo. For those ages 25 to 34, the proportion is nearly one in three. A survey of college undergraduates in 2001 found 23 percent of the students were tattooed, with rates holding steady across gender and ethnic lines.

The inking industry is moving up in the world. Tattoo studios have moved from sketchy neighborhoods to respectable addresses and even center stage on two new reality TV shows: "Miami Ink" on TLC and "Inked" on A&E. (Both premiered in July.) Gatherings dedicated to body art have gone mainstream, too, including the fourth All-American Tattoo Festival at the Sacramento Convention Center in June.

Identity and experience

The stories behind every tattoo are as varied and personal as the countless designs.

While Rush is being inked and looking as though he's ready for a nap, Chad Kolpacoff is lying, looking wide-eyed and a little nervous, on another table in the studio. But then Kolpacoff, who is 25 and lives in Elk Grove, is a "blank," as a tattoo virgin is sometimes called. He's getting an upper armband of a Maltese cross, fire and smoke, signifying his identity as a firefighter.

"It's just personal," he says. "And my wife likes the idea."

He sits up, looking a little shaky and pale, but smiling. "It's awesome," he says, looking in a mirror.

Kolpacoff says he has wanted a tattoo since he was a teenager, but he's glad he waited.

"I would have gotten something stupid like my girlfriend's name," he says.

Rush took an even longer and more scholarly route to his first tattoo, in his 50s (he's 61 now).

"The first tattoo I got was to have this experience," he says. "After that, I thought, 'Let's take a closer look at this as a rite of passage for myself.' "

The personal nature of Rush's research informs his book, creating a tone that is both new age and scholarly. (There are also many photographs, some beautiful and some wince-inducing.)

Rush says he chose his first design carefully, after taking an inventory of the fears and unrealized desires he wished to bring to the surface of his skin.

"I chose Egyptian myths and images because there is something there for every occasion," he says.

Rush's tattoos, so far, have taken three years of frequent, usually weekly, sessions to complete. They cover him from his waist to his upper thighs, like bike shorts. Reeds sway, clouds furl and water flows in bright, translucent colors. There are intensely detailed Egyptian hieroglyphics and figures, including Osiris and Horus. Beneath these are Chinese designs of a dragon and a phoenix.

The imprint of age

Rush's body art is unlike anyone else's and almost certainly more exotic than anything you'd find on any of his neighbors in suburban Orangevale. This saves him from the prime hazard of a trendy tattoo: The design can serve as an indelible date-stamp, marking the era of your tattooing days, which are usually your younger days. (For those of you who hope to pass for someone much younger some day, consider yourself warned.)

Got a little dolphin or a rose on your hip? That's so '80s. Upper armband in tribal design? That's very late '90s or early 21st century. Twin Towers? You did the post-9/11 thing. Kanji characters? That's pretty current. One of the latest trends is retro sailor styles, from pinup girls to hearts.

Forrest spends a lot of her time consulting on designs and draws the line on some. She won't do hateful words or images, nor will she break the law by tattooing anyone under 18. (Sorry, kids; parental permission doesn't make it any less of a misdemeanor.)

Some of Forrest's clients take their tattoos lightly and even let a little humor get under their skin. There are bar-code designs, always handy in a consumer society. One man had "Place Tag Here" etched on his toe, which might make a morgue worker laugh, although he won't be alive to join in.

One man had a lawn mower inked onto his chest so that he could shave a path through his hairs for a sort of 3-D yardwork cartoon.

Turning pain into a positive

Rush takes his tattoos much more seriously, and he isn't finished with them. On the day he is interviewed, images inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead are being etched into his back.

Forrest puts on her white latex gloves and dips her tattooing gun into a little paper cup of purple-black ink. (Colored inks will be added later.) She holds Rush's skin taut between thumb and fingers and then holds the needle gently against the skin. With a foot pedal, she works the electrical needle, which sounds a bit like a sewing machine.

The design path overflows with ink, which Forrest wipes off every few seconds. Only a few ruby dots of blood appear moments afterward along the ink's path.

"The secret here is to relax into the pain," Rush says. "You can't experience stress and nonstress at the same time; your mind goes elsewhere. That's the basis of hypnosis."

He frowns occasionally and goes quiet when the discomfort overtakes him.

But the pain, which has long been part of religious rites and particularly adolescent initiation rituals, is not something Rush wishes to avoid entirely. It is at the center of his spiritual tattooing experience. He says it has changed him, made him more relaxed, less angry and more communicative.

For some, tattooing is a way of transforming and ultimately coping with a painful past history, a death or some other traumatic event.

"You remember all the times you were angry and you put them on your body as beautiful art," he says. The art serves as a retelling of past injury that mutes its hurtfulness, because, as Rush puts it, "two versions of a story can't both be true."

When his hourlong session is over, Rush gets ready to go home and rest. He says he always feels tired and peaceful after a tattooing session. It's a tranquility that comes, perhaps, from answering a primal yearning.

"It almost seems," he says, "to be a need of the flesh, to mark it."

Modern body art has roots in ancient times and cultures

Prehistoric human beings created tattoos, puncturing the skin with tools dipped in pigment.

Ancient Romans used tattoos to mark slaves and criminals.

Tattooing in the modern Western world took off after British Capt. James Cook reached Polynesia in the 1760s. Sailors were inspired by the body art of the Maoris and the Tahitians. (The word tattoo was borrowed from the Tahitian language.)

Sailors developed the art and adopted a code of symbols. A turtle meant the wearer had crossed the equator, an anchor (like Popeye's) meant he had sailed the Atlantic.

Tattoos enjoyed a brief vogue among high-class types in Britain in the 19th century. The future King George V had a dragon tattooed on his arm in 1882 during a visit to Japan with the Royal Navy.

In 1891, a tattoo machine was invented by Samuel O'Reilly based on equipment used for engraving.

By 1900, it was estimated that 90 percent of all U.S. Navy sailors had tattoos.

In 1909, the U.S. government outlawed recruitment of sailors with indecent or obscene tattoos. (This was a boost for cover-up tattooing.)

In the 1960s, an outbreak of hepatitis dampened the tattoo trade in the United States.

From the late 1960s on, the countercultural set revived tattooing. Cher, Joan Baez and other celebs got tattooed.

By 2001, a survey published by the Mayo Clinic found, 23 percent of college undergraduates had at least one tattoo. The rates of tattooing did not vary significantly between men and women. Women were most likely to have tattoos on their back; men were most likely to have tattoos on their arm or hand.

A 2003 survey by the Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found 30 percent of people ages 25 to 34 had tattoos.

Sources: British National Maritime Museum, Bee news services

At the Wild Bill Tattoo studio in Roseville, tattoo artist Kim Forrest inks pictures inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the back of anthropology professor John Rush.

John Rush concentrates as he receives his latest tattoo from Kim Forrest. "The secret here is to relax into the pain," he says of the experience.

Copyright 2005 The Sacramento Bee