Collier: It was once taboo to have a tattoo, but that's not the case anymore
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We were sitting in Boney Joe's, the tattoo place Joe Clark's owned right there on the main drag in Zelienople since the fall of '92, and it appeared to be a slow day until a 40-something woman stopped in on her lunch hour to get her navel pierced.
"Will it hurt?" she asked Joe.
"Naw," he said, "little pinch when it actually pierces."
She looked at me, probably because I look like someone who could accurately describe the discomfort level triggered by a small loop of hypo-allergenic titanium as it penetrates the soft skin of the old umbilical port.
"Gonna sting like hell," I said helpfully.
If it did, I didn't hear a murmur out of her as Joe completed the procedure and soothingly explained the proper maintenance of a belly-button ring. Joe's is a pretty soothing place, you should know, and as good a place as any, it turns out, to gauge the region's cultural temperature relative to the just-ending NFL season.
Boney Joe's, this time last year, was inking Steelers tattoos into the local skinscape at a pace quick enough to wear out Dennis Rodman.
"There's been a dramatic falloff," Joe practically sighed. "We're still doing maybe one a month, but last year, during the season, people would come in daily, and not just guys, and not just for the Steelers' logo. I did black and gold yin and yangs, a lot of different things that were Steeler-related. One guy talked about putting a whole sleeve of Steeler portraits on himself.
"I remember when Terry Bradshaw left and would say some things about Pittsburgh and everybody's been around hating him for awhile. Why would you want his portrait on your skin?"
No one's come in so far asking for a rendering of Mike Tomlin for their left shoulder blade, or anything like that, but as tattoo culture becomes more and more mainstream, if you must, the growing portion of Steelers nation that's intrigued by body art will no doubt have its demands met.
Wasn't long ago, however, that a tattoo artist and his human canvasses were not exactly considered one of the leading indicators of Steelers fever, or anything else.
"We used to be across the street, above the bakery," Clark remembered. "When we first moved in, we were pretty taboo."
Taboo Tattoo struck me as a nifty brand name, but I didn't mention it to Boney Joe.
"The guy who owned the place said to me once, 'Look Joe, you seem like a smart young guy and a go-getter and you've got the money to pay the rent, but if the town decides they don't want you, you're out.' People shunned us for awhile. They thought tattoos were for drunken bikers, drunken sailors, people who were out to cause trouble."
They probably got that idea from all the tattooed drunken bikers and drunken sailors out to cause trouble, but even here in the age of tattoo enlightenment -- I mean, c'mon, that's Miss USA 1987, Michelle Royer, whose picture is hanging right there with an autograph and a note of thanks to Joe for the beautiful little yellow rose he needled into her buttock -- some old suppositions die hard. Question No. 3 on Joe's handy list of 11 questions you should ask yourself when choosing a tattoo artist still reads, "Does the artist appear to be sober?"
Everything changed for tattoo artists in the '80s, and ever since, thanks in large part to athletes, the thriving post-modern tattoo place is part art studio, part medical office, like Boney Joe's.
"Goldberg, the wrestler, had a huge tribal shield, and then Madonna, with her tattoos, that's when it really started to snowball," Clark said. "Hollywood grabbed it and then it got going. Blame Hollywood. The body piercing was mostly a punk rock thing, but it started becoming real popular in California. Then that really took off, too."
After all these cultural forces combined to create the big bang that was Rodman, fewer and fewer were the athletes who'd come on stage without tats, and really, as I've noted previously in this space, any Steelers draft class defies comprehensive analysis until I see its tattoos.
David Beckham has nine tattoos, Shaq's got his big sweeping DIESEL and his Superman logo, Mike Tyson's got 'em on his face, Jeremy Shockey's upper right arm is now a multi-colored eagle. I don't know who the 12th guy at the end of the bench is for Southwest Missouri State, but I'm willing to bet he's got tats. The Orlando Magic's Jameer Nelson has big block letters across his back and shoulders that spell out ALL EYES ON ME.
Sometimes, Clark admits, potential clients really ought to be talked out of things.
"I do it all the time," he said. "Once a guy brought a 15-year-old in here and wanted a grim reaper tattooed on his arm. I said, 'Excuse me, where's the parent?' Then there's the whole girlfriend's name thing. I was actually offending people with that discussion. It's a hell of a lot easier to take off a wedding ring. I said to one guy, 'Look, get a baseball cap, and have your girlfriend's name stitched onto the baseball cap, and wear it for six months. Then get back to me.' Would anybody do that?"
Despite these little heart-to-hearts, Clark says his own clientele continues to grow, and has included folks from as far away as Ireland, England, Germany and Taiwan. He's not exactly depending on Steelermania to carry him through a third decade of artistry, but some improvement on 8-8 wouldn't exactly disappoint him.
"You know what?" he says, "I've never done a Browns logo."
Yeah, that might be where society draws the line.
First Published February 11, 2007 12:00 am