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Women are embracing the art of the tattoo

Generations ago, women collected silver spoons to represent their children. Gina World wanted something just as permanent, but a bit more portable, so she got tattooed.

“I was a young mom, so my first tattoo was my daughter’s name,” she said.

Once decoration for sailors, bikers and thugs, tattoos have evolved from a symbol of a rebellious counterculture to an art form embraced by the mainstream public. And among those leading the charge are women, who are not only getting larger tattoos but are also practicing the art in record numbers.

“People think women are getting tattooed now more than ever,” said tattoo artist Paul Massaro, who said his tattoo parlor, Absolute Art, which opened in 1984, is the longest-running one in Buffalo. “I’ve had the same amount of women in my shop since I opened. They just used to get small tattoos on their upper thigh or chest, so no one saw them, but now they are getting bigger and in visible places so people think more and more women have tattoos, which isn’t the case.”

Massaro said the trend of women getting larger tattoos “has been slowly growing since the mid-1990s, but it really took off around 2000. There was a huge shift between 1995 and 2005, so things dramatically changed in that 10-year period.”

Ironically, Massaro’s mentor was a female tattooist.

“That was in the early 1980s, when there were probably only five female tattoo artists in all of America,” he said. “You’re talking about a very macho population that might have only wanted to be tattooed by other guys. It was a very old-fashioned, traditional art.” His mentor, Apache Jil Tong, was trained under a famous artist named Doc Webb. Tong, who worked in Tonawanda in the early 1980s, now works in Nevada.

Massaro, whose wife, Tammy Massaro, is a registered nurse and tattoo artist and works in his shop, said there was a time when men in the profession even questioned whether women could do tattoos at all. “Now, nobody bats an eye at a female tattoo artist, but back in the day, people said, ‘Is she even going to give me a tattoo that will stick, is she going to go deep enough and hard enough?’ with all the macho stigma.”

Jackie Adamski, who owns and operates the Tattoo Garage in South Buffalo, has been tattooing for about four years. She said the overwhelming majority of her clients, maybe 75 percent, are female.

“My style tends to be more colorful, more feminine, more flowery,” she said. But that doesn’t mean she is doing delicate little single rosebuds. “I find myself doing side pieces, sleeves or half-sleeves on women. It’s just generally more accepted all around, and women are asking, ‘Why not me too?’ ”

A Pew Research Center study found that 36 percent of Americans age 18 to 25 and 40 percent of Americans age 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo. A 2003 Harris Interactive poll found that 16 percent of adults had at least one tattoo; in 2012, that number had climbed to 21 percent.

A 2014 study by the organization Support Tattoos and Piercings at Work found women under 35 nearly 50 percent more likely to have tattoos than men of the same age group.

Among the women who are getting bigger, more visible tattoos is World, a hairstylist from Buffalo. World, 37, began her tattoo collection at 18.

“Every single one has a story,” she said.

She started with her daughter’s name as an armband on her right arm. Now she has six tattoos and a half-sleeve developing around that first tattoo. World’s other art includes a second armband for her son, a sunburst for her Spanish heritage, her brother-in-law’s dog tags with a lily and the mental health ribbon with a cross for her daughter’s struggles.

Although World’s art has specific meanings to her, she doesn’t buy into the idea that everyone needs an emotional backstory to get a tattoo.

“It’s your art. You like it,” she said. “I want it to mean something, but my ‘mean something’ and your ‘mean something’ is completely different.”

Tattoos are just one small step from the makeup, hairstyling and fashion choices that women have always made to enhance their beauty, said Adamski. “Tattoos can be done in a way that complements the body, the curves of women, and add to their femininity,” she said. “It’s one other level of making the body a work of art, and larger pieces enable women to do that, as well as giving women more room to tell a story.”

Although classic American tattoos are still popular for their retro look and iconic imagery, women often ask for more delicate tattoos done with thinner lines and blended colors, Adamski said. Most clients come to the studio with an idea of what they want, often after seeing one of Adamski’s tattoos. A few women have been tattooed with the type of flowers they carried in their wedding bouquets, she said.

Adamski said some people she meets are surprised to hear about her profession, but TV shows that feature female tattoo artists have raised the profile of the profession.

“I like to support other women’s efforts,” she said, noting that some of the larger pieces on her body have been done by women artists. “I don’t think we get enough exposure, but we are getting more, especially with women wanting to get tattooed by another woman. We feel that they have an understanding and they get it.”

On the job

Women are not alone in getting larger, more visible tattoos.

Even in professions where tattooed employees might have been chastised in the past, acceptance is growing. In a 2011 survey of 2,878 hiring managers across industries, piercings rated the top reason (at 37 percent) someone wouldn’t be hired or receive a promotion. Bad breath (at 34 percent) was the second reason, surpassing visible tattoos, which was tied with “often has wrinkled clothing” for third (at 31 percent).

In a similar survey in July 2015, visible tattoos didn’t even make the top three. Provocative attire (44 percent) and “wrinkled clothes or shabby appearance” (43 percent) topped the list, with “piercings outside of traditional ear piercings” in third place (32 percent) and “attire that is too casual for the workplace” and visible tattoos tied for fourth (27 percent).

Wyatt Hausner, an infusion pharmacy technician for Option Care Pharmacy, has tattoos on his torso, left shin, around his neck, the back of his shoulders, his hands, and sleeves down both arms. He said he’s never experienced discrimination due to his appearance at the pharmacy, where he’s worked for four years.

“Every place you work for is different,” he said. “It’s more abut finding the right accepting place that takes your experience, hard work and personality over how you look.”

Hausner, 24, said he’s delivered medication to elderly people and received compliments on his “colorful artwork.”

“I’ve had many people shocked that I work in the pharmacy industry and have a good job, but if your hard work and personality shine through, it doesn’t really affect you,” Hausner said.