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IN BUFFALO SALON, YOUNG ARTISTS ETCH THEIR VISIONS ON SKIN

A rangy 24-year-old with tousled blond hair, blue stripes on his neck and a stud in his chin, Mikael Nicklas has tattooed his whole family.

He tattooed his father, his brother and his sister, who opted for a butterfly. And he tattooed his mother, with a design patterned after a moonstone necklace she treasures.

He even tattooed his grandmother. She requested a black rose on her calf. "In her youth in Sweden, they called her 'the Black Rose,' because she had gypsy blood and she'd tan in the summer," explains Nicklas' mother, Eva Nicklas, a bright, articulate woman who works for the Lewiston Arts Council.

Nicklas' family is living proof of the twists and turns tattoos are taking nationwide. Time magazine and USA Today have reported the rise in popularity of tattoos among executives, senior citizens -- and women, from professional women to soccer moms. Banking on such customers, Nicklas and four of his friends want Buffalo to wake up to a more upscale world of tattooing. Their shop, Art-O-Ficial Life, is one of a new breed of stylish tattoo venues that hope to scotch the image of the seedy tattoo parlor.

Art-O-Ficial Life, which opened just after Thanksgiving at the corner of Main Street and Winspear Avenue, is clean and cheerful, boasting art deco chairs and a splashy purple and blue shag carpet from the '60s. It's a gallery as well as a tattoo parlor, with sculptures and paintings by local artists. The staff brags that the place is often mistaken for a hair salon.

"We want people to come in, see the artwork, enjoy the atmosphere and relax," says owner David Gambino, who's 26 and has the sunny air of the first-time entrepreneur.

Gambino doesn't tattoo, but he paints and sculpts, and runs an Internet gallery, www.peachtreegalleries.com. He got the idea for the tattoo place last summer, advertised for tattoo artists, and came up with four -- Nicklas, Mike Gutowski, Shannon Barlow and Cory Cudney. The five men, all in their mid-20s, have other interests, from airbrushing to interior design. For now, though, they're dedicating themselves to their shared vision of a new tattoo.

"Tattooing has gotten such a bad reputation," Cudney says. "All the aggression, skulls, motorcycles. It's a way more valid art form. The general public doesn't realize that. Anything can be reproduced on skin. People can get replicas of famous artworks."

Cudney has tattooed works by Salvador Dali. Gutowski, too, has enthusiasm for the masters. "I'll be working on bits and pieces of the Sistine Chapel," he says.

Such artistic sensibilities impress patrons like Heidi Paulson, who owns the Java Temple, a coffee shop on Allen Street. With rings in her nose and her lip, Paulson is no stranger to body art. She showed up earlier this month to get a birthday tattoo.

"The more places there are like this, the more reason kids have to stay in Buffalo," she says, admiring the wildly colored shop. "People think tattoo parlors will draw a bad crowd. But look at these people! They're artists."

A tattoo of one's own

On a rainy Tuesday at the tattoo parlor, two musicians -- Stuart Fuchs on guitar and Mikael Nicklas' brother, Leif, on bass -- are set up near the door, playing "Black Orpheus." In the front booth, by the window, Shannon Barlow is tattooing his older brother, Tony Fire. The tattoo machine buzzes like a dentist's drill. (In the new, gentler tattoo lingo, the instrument is a "tattoo machine," not the more nasty-sounding "tattoo gun.")

A supervisor at Sears in the Galleria Mall, Fire restricts his many tattoos to areas a business suit will cover. At the moment, he's acquiring a praying mantis, which will join several other oversized bugs on his left arm. "I'm into insects," he says.

Though Fire talks willingly while under the gun, his eyes have a glassy, preoccupied look of pain. "It hurts me," he admits. "Don't let them lie to you." But those who get tattoos tend to get more tattoos. And pain hasn't discouraged Fire from plans to add a portrait of his young son to his chest, or to connect his insects with a pattern of leaves and sky. "It's going to be a kind of nature scene," muses Barlow, outlining the mantis in brown.

Most tattoo artists learn by apprenticeship, like medieval artisans. Barlow apprenticed himself to a tattoo artist in Arizona, where he lived for a few years. Nicklas studied tattooing in Alaska -- though Buffalo, he says, offers more creative opportunities for a tattoo artist. "Buffalo has Alaska beat," he says. The Alaska tattoo parlor, he says, was "a biker shop, not geared toward the complex individual."

Art-O-Ficial Life is all about complexity. New customers are given a questionnaire, advising them to be cautious and asking them what they want out of life and tattoos. For inspiration, people can explore the artists' portfolios, which bulge with photos and drawings -- of Buddhas and bassett hounds, yellow-eyed imps and sinuous female nudes.

Discussing the range of tattoo possibilities, Gutowski's imagination soars.

"You could be walking down the street, you might see a fire hydrant, a leaf -- anything can be a tattoo," he beams. "You can take everything from every facet of life. I'm always racking my brain trying to think of something new."

In the back of the shop, a ceiling-high bookcase groans with tomes rich in tattoo designs. One shelf holds only National Geographic magazines. "People like animals and insects," Gutowski says. "And underwater tattoos -- fish, octopus, things like that."

There are books on human physiology, hot rods, butterflies and Calvin and Hobbes. And the Life nature encyclopedia, including "Early Man," "The Desert" and "The Planets." Snakes and lizards are still popular, Gutowski mourns, so "The Desert" and a book called "Pythons of the World" come in handy. "May as well get a nice snake, as opposed to flashy ones from the '40s," he says.

Even when he disagrees with a customer's choice of tattoo, though, Gutowski enjoys his craft.

"To me, tattooing makes me even better at everything else," he says. "The color blending, the thought process . . . You have to have it all thought out. Also, it keeps you drawing all the time, and that's what I love to do."

The two-week itch

Hours pass. Tony Fire's arm is turning pink behind the praying mantis, which his brother is now tinting green and bright yellow. "This is the part that really hurts," Fire says, eyes distant as the tattoo machine buzzes. "Because the skin is already sore. It's like punching a bruise."

Gutowski looks on in sympathy. Tattoos, he explains, usually take about two weeks to heal. As they heal, they itch. "The itching is the worst," he says. "I've been woken up from dead sleeps by that itching."

Interestingly, Gutowski says, women tend to bear tattoo pain better than men. "A lot of girls don't complain at all," he says. Women, he adds, go for tattoos on their feet, toes and ankles, while guys adorn their arms and legs.

Tattoos at Art-O-Ficial Life cost a minimum of $50. The artists argue, however, that a tattoo lasts forever, so it's foolish to count pennies. "You should make sure the right artist does the piece," Cudney says. (In the tattoo community, a tattoo is "a piece," and someone who gets one is "a collector.")

Gutowski adds, "If someone says, 'I can get this piece for $40 down the street,' we send them on their way."

Tattoos aren't just for truckers anymore, and the artwork is more sophisticated. But it's funny to reflect that, as tattooing enters what must be at least its fourth millennium, some things about it never change.

One is the dedication of artists to the ancient, underground craft. "I'd like to become well known in the tattoo community, go to tattoo conventions, put Buffalo on the map," says Barlow.

Another is the nocturnal nature of the business. Art-O-Ficial Life opens daily at 2 p.m., and at 1 a.m. recently, the place was still open, its jazzy green interior visible from across Main Street.

Finally, whether one is inking a picture of Beethoven or Betty Boop, tattooing is still a very personal art, raising issues of heredity and trust between master and apprentice, father and son.

"I wanted to become a tattoo artist when I was 15," Barlow says, laboring over his brother's tattoo. Now, he confesses, he has dreams of his 2-year-old son, Liam, one day joining him in the business. "Hopefully he'll get into the art like me, if he's an artist," he smiles. "That would be very cool."

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