Ethnographic Paper Essay

The Pleasure of Pain
These days anything can be considered art. The structure of a building, the human body, music on the radio, love, Versaci’s new line of winter, and pretty transvestites walking down the street are just a few of hundreds of thousands of examples. That kind of art is overrated. Most of these only exist because of society. As people grow and change so does the values and traditions that they are accustomed to. True art hangs on the walls of museums all over the world. Paintings by Monet, Da Vinci, and Picasso represent all that can be made beautiful by a man’s touch.

The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word tattau, which means ‘to tap,’ and can be traced back through a part of history. The art of tattoos has been evident since ancient Egypt and more than 1,500 years ago the Japanese marked criminals as a symbol of shame for their punishment (Britannica, 2000). In the nineteenth century tattoos were viewed as frightful and grotesque, but as the twentieth century rolled by technology gave way to the trend. The electric needle created a sense of precision and control. This is how the various designs developed and tattooing became more about expression, rather than branding.
It is a guarantee that tattoo and piercing artists can be found by the thousands in a metropolitan city. Their form of art may be simpler to an extent, but it has been growing in popularity for years. By using the body as a gateway for expression, people can present themselves in a new light, and as a mean for recreating their image. The concept of transferring art on paper to the body for the mere purpose of self-pleasure is attracting all types of people. It is impossible to walk through a mall without spotting people of all ages with this type of branding. “ Young adults have accepted this practice as a normal part of their culture. You can’t escape it.” Says Walter Hewitt, who recently completed a 19-school study on tattoos and piercing (Vogel, 2000).
There are big ones, small ones, tasteful ones, tacky ones, and probably some temporary ones, and because tattooing is forever and also carries a mental heath risk known as regret, the decision to get one shouldn’t be taken lightly. The customer is very vulnerable when entering a tattoo and piercing parlor, because all their trust for a good product is put in the hands of the artist. But how are we to know the artist’s level of experience, the reputation of their business, the cleanliness of their needles, the moderate price of a piercing or tattoo, or even if the area of work on the body is prone to infection? An article from The San Diego Union-Tribune states that, “ It [tattoos and piercing] has become so popular that professional piercers around the globe are seeking legislation that would establish sanitation and safety regulations for those in the piercing business.” Since the hollow needles that are used in piercing and tattooing can carry hepatitis, tuberculosis, the virus that causes AIDs and various skin diseases, business are looking for legal protection and supervision by the state. Despite its growing popularity, body piercing is only regulated in seven states.

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Before entering Ground Zero Tattoos, located at 329 Northwestern Avenue, I assumed that every tattoo and piercing parlor looks the same. Of course, there should be an area where the tattoo and piercing artists do their work, and another area for the customers. Also, there would be mirrors, couches, a coffee table, and a few ashtrays resting on magazines. Pictures of naked women, tribal art, and Chinese symbols would line the walls so the customers can find something they like. The atmosphere would consist of cigarette smoke, and an intense mood floating in the air. I decided to go to Ground Zero to see if it fit my mold of a tattoo parlor.

I found myself parking my car in between the yellow lines in front of Ground Zero. The beige bricks hugged the building, and the dark brown door begged me to come in. As I stepped out of my car, the sign that said Ground Zero displayed just a sample of the art that I found inside. There, above the wooden door, mounted on the bricks, was a woman lying in a black net hammock, wearing a simple pink bikini. The soft colors of the drawing looked as if it were airbrushed to the canvas. The purple and pink neon sign said open, and I reassured myself I’d be fine. I made my way to the door and a chime sounded when I pushed it open. The music of Sublime was playing in sound speakers around the room.

My feet dragged on the beige carpeting until I approached the glass display case to see what was inside. I found a number of tongue, belly, and earrings in every size, shape, and color. Directly in front of me was a cow skull and horns hanging off of the white wall. I peeped my head around the corner and called for someone to talk to. When Jared, the piercing artist, approached me he fulfilled some of the stereotypes I had about the employees of the business. He is a tall, thin, Caucasian guy, about 24 years old. Jared didn’t have very much muscle, and I didn’t see any tattoos on him. What he did have was his ear holes stretched out to fit those tiny black plastic dots, and a chin piercing that defined his lips.
To my right was the waiting area that holds about 8 customers at a time. It looked fairly comfortable considering the girls occupying the seats were there to about undergo pain for the sake of decoration. They began to fidget as they were looked at the variety of tattoos. There were posters and posters of their art.

The walls were painted a rusted dark red that went along with the Texan theme. Located near the chairs were shelves that held a few candles. That wasn’t what caught me off guard. The candles had pictures of Jesus on them. To my left I saw the famous painting of the Last Supper, where Jesus and his disciples are gathered around a long table. Near the right side of the building there’s a small hallway that directs people to the male or female washrooms. On those white walls there are pictures of Indian art such as Shiva, which is a woman dressed in an orange, yellow, and purple gown.
On another visit to Ground Zero I got a chance to interview. As I approached Jared, he greeted me with a bright smile and a firm handshake. We stood in front of Ground Zero Tattoo where I introduced myself, and my memory must have faded because I was very surprised to see that he looked like a rave kid. Sad as it is, I had fit him into the preconceptions of his subculture. He has spiked dark brown hair, and sharp brown eyes with thick black eyelashes. When we made our way south on Northwestern Avenue, I had a chance to get overall view of Jared. He’s about 5’11”, and nothing but skin and bones. His pants sag a little, even though he’s wearing a belt, and he has a multi-colored buttoned up shirt. He has both his ears pierced, and instead of a hoop or stud, there’s a thick black dot with a hole in the middle. Interesting, huh?
Our conversation started off slow. Jared had been piercing people for only a couple of years, and he learned from finding a few friends to practice on. “ That’s the way to do it. If you can get a few friends to let you poke them, then you’ll just get better at it and then you’ll get a job.” He stated so proudly, but I felt so bad for his friends. Also, he mentioned to me that there are no “schools” specified in teaching people how to pierce or tattoo. Sometimes the way to learn is to watch others as they do it. Actually that’s the only way to learn how in this field of work.
I must have gotten carried away with the conversation, because I found myself sitting next to him on a cold metal bench near Chancey Hill. He leaned forward with
his forearms resting on his thighs. I could tell that he likes this conversation, because he hasn’t broken his eye contact with me once. I happened to ask him about the laws that come along with opening up a tattoo and piercing place, and to my surprise there are none. There is no law that requires any kind of certificate of experience or schooling for tattoo and piercing artists. The only law that binds them to the state is the quality of their apparatus and cleanliness.

Jared explained that at Ground Zero Tattoos, they have the same kind of needles used in hospitals, and along with that they have a machine that sterilizes the needles after use. From what I observed at Jared’s place and other parlors is before the artists opens the secured package of needles, they have a mini speech that they make to the customer. Also, Jared told me the run down of things he says. First, he tells the customer that it is the first time he has opened this package, and then he mentions that it will not be used again after that piercing is complete. Then Jared tells them that the needles will be set in a machine in order to sterilize them.
There is a small majority of piercings that he did resulted in infections. Which he says has nothing to do with the way it was pierced. It has to do with the way the customer takes care of it. Before, during, and after a piercing the artist instructs the customer about how to take care of the new hole in their body. Also, he mentioned that it very common for tattoo and piecing parlors to have a print out of all the information the artist told them, so the customer has a reference to look back on. Unfortunately, some people don’t take care of their piercing and end up with permanent scar tissue. For example, he told me that the belly button is more prone to
infection than anywhere else on the body. So when Jared pierces someone, he stresses the amount of cleanliness the piercing would require.
As for any location Jared wouldn’t pierce, there are none. Piercing people wherever they want is his job. He doesn’t consider any area of the body an outrageous region to pierce, since another artist has done it before. For example, he has pierced the skin above the ankle, nipple, belly button, lower tummy, tongue, regions of the ear, the skin at the base of the neck in between the collar bones, noses, the skin in between the eyes, other sensitive areas of the body (genital areas), and more. He’s not modest about where, obviously. The trend of piercing has increased, and he’s only done this for two years. The popular ones are tongues and belly buttons.
Getting one piercing maybe inexpensive, but when you add these up it’s a hefty price to pay for the sake of ‘art’. The average piercing starts at $30 and can reach $85, depending on the region being pierced, and the more holes the more money. When I asked him if the price is higher near a college campus, he smiled and said, “Probably.” I did my research and yeah it is. If I were to go to Lafayette, I could save myself at least $20 on a piercing. Also, he hasn’t really had a problem with underage kids trying to get pierced, because by the time they come to college they’re legal. Just in case, they always check for identification and a legitimate signature on a legal document.
So I finished asking him my questions, and popped up with a bright smile. We sat back down together, and then it seemed like it was Jared’s turn for twenty questions. He wanted to know about my past, present, and future. What a sweet guy. We parted with a simple handshake and a goodbye. He walked into the parlor, and I drove off in my car.

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