Though tattoos were long thought of as a symbol of rebellion and outsider status, nearly one in five people in the U.S. have one, and they are even more common among Millennials, nearly 40 percent of whom have one. Despite the fact that tattooing was illegal in many places in the U.S., some as recently as 2006, the number of people with at least one tattoo increased from about 6 percent in 1936 to about 21 percent in 2012, simultaneously increasing the need for tattoo artists.
One place that has seen such an increase is New York City, where the tattoo artist Michelle Myles co-owns a tattoo parlor. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Myles about learning to tattoo while the practice was illegal, how she’s seen the tattoo community grow, and what stereotypes about body art have faded. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What inspired you to go into tattoo artistry?
Michelle Myles: I've always been an artist, and I came to New York to go to art school at Parsons School of Design. Tattooing is so much a part of who I am on so many levels, even literally. I started getting tattooed when I was in high school; whenever I got a chance, if I had any extra money, I'd get another tattoo. At some point around 1989, I had a friend who got a starter kit to start tattooing, and I was like, "Oh, maybe I could try doing this too." It wasn't common for women to be tattooing, and there were no traditional apprenticeships available because tattooing was illegal in New York until 1997, so I kind of stumbled along for the first couple of years. In 1997, when tattooing was legalized, I opened up my shop with my business partner.