Watching Tattoos Go From Rebellious to Mainstream

Michelle Myles, a tattoo artist in New York City, talks about how attitudes toward body art have changed over her 25-year career.

Michelle Myles  (Rebecca Clarke )

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 tattooing (Michelle Myles)

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.

When I started tattooing, people maybe took me less seriously as a woman tattooer. In the long run, it's something that has helped me stand out. There are definitely more women in the industry now, but it's still a guys’-club system.

Green: What was it like to try to hone your skills while it was still illegal in New York City?

Myles: It took me a little bit longer to get good based on it being illegal, because you get better by working in a shop and having artists around you. I feel very fortunate that I was able to work before the ban was lifted, because it was such a completely different sort of community back then. Everybody knew who was tattooing in the city, and there used to be these underground meetings called the Tattoo Society. You didn't advertise that you were tattooing, and there was no sign outside; people would have to call up [to the meeting place] to be let in, but at the same time, the ban wasn't enforced. Cops would come in to get tattooed. It wasn't a criminal violation. It was more like a health-code violation.

Green: What is an average day like for you as a tattoo artist?

Myles: Usually, in the mornings, I sketch whatever I have to do for the day, and then I go to work. I try to fit in time to take care of the business of the shop, because I own it.

Green: You mention that when you first started tattooing, it was kind of hush-hush. How have you seen the industry grow and change now that tattooing is mainstream?

Myles: Tattooing was just such an outsider thing when I first started. It wasn't something that was mainstream. It wasn't acceptable, especially for women. You didn't even really see that many people that were heavily tattooed. Now, no matter where you go, people are exposed to it. Even if you go to more conservative areas, they get the same tattoo reality-TV shows, and are much more aware of the industry. As far as types of people go, literally everyone has tattoos now.

Also it's changed quite a bit technically, as far as the types of artists that are in the industry. Now, with social media, everybody's got tremendous resources to look at for reference and inspiration. When I started tattooing, we didn't have Google or anything like that. You just used your private reference library. Artists improve so fast now, because they’re looking at all of this other work. It’s pushed the aesthetic along quite a bit.

A tattoo by  Myles (@daredevilmichelle / Instagram)

Green: Have you noticed any kind of trends in tattooing?

Myles: I would say I'm very influenced by traditional American tattooing: bold outlines, bright colors, and shading. I've been tattooing for 25 years, and when I first started tattooing in the ‘90s, people didn't want to get traditional tattoos. There was this rejection of that look, like people would say, "I don't want it to look like something my grandpa had." Then, traditional tattoos became really popular, where that was all people were getting. People were really into having all that history and referencing all those old designs and artists and everything.

Also there were all these highly skilled tattooers working with super-hyper-realism or watercolor tattooing. The weirdest thing that I've seen recently is people getting very crude tattoos done: They want it to look like it was a tattoo their grandpa had that might not be well executed, or might even be done [without the use of a machine]. There's no sophistication to the design. You have these tattooers that do stuff that looks like it could have been done in jail.

Green: What is your favorite tattoo that you've ever done?

Myles: Maybe my favorite tattoo I've ever done would be the one that hooked me up with my husband. I met my husband 15 years ago, and he wanted to get tattooed from me. I had a 1966 Buick Riviera, and a friend of mine was rebuilding the engine. My husband was friends with this mechanic, and he would stop by the shop and say hello, so I kind of got to know him. He wanted me to tattoo him, and at some point, I realized I had a big crush on him, but he had never hit on me.

Then when he came in to get tattooed, he wanted kind of a sexy Statue of Liberty. I drew her up, and I did a color study, and I showed him the drawing. I gave her blond hair, and I said to him, "You like blonds, right?" He was so embarrassed he couldn't even look at me. He said he was waiting to ask me out until after I tattooed him so he wasn't hitting on me in the chair, like he thought most of my customers would be.

Green: There was definitely a time when there was stigma surrounding getting a tattoo. Have you noticed any changes to stereotypes about the kind of people who get tattoos and the people that give them?

Myles: One of my favorite sayings is, “You used to get tattooed to be on the outside, and now you get tattooed to be inside.” I would say that's very true. Now, with all the celebrities that have tattoos, they're very visible to people. There's almost no stereotype anymore. A 57-year-old woman came into my shop yesterday and got a big snake tattooed on her forearm for her first tattoo, and she worked for the BBC. It's really crossed over into every class, age, gender, and background.

My doctor has both of his arms totally sleeved. I have a friend that’s a corporate lawyer, and she's working on her body suit. I think what's surprising to me is that you do see people that are pretty young in conservative fields getting really visible tattoos. I think that the workplace is more forgiving of it. I'm sure there are instances when that's not true, but if you go into Starbucks, the barista might be really heavily tattooed on their neck. That's certainly something that you would not have seen a couple of years ago.

Myles: My biggest challenge is balancing being a business owner and a tattoo artist. The bane of my existence is trying to keep up with all the paperwork. I've learned to delegate some stuff, but I still run a lot of aspects of the business on my own. I always say that if I didn't own the shop, I'd be a better tattooer, and if I wasn't a tattooer, I'd probably be a better businessperson. I think that the two of them take away from each other, but at the same time, I do know that tattooers appreciate working for a tattoo artist rather than someone who is just a business owner.

The most rewarding part is the little community of artists and clients that I've brought together in my shop. Everybody helps each other with their drawing and their work, and people encourage each other. Then we have all of our clients that we've gotten to know over the years. We have people that have been coming in for years and years that we're really good friends with.

Green: Your shop has a tattoo museum. What does it feature?

Myles: New York City is actually [considered] the birthplace of modern American tattooing. We’re located on the Lower East Side, on Division Street, and the other end of that street is where modern tattooing was invented. That was where Samuel O'Reilly worked. He patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, and our museum collection includes artwork from him, and one of the Thomas Edison engraving pens that the first electric-tattoo-machine patent was based off of. We have a bunch of artwork from some of the Bowery artists and from some other influential American tattooers.

I made a map that documents all the tattooers that were working in that area as far back as 1859. Tattooing in New York City goes all the way back to before the Civil War. It's pretty cool to be where we are and to be able to document that history and to be able to show people that this is where it all started.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a hair braider, a door woman and a dog groomer.