Ashley Bettcher, a petite and adventurous student, couldn’t wait to get tattooed the moment she turned 18. Although the thought of having a needle in her arm had always terrified her, nothing could stop this budding tattoo collector from getting inked.
“I have the personality [of someone] who will eat the same bowl of cereal for like a week and a half,” she said. “It’s just been my nature. Once I start enjoying something, I kind of embrace it a little too much.”
Bettcher now has five tattoos, three of which are visible wearing most clothes. Even though she describes her desire to have more tattoos as an addiction, she doesn’t focus on designs that are common or look pleasing to the average tattoo seeker. For her, it’s a matter of creating a look suited to one’s personality which takes on a deep, personal meaning.
Her love for tattoos began after she learned her father was too ill to afford healthcare costs in the States. They moved to Grande Prairie where he was able to get the treatment he needed. Her first tattoo, a red maple leaf on her right wrist, symbolizes this difficult period when she felt grateful that Canada helped save her father’s life. After returning to her hometown of San Diego about a year later, she extended the maple leaf to include a palm tree on a sandy beach. Combined, the maple leaf and palm tree tell a story of Bettcher’s nationality and the person she is today.
It wasn’t long after the first tattoo that Bettcher began turning her body into a moving canvas. Her second and smallest tattoo is behind her right ear. According to her, the music note represents her love for music, while each sound wave matches her family’s favourite colours.
“I did think about the placement and the colours back there,” said Bettcher. “I picked my favourite colour, my brother’s favourite colour and my dad’s and my mom’s just because family is important to me always. And my brother has always had a really large influence on me with music.”
Like many other University of Calgary English majors, Bettcher pays close attention to the meaning of words and phrases. One famous saying that has always stuck with her is, “This Too Shall Pass,” coined by Abraham Lincoln. She chose to have this tattooed on her chest to constantly remind her that no tribulation is permanent. Instead, each difficulty offers an opportunity for personal growth.
Alongside family and music, education has been a driving force behind her tattoo creations. About two years ago, Bettcher finished a tattoo sleeve that she calls her “biggest piece” because it took 18 hours to complete. If you look closely, on her left arm Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man stands on a textbook, surrounded by colourful lettering and imagery representing human intellect.
“I was surrounded in academics,” explained Bettcher. “My dad raised me in academics. Anything that he taught me was like a textbook. It became my escape growing up because I was poor and my family fought and we had drug use and all kinds of stuff going on. I just remember going to school- learning was the best part of my life and thinking in my head when I was old enough to realize it, that this is what’s going to get me out of this situation.”
While envisioning a larger tattoo for herself, Bettcher decided to go for something more daring. Despite intense physical pain getting her full rib piece done, she considers it her favourite. This latest addition is so realistic, it looks like Bettcher’s skin has been torn to expose her rib cage.
“It’s supposed to represent the inside of the person, showing their genuine nature and behind the skin is a heart and a lung,” she said. “Just the heart and the lung because I liked the idea that the heart represents compassion which is necessary to live, just as necessary as breathing is. The mockingbird is trapped behind my rib which is the point that it’s not going to fly anywhere, but in a sense the purity of wanting to help people is going to stay inside me.”
Bettcher, who spent about $3,200 on all of her tattoos, said she has no plans to stop anytime soon. In fact, she already has four future designs in mind.
Tattoo artists like Trevor Varem and Teika Hudson, who work at Bushido Tattoo in Calgary, see all sorts of people come through their doors- from typical bad boys, to businessmen and old ladies about to get their first piece done. It’s not uncommon for newcomers to want stars, floral patterns and Japanese artwork.
Varem, who graduated from the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2007 and has been working at Bushido ever since, specializes in traditional, American style art. He stressed that researching the tattoo artist before booking an appointment is an important decision-making process- if you don’t choose the artist carefully, you could be dissatisfied with the final turnout. Also, make sure you like the tattoo you’re getting. There’s nothing worse than having your skin inked with something you hate and can’t get rid of.
“I look at my tattoos everyday and the bad ones I’ve covered up, but the good ones I’ve got and I like them still,” he said. “I haven’t got tired of them, which is why it’s super important to make sure that where you’re going the artist can actually draw and always look at the drawing first, because if you don’t like the drawing and it’s on you then you’re not going to like the tattoo. You have it for the rest of your life.”
Reversing the tattoo process comes at no small price. The procedure can cost $1,000 or more. According to Dr. Tom Woo, who works at Calgary’s Laser Rejuvenation Clinic and Spa and is one of the first doctors in Calgary to remove tattoos with lasers, people who want them removed often regret where they’re placed.
“[Clients are] usually embarrassed, as the tattoo with hate and love on your knuckles just doesn’t cut [it] when you are applying for your CEO position,” he said.
Varem adds that because tattoos are more accepted by mainstream society, competition between different artists has eased. Now tattooists are coming together to gather insight and brainstorm.
For Hudson, the best part about working at Bushido is that she’s given the opportunity to pursue her dream career. She describes her style as “feminine and dark” because she favours comic-book style art, pinups and tattoos done in grey and black.
People, she says, gain two advantages from a tattoo: confidence from attaining their desired look and a sense of closure, because tattoos can offer an avenue to remember loved ones who have passed away.
“One of my favourite things about tattooing is when people get up and they look at it and they’re so happy and they feel even a little bit better about themselves,” said Hudson. “It’s a pretty cool thing. And then I’ve had people who I’ve tattooed a memorial piece on and they cry, but they feel better and they feel closer to that person even though they’re gone.”
Of course, the tattoo community is no stranger to criticism. While some say tattoos socially stigmatize people by giving the impression they are low class, others think it represents cult membership, mass conformity and is narcissistic. Rather than defend their beliefs, Varem and Hudson acknowledge the fact that there will
always be people who disagree.
“Everybody’s going to have their opinions, but you can’t change peoples’ minds,” said Varem. “Chances are, they’re going to know somebody who has a tattoo or start dating somebody who has a tattoo. There are a lot of people who come in here to get tattooed and their boyfriends or their wives hate tattoos, but they get tattooed anyways so it’s not like it’s changing anything.”
Hudson agreed, saying she’s dealt with a lot of prejudice due to her body art. She hopes people will eventually understand why tattoos are so loved, but is patient in the meantime.
Although tattoos are more openly displayed and discussed than ever before, they are no 21st Century fad. Contrary to popular belief, tattoos have existed since the Neolithic Age around 12,000 BC.
The first groundbreaking evidence to suggest that tattoos predate ancient times arrived with the discovery of Ötzi the ice mummy in 1991. According to reports, two German hikers were walking though the glaciers of the Otztal Alps near the Austro-Italian border when they came across the perfectly preserved remains of a Neolithic man. Upon closer inspection, they found he had 57 tattoos. Each marking corresponds to modern acupuncture points, which lead to the belief that his culture experimented with early forms of acupuncture to relieve rheumatic pains. Anthropologists say a traditional healer would make a small incision over the aching joint, place herbs inside the wound and then use the tip of a heated metal tool to seal it off.
More precursors of modern tattoos surfaced when a priestess of Hathor from the ninth Dynasty in ancient Egypt, around 2,200 BC, was found. Anthropologists noticed patterns of dots and dashes on her skin believed to be symbols of protection and fertility. Other female mummies revealed similar patterns, however, no ancient Egyptian male has been found with these markings. The blackish-blue pattern is said to be a result of inserting a fish bone needle under the skin’s surface.
Archaeological research during the post-war period confirms that inhabitants of the Japanese Islands have had tattoos since Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. During the Kofun Period (300–600 AD) and Pre-Edo Period (1600–1868), Japanese tattoos were believed to be a form of punishment. There are also indications that outcasts were tattooed.
It wasn’t until 1769, after British explorer Captain James Cook travelled to the South Pacific, that the word “tattoo” was coined. Originally, it was derived from the Tahitian word tattau and the Polynesian word tatu which mean ‘to mark.’ Cook was the first to note how Tahitian culture would prick certain dies into the skin- later known as the Polynesian Technique.
By the end of the nineteenth century, tattooing reached the general public with the help of Samuel O’Reilly, a successful New York tattooist who patented the first tattoo machine in 1891. The inspiration came from Thomas Edison, who invented an electrically powered stencil pen in 1875- a device that transferred designs to textiles by perforating holes into paper.
As tattoos grew in popularity, people associated them with bikers, criminals, drunken sailors, prostitutes, gangsters, circus freaks and other deviant groups.
A U of C art history professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said there is nothing wrong with getting a small tattoo with meaning. However, he argued that if someone gets tattooed in excess, they are not conveying individuality. Rather, they are buying into a pseudo-primitive kitsch form of mass conformity.
But people like Bettcher, who see value behind all their tattoos, have an opposite opinion.
“I don’t know if it’s becoming a genuine realm of artistic expression, but it’s at least surfacing as an artistic element and it has these artistic values,” explained Bettcher. “To be quite honest, tattoo artists are for the most part incredibly talented at what they do. It’s really hard to cover a moving canvas with something that’s going to look good all the time.”
Sometimes, Bettcher feels disappointed when she gets a weird stare or is told to cover her tattoos in the professional world, but if there’s one thing she’s learned, it is that a strong personality can go a long way in overcoming first impressions.
“Everyone’s changing and everyone’s growing all the time, so it’s kind of a nudge to keep that process going. I think I just like the overall experience. It’s just this insane, intellectual process, but it also keeps you close to who you are and it keeps you grounded in who you are.”