The tattoo industry and its requisite artists have gained an ever-brightening spotlight over the past two decades. The industry has seen growth not only for everyday consumers and tattoo enthusiasts but also for individuals wishing to make permanent or semi-permanent changes to their appearances with procedures like eyebrow tattooing, microblading, and scalp micropigmentation.
Tattoos have increased both in popularity and societal acceptance, and, according to Statista, over 145 million Americans now have tattoos. In 2022, consumers spent $1.89 billion worldwide. The tattoo industry as a whole is projected to reach $3.55 billion by 2029.
One-third of individuals classified as Generation X — and, according to a LinkedIn study, about 40% of millennials — have at least one tattoo.
Social media seems to have accounted for a large portion of that growth in America, by allowing potential clients to scroll through the portfolios of artists before choosing to reach out. According to CNBC, many artists estimate that more than 70% of their clients come from Instagram.
Limitless social media reach connects tattoo artists all over the world with potential clients, and it has helped to catapult their businesses — and artwork — to new heights.
The South Kingstown tattoo scene includes several shops and artists whose combined years of experience total nearly a century. Local artists maintain portfolios in their respective niches, and interested clients can reach out to them via email or Instagram message.
Zander Thorn, Wakefield native and owner of Wakefield Tattoo at 355 Main Street, which opened in 2019, runs his shop on flexibility and the ability of his artists to work in diverse styles. Thorn has been tattooing for 16 years, with the majority of that time in Las Vegas, and defines his work as American Traditional and Japanese Traditional. He prefers larger to smaller designs and enjoys working in color.
Thorn tends toward reds and oranges in his work and his subjects range from abstract designs to flora and fauna to masks and faces. He explained that he enjoys more complicated tattoos and has built inspiration into the walls of his shop by hanging reference designs to be viewed.
“I like the style of artwork that was specifically made for skin that will hold over a long period of time,” he said. “I like the familiarity and being able to recognize it from 15 or 20 feet away.”
“I really like people and clients that want to be tattooed,” he added.
Business, Thorn explained, is cyclical at Wakefield Tattoo, and he and his team of five artists prioritize their time to accommodate walk-in clients.
“We typically will always have gaps within our schedule that can accommodate the locals or people that are visiting as tourists,” Thorn said.
“Part of the thrill of getting tattooed is the spontaneous aspect of it. It’s a little rush and thrill-seeking,” he continued, “so it kind of opens that door to people to feel comfortable with that.”
He explained that the shop sees steady streams of summer tourists who wish to get commemorative, nautical, or Rhode Island-themed tattoos. When tourist season winds down, Thorn said that URI students return to school and fill that gap.
Wakefield Tattoo Artist Briana Mikaelian works a lot in black and gray and creates fine line/single-needle tattoos, which have gained popularity over the past five years. She creates florals, mandalas, portraits, fauna, and unique custom designs.
Thorn says he enjoys Wakefield Tattoo’s location and subsequent involvement with the Wakefield Village Association, and he maintains valuable partnerships with both Animal Rescue Rhode Island and Save One Soul.
Finding their calling
Rachel Weisz-Smith, of Rachel WS Fine Art Tattoo at 140 Boon Street in Narragansett, has come a long way in finding her true tattoo passion. Formerly Rachel WS Custom Tattoo, she has been tattooing on her own for about 10 years, creating designs in all styles for her clients.
Weisz-Smith, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, explained that she did not enjoy fine art in her younger years.
“I railed against fine art when I was going to school for it. It was boring to me. I like to abstract things, to be different,” she said. “And when I started tattooing, I was trying to be different and do different things, but the fine art stuff feels like home. And I evolved back into that.”
Rachel explained that when she first started as a tattoo artist, she would tattoo whatever clients asked for.
“I was doing black and gray, I was doing color, I was doing traditional, neotraditional, realism, all the things. I didn’t want to turn anybody away,” she said.
But over time, Rachel said, she found passion and a real purpose for photorealism and scar work. Memorials comprise the majority of her photorealism tattoos, where she uses a photo or composite of a few images and, with the help of Photoshop or Procreate, creates meaningful memorials for loved ones. She says this type of work utilizes her vast tattoo experience as well as her fine arts background.
“I’m doing more types of things that you’re not used to seeing on skin,” she said. “It feels like I’m doing a painting. But I really love the challenge of doing that.”
Weisz-Smith’s photorealism creations often take several sessions to complete, and span large areas of skin.
The second half of her new purpose involves both trauma and healing, two experiences she explained she knows a lot about after having left an abusive marriage.
Rachel tattoos over scars either from surgeries or injuries, and says she finds this practice very therapeutic.
“I’m doing stretchmarks, self-injury, mastectomy scars, c-section scars, and abdominoplasty,” she said.
“The more I was helping other people to heal and find their confidence,” she said, “the more I felt like I was healing and finding my own confidence.”
Rachel explained that the procedure to cover up a scar is different than unscarred skin and she completed a process of trial and error to attain the skill she exhibits today.
“Scarred skin takes ink differently and you really have to feel and learn. It definitely takes a different technique. You have to go back into it usually and see how it heals. A lot of that work is intuitive, and it’s really so gratifying,” she said.
She says she feels grateful she can give people back the freedom they lost.
“I really love watching people’s confidence grow as I covered things that they were once embarrassed about. Suddenly they’re excited, they roll their sleeves up, and instead of looking at their arm staring at scars, they’re looking at it saying ‘Wow, that’s an amazing tattoo!’”
Her scar work generally spans about four sessions per client, sometimes more, and that if she could cover mastectomy scars free of charge or have insurance companies somehow cover the cost, she would.
Rachel says she intends to continue these types of tattoos far into the future, as it is mutually rewarding and restorative.
Marco’s Tattoo has been a Wakefield fixture since 2007. The shop, which is located at 1916 Kingstown Road, has moved a few times over the years. The current location was designed and streamlined by owner Aaron Marco and provides both tattoo and piercing services to patrons over the age of 18.
Aaron Marco has been tattooing for nearly 30 years, at locations all over the world. A Wakefield native himself, he returned home to raise his family and serve local clients.
Marco has a long and storied tattoo career, participating in competitions and winning awards during the ’90s and the early 2000s. He explained he only occasionally competes now, as he finds himself winding down from his whirlwind career.
Black and gray tattoos are Marco’s preference, and he loves creating large, detailed pieces. Recently, he said, much of his business has been creating entire sleeves for legs and arms. He credits his longevity to his volume of repeat business.
“We have tremendous repeat customers,” he said. “People are very comfortable here.”
Though most clients come in for only one tattoo, Marco said that he has a few clients he has been tattooing for many years, either through very large pieces or separate designs.
Some subjects, like dragons and skulls, he said, he’s been creating for decades and has carefully honed his signature style.
The shop’s artists use social media to fill gaps in the schedule and to offer tattoo designs potential clients may have come in for consults about, but never returned for the tattoo. Marco’s Tattoo artists use their website as well as Instagram to highlight their work.
Many Marco’s clients come in repeatedly for the camaraderie created by the tattoo process. Aaron explained that after tattooing people for periods, a lot of them come in initially for tattoos, but eventually just to chat and catch up.
Artist and piercer Jes Swisher creates tattoos of all kinds, both color and black and grey, single-needle/fine line, permanent makeup, and does ear and body piercing. Rob Wilkinson, who rounds out the team, has been a licensed tattoo artist since 2012 and specializes in geometric work and comic book style. He works in both color and black and gray.
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