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Body is a canvass for artist in Springfield Township

By Kim Hone-McMahan
Beacon Journal staff writer

Published on Sunday, May 02, 2010 --

There's a row of containers holding incense just inside Sheila Whited's tattoo shop in Springfield Township. Fizzy pop, ocean wind, Arabian night are some of the aromas. On this day, the smell of vanilla filled the air.

A few feet away, Leslie Wilhelm was lounging in an antique barber's chair. She came for her 11th tattoo, a butterfly.

As the artist, whose shop is named Tattoos by Sheila, leaned over her, Wilhelm wore a semismile. Oh, sure, it hurt.

''Like really bad bee stings,'' Wilhelm said, adding that the outline of the design is the worst.

When the 36-year-old, nicknamed ''Red'' for her ginger-colored mane, got her first tattoo, she perspired so much, her back and legs were dripping. But no longer — she's used to it.

The pain can be more or less severe, depending on where the tattoo is located. What area is the most painful?

''He has one; we don't,'' Whited said, nodding her head toward a male photographer.

It sure does seem like more people are getting inked these days. In a 2006 Pew Research Center report, some 36 percent of U.S. 18- to 25-year-olds and 40 percent of those ages 26 to 40 have at least one tattoo.

But Whited said she's no busier now than she was 32 years ago, when she began inking masterpieces in the folds and curves of people's bodies.

''It's not that they didn't get them; they just got them in hidden areas,'' Whited said. ''People [like Wilhelm] are now showing them because it's more accepted.''

Perhaps you've noticed tattoos on some professionals (though anything above the neck is generally still considered a no-no in the business world). Once reserved for sailors and motorcycle gangs, tattoos have lost their unsavory image.

''I've always done people that you would never dream had tattoos. . . . I mean, I tattooed my gynecologist 15 years ago,'' Whited said, chuckling.

While 18- to 25-year-olds are typical clients at Akron's Good Life Tattoos & Piercing,
older folks are not alien.

The oldest person Jesse Strother, 26, co-owner and artist, has tattooed was a 67-year-old man. He selected an arrowhead design to cover up a former sweetheart's name.

That's one of the reasons some suggest kids should wait until they are at least 18 to get a tattoo. Their minds may change — a lover today may be a foe tomorrow.

But even 18-year-olds, which is the youngest someone in Ohio can get a shop tattoo without parental consent, can make a faux pas. Take Kimberley Vlaminck of Belgium, for instance. She claimed last year that she fell asleep when an artist was tattooing 56 stars on her face, where she wanted just three. Of course, controversy followed — many wondered how anyone could zonk out when getting a constellation inked on her face. Turns out, the 18-year-old made up the story when she saw how furious her father was about the tattoos.

The lesson? Think, think, think — and, if you're a teen, talk it over with your parents or someone more mature before being marked.

''In recent months, I have discovered that more and more of my friends and classmates are getting tattoos,'' said Madeleine Winer, a St. Vincent-St. Mary High School senior and member of a group of young people who advise the Beacon Journal on subjects of interest to their peers. ''I know some of my classmates got them as a 16th or 17th birthday gift from their parents. . . . People my age get tattoos to commemorate an important event or person in their life.

''I see tattoos as a form of art, but I would never want to get one. I am afraid of . . . needles.''

More than art

Sometimes tattoo artists are called on to do more than ink a design. For instance, years ago, Whited was asked to place a small dot on the bottom of a baby's foot.

Twins had been born — one with a heart defect, the other without. When the mother returned to work, she was fearful that because the twins were identical, a caregiver might give medicine to the wrong infant. So someone suggested the dot.

On another occasion, a teenager had a tumor removed from his penis. ''Because they had taken skin from his leg and grafted it, he had a perfect, white rectangle,'' Whited said.

He was worried, she said, that when the day came that he wanted to have sex, he would be embarrassed. His parents brought him to the tattoo shop and Whited applied flesh and vein colors to his genitals.

And then there are women who have lost their breasts to cancer. After reconstruction, Whited is sometimes called upon to add color to the nipple area.

Whited, who has volunteered in various capacities in her community, says it's her most rewarding work.


Piercings are popular, too. Jeremiah Currier, 27, who co-owns Good Life Tattoos & Piercings with Strother, gets worked up about the subject. He maintains that places such as those in some shopping malls should be told to discard plastic guns and use ones that can be sterilized properly. Cleanliness, as it should be, is a big deal to Currier.

The media and celebrities who show off their piercings pave the way for trends, he noted. The above-18 crowd sometimes requests piercings in private parts. But at least half of the shop's piercing business is 14- to 18-year-old girls who come in to get their ears, lips, belly buttons and nostrils pierced.

''In my shop, it's up to the parents to decide if their child is mature enough to care for a piercing,'' Whited said. ''If a kid comes in and I can see that they are rude or nasty to their parents, I won't do it.''

Tattoos head south

Whited has built a following during the past three decades, so much so that she has tattooed generations of families: ''It's not unusual to have a grandmother and granddaughter to come in together.''

But what happens to the tattoos that were inked on Grandma back when Groucho Marx made Lydia the Tattooed Lady a hit?

''The only thing I can think of when I imagine getting a tattoo is how gross it will look when I'm a wrinkly old lady baking cookies with my family,'' said Trista White, a senior at Firestone High School and another member of the Beacon young readers group. ''Even if I think the design is super cute right now, I know that my grandkids will think differently when they see old Granny with a butterfly on her shoulder or some black birds flying up her vein-ridden arm.''

But Whited, who is 56 years old and has between 80 and 100 tats, maintains that's not everyone's destiny.

''If your body is sagging because you didn't take care of it, that's your problem,'' Whited said.

And tattoos, she added, last forever.

''They can't be stolen, can't be taken in a divorce, or taken by the government to pay taxes. About the only thing that can make them go away is road rash.''

Spoken by a woman who rides a Harley motorcycle nicknamed Betty Lou.


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