MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to talk about another way people show off their sense of style. According to a 2012 Harris poll, about one in five Americans now has at least one tattoo. And in a country of more than 300 million people, that's a lot of tattoos. But it is still the case that not everybody is comfortable with them. Here's a clip of actress and comedian Margaret Cho talking about her mother's attitude toward her tattoo.
MARGARET CHO: My mother does not like my tattoos. I don't like tattoo.
CHO: It's too much. I don't like. I don't like. Mommy don't - I don't like tattoo. I don't like.
CHO: Meanwhile, she has her eyebrows tattooed, her eyeliner, her blush, her lipstick.
MARTIN: Well, you might have noticed that you're going to be seeing more tattoos because it's summertime and people are showing them off. So we thought this would be a good time to talk about why some people seem to be so fascinated by tattoos while other people are completely turned off and what accounts for the growing interest in tattoos. To have that conversation, we've invited one of this area's leading tattoo artists. He has won more than a dozen awards in his field. He is known as Fatty. He is the owner of Fatty's Custom Tattooz here in Washington, D.C.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
FATTY: Thanks for having me, Michel. I'm really stoked to be here.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. How did you learn to tattoo and what got you interested in?
FATTY: My interest in tattooing started when I was 16 when I got my first tattoo in a guy's basement for $20. After that experience I was totally hooked. I had decided then that tattooing was my calling in life and that's what I was going to pursue as an art form and as a career.
MARTIN: Tattooing is clearly an ancient art. I mean we, they are all kinds of traditional cultures where people tattoo themselves for all kinds of reasons. But in this country, it's been associated with just certain people, like people in prison, people in the military, oftentimes people kind of associated with, you know, kind of something that people do on a whim. Do you think it still has this kind of outlaw feeling?
FATTY: Unfortunately, no.
FATTY: I enjoyed it much more when it did. I would say in the last 10 years tattooing has become mainstream. I can say this with clarity because I was involved in the business before it was mainstream. In the past, when somebody would ask you oh, you know, what do you do for a living? And you would tell them well, I'm a tattoo artist, typically - and this is 20 years ago - the reactions were negative. There was skepticism that I could make a legitimate living doing tattoo art. There were concerns that I am somehow a real shady dude because I do tattoos. To me, the thing that confirmed that it was mainstream is when I went to go pick up my daughter from her preschool for the first time and one of the soccer moms asked me, you know, what do you do for a living and I told them I didn't tattooing and the reaction was cool, and then all of a sudden all the moms started coming around and wanting to talk to me about it and 10 years prior they probably would have been shielding their children from me.
MARTIN: It's interesting that you hear that on the one hand and a lot of people have tattoos, display their tattoos, not just artists, but we often see a lot of artists, like Adam Levine, for example, from Maroon Five, he's also one of the judges on "The Voice," has a lot of tattoos and displays it, Margaret Cho, as we mentioned, but then you still your stories like this. I just want to play another clip of a conversation we had with a young woman named Al Fox. She calls herself Tattooed Mormon. She moved to Utah about three years ago. She is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and this is what she talked about an experience that she had when she first moved there.
AL FOX: It just felt like everyone was just staring at me, you know, you could just feel people staring at you, you know, from every direction or even behind you. And finally this guy, you know, he tapped me on the shoulder and he said it's pretty ironic you look the way you do hoping that book, you know, and it was a church book.
MARTIN: Do you hear that from people? Do you hear people saying that people think that if they're wearing tattoos or they have parts of their bodies tattooed then it meant something about them and do you think it means something?
FATTY: In our current cultural context, I do think it is to have a little more meaning. It truly meant that you were an outlier of society, you weren't interested in participating in mainstream affairs. You know, it almost has an opposite meaning now. There's a certain tattoo that we do, there's a couple of them that we do quite regularly. It's the same thing. People find it on the Internet, print it out and say this is what I want. It might be slight variations but it's basically the same tattoo. We'll tell them while we are drawing it up, you know, we did this three times last week and the responses oh, cool. And so to me it seems like people are getting tattooed now, not to set themselves apart, but to be a part of the coolness culture that it has become.
MARTIN: What do you think changed it? You were saying that really changed over the last 20 years. Any idea what changed it?
FATTY: I would say the main culprit behind the change in our cultural attitudes towards tattooing has been the media exposure. But I would also say that tattooing has, it has changed dramatically in the sense that it's far more artistic. If you look at the people that are actually good at tattooing, what they're producing, they're producing images on skin that would rival the best work of any canvas painter.
MARTIN: Well, you're working at a place that's, in an area that's known to be kind of conservative in matters of fashion and style. It's Washington, D.C. It's the nation's capital. There a lot of people who wear suits every day. And does that, do you find that self playing itself out in your work?
FATTY: Yes. Often because of the fact that we are in Washington, D.C., a lot of my clients do have high profile jobs. I tattoo judges, lawyers, priests. I've even tattooed the chief political advisor to one of the presidential candidates. These people do have to make an effort though, to not have their tattoos showing, but the fact that they're wearing a business suit means that they can pretty much get anything tattooed but their hands and their face.
MARTIN: Do you envision a time when we'd have a president with a tattoo?
FATTY: I heard recently that President Obama was considering getting tattooed. Actually, he was threatening his daughters to get a tattoo if they got tattooed. And so Mr. President, if you're listening, Fatty will hook you up.
MARTIN: OK. Fatty is the owner of Fatty's Custom Tattooz. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C., which is also where he practices. Fatty, thank you.
FATTY: Thank you so much, Michel. It's been an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.