Skin the New Living Canvas

Posted on February 6, 2010


I read an article in the February 5th 2010 edition of the Baltimore Sun about artists turning to skin as their canvas. Around here my wife and fellow artist Barbara Guran-Eubank figured out Tattooing was a good fit for her skills as an artist years ago.

Increasingly, art school graduates are making a fine art of tattooing,0,4715295.story

When it all started Barbara wasn’t a skate freak or really any other kind of freak, well except she was an artist Freak. She was a classically trained artist who was trying to make art and earn a living. Like most artists she had to have a day job to provide the income to support her artwork and living expenses for herself and family. I can testify that Tattooing was the furthest occupation from her mind being married to her for thirty years now. But suddenly that changed. At first when she told me she was going to become a Tattoo Artist I didn’t know if she had lost her mind or was having a major midlife crisis. She was forty-something and had never even had a tattoo until about two months before she broke the news to me.

All I could think about at the time was, “This is my fault” and how is this decision going to affect me and our family. I remained calm in the face of fear and urged her forward offering my support. Believe me when I tell you my creative mind was imagining every negative idea you can think about Tattooing, I kept my fears to myself. I secretly hoped this midlife crisis would pass while Barbara and I discussed her plan.

Her motivation was a direct result of my own big idea. I spilled the beans one morning in an innocent conversation about a story I had read about women who had undergone breast surgery opting to get beautiful tattoos to cover the scars of mastectomy’s. The story focused on the healing properties of beautiful images on damaged parts of the body, healing designs. Barbara had suffered an industrial back injury ten years before this time that left her more mentally than physically scarred and in pain. The accident ruptured a disc in her lower back which required surgery and rehabilitation. The real damage was caused by the worker compensation process to treat the injury. Without saying more about that; the whole process sucked big time. Her treatment by the system left deep wounds that didn’t heal as her body did. If you have ever been there you know what I mean.

So I suggested that she consider getting a beautiful Tattoo to heal those wounds. She was quiet as she is when she is thinking. I didn’t hear anything else about the tattoos for a couple weeks; Barbara thinks important things through before she talks or makes decisions. One day she showed me a simple elegant design a beautiful design she thought about getting tattooed over the surgical scar on her lower back. I knew this was a big deal for her and I wanted to support her, which was easy. First because it was a beautiful design of her own that was privately and intimately important to her. I said go for it. I work out of town most of the year and when I came home one day she said, “Look”. Yep! A very nicely done simple and beautiful tramp-stamp tattooed on her lower back. I loved it and I told her I thought it was sexy.  I could see the power of this symbol in her face and through her eyes; it was a look of healing of happiness. That simple symbolic act, that tattoo was a major turning point that helped restore confidence and completed the much needed healing process Barbara needed.

I asked where she got the tattoo done. She told me she went to Charlie, a kid I knew and our son had gotten a tattoo from and recommended. Charlie is a walking canvas who worked in a local shop now gone who is of the skate, or punk rock generation. He’s a kid that if you take the time to talk to him you will find out he’s a guy you will immediately like and he is a fantastic and creative artist.

Back to the moment of truth when Barbara told me she was going to be a Tattooist. She said, “I have thought about this and I think tattooing is something I can do and want to try. I said, “How are you going to do it, learn to tattoo”?  Most tattoo artists are trained through apprenticeships some go to tattoo schools and others figure it out on their own. Barbara had already done the research; remember I told you she thinks things through before she makes a decision. She had looked into getting a local apprenticeship and none were available. We live in a small community. The option of moving to get an apprenticeship was not realistic. Neither was the option of just figuring it out learning to tattoo on her own.  She found a tattoo school in Spokane Washington only five hundred miles away she liked. Lady Luck Tattoo was created by Kristi Kilbourne in 1997. Kristi offers training at her Spokane shop, Pacific Northwest Tattoo Seminars in which tattoo techniques are taught to those who love to learn.

Barbara went, learned and has never looked back. The course Kristi offers is first of all practical, hands on and covers tattooing, the business of tattooing and business itself. One thing I can add is there is no pie in the sky claims; Kristi is serious about tattooing and the business of tattooing. She fully covers the reality of being a tattoo business and what you can expect. Bluntly she tells students, the bank is not going to loan you start up capital. The SBA isn’t going to help you with financing you are on your own, tattooing is an alternative business outside of what is considered main stream. Kristi prepares her students to expect to pay as you go and finance yourself or work for someone else until you can. Barbara tells me that Kristi has been a dependable mentor and friend, who is always there for her, for support and answer any question or to give advice when needed.

Today five years later Barbara has built a good business following those principles. She started with a small tattoo shop in our house where she still works today. I think it is important to point out we have an ideally located property with appropriate zoning. Barbara started small and slow at first keeping her day job and tattooing by appointment. Six months in she was able to go full time and quit her day job. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing as Kristi warned in the beginning. Almost immediately our insurance agent who we had done business with for years and insured our home without warning cancelled our homeowners insurance. When I called him he said that the tattoo business was an uninsurable risk even though his company did not insure the business. His opinion was that Tattoo Shops were dirty slimy places. That was the end of the discussion which is fit to print. The fact is it took a while and a lot of work to find property insurance, but we did. In fact we found an agent who really worked hard for us and he also got all of our other insurance and our adult children’s insurance business. We also recommend him to anyone who asks.  That’s how it works. We do have to pay a much higher insurance premium because we have a business on the property. Fair enough.

Our old insurance agent couldn’t be more wrong about Barbara’s business or about Tattoo businesses in Montana as a whole. First she is licensed by the State of Montana. That means she passes mandatory inspections and complies with all state rules and regulations under state licensure for tattoo businesses. The benefits of being licensed are many. One of the most important is your customer knows you’re regulated and that you follow safe working procedures designed to protect the health and safety of your client. The state helps facilitate training in blood born pathogens; there is blood present in tattooing. They also help with direction to provide a clean sterile work space. I would describe Barbara’s work space much the same as your Dentists. Also instruments and touchable surfaces are covered with one time use medical grade protective covers. All needles and setups are sterilized just like surgical instruments. An autoclave is used to sterilize instruments and every sterilization session is tested for safety by a medical testing company. Even though the state only requires the test on the sterilization equipment once every 90 days Barbara tests each time. The cost of the additional testing is insignificant about one hundred dollars per year. What is significant is Barbara knows her tools of the trade are safe.

Needles are never re-used nor are inks. Anybody who believes they can clean and re-use needles or ink is a fool. You need to stay away from them for your own health and welfare. If a tattooist isn’t following a medically accepted sterilization program using approved equipment again stay away from them. You cannot boil instruments on the stove and achieve consistent safe sterilization regardless of what anybody says. After each session all surfaces are cleaned with medical grade antibacterial soap and readied for the next client with new materials just like your Dentist does.

If you plan on going into the business you need to learn about these procedures and make them part of your practice. Yes to buy an autoclave and medical grade setups is expensive, but it is also essential according to Barbara. If you have to skimp find some place else in your budget. Most states have their own rules find them, read them, ask questions before you start. Knowledge is power and protection.

Merging the Artist into a Tattooist

Now the fun part of the story, First Barbara says she gets to make a living doing what she loves; making art. She uses all of the skills she learned in art school. Design composition, color, drawing, painting, sculpture, graphic design, metalsmithing, photography, ceramics and glass.  A really good tattoo uses layers of color just like a painting. The skin is attached to the human body which is a living breathing, moving 3 dimensional surface.  Arms, legs, torsos and every Body is different. Creating two dimensional deigns for the body is a lot like sculpture. You have to consider size shape proportion, movement and volume of each body part in relation to the design. I know it’s cool.

Barbara makes her own needles instead of buying them pre-made. She is particular how the needles attach to the needle bar of the tattoo machine and how the needle or needles are arranged to create the different types of needles used from lining to shading. Her experience metalsmithing makes this necessity a snap. Working in ceramics and glass developed skills in mixing formulas for glazes and glass frits. Now these skills are used to make inks. You can buy ready made inks but if you really want to make killer tats learn how to make your own. You can buy the approved specialized pigments from various sources. You will find that most of this information is somewhat secret. Check with the National Tattoo Association for resources. Another benefit from ceramics and glass is learning to work with equipment, monitoring kilns and annealing ovens. Your new autoclave won’t be much of a foreign beast to you.

Drawing and Graphic Design skills are essential. Tattooing uses traditional methods still today. In fact tattoo artists rely on old school graphic design methods and principles. Tattooists may be the only practicing artists in the future who do. These skills are used to create transferable stencils and layout of designs on the skin and much more. All of those core curriculum courses you maybe hated but had to take are full of transferable skills merging the artist into a tattooist.

I asked Barbara what she liked about being a tattoo artists and she sent me some interview notes from and interview for 406 Woman Magazine that comes out in the February March 2010 issue of the magazine to answer the question.

Question:  What’s your favorite thing about tattooing people?

Barbara’s Answer: Talking to them and enjoying the diversity of my clients. I believe that in life we meet people for reasons and sometimes it’s that I need to share
something with them, and sometimes it’s that they have something that they
need to share with me. I love to talk to people and try to discover what we
have to offer each other! I’ve had many long talks on books, philosophy, you
name it! People come from such different backgrounds, but I usually can find
some commonality between us despite our differences! I also love being able
to empower people and give them a beautiful image that can give them strength, forgiveness, or some other kind of healing or personal inspiration.

Question: How many tattoos do you have?

Barbara’s Answer: Eleven, although I have the art done for four-six more (four big florals, then a background lace pattern) that will complete my leg sleeves. Just need
to be able to coordinate time with my daughter to have them put on! Right
now all of my tattoos are easily coverable, but can show when I want them to
(or in the summer). I used to work a job where you couldn’t have any visible
tattoos, so I’m sensitive to the fact that tattoos are still not accepted by
all people, so if I need to ‘fit in’ then I can cover them and not have the repercussions of immediate prejudice. That way also, if people find out they like me and THEN find out I have tattoos, it sort of softens them up and changes their attitude against tattoos a tiny bit. Life is about planting seeds of change and watching them grow!

Question: What makes your shop different from other shops

Barbara’s Answer: Oh, and on the question of what makes me different than other tattoo shops-I was an artist for about 25 years before I became a tattoo artist. So I feel
that with my education (4 years- no degree-heavy arts background, as well as science!), I have a pretty well-rounded knowledge of different cultures, art styles and such, so can offer people a more diverse approach to their tattoo desires. I think that’s why I don’t think of any style as my specialty per se… Whatever I am doing for someone at the moment is my specialty! I believe in being mindful and in the moment whenever I’m working, so I try to immerse myself in the style or period of whatever I am working on at the time, so that I can fully devote myself to making whatever it is be the best it can possibly be.

Question: How do you think as a woman, that your tattoo shop differs from a man’s

Barbara’s Answer: I think that I am more sensitive and patient than most men are. I wanted to have a shop that was different than the usual offering of tattoo shops– Not
a biker kind of place with someone being rude or intimidating, nor a ‘head shop’ atmosphere with scary tattoos and zillions of piercings. I wanted someplace that has a good vibration and spirit, that is aesthetically pleasing and also thought provoking, and a place that each individual is respected, regardless of their appearance or belief systems. I felt out of place when I went to get my first tattoo (at 43) and wanted people to be
able to come to a place with no judgment, no guilt, and with empowerment for
the greater good!

Question: As a woman, what can you offer your clients that men cannot?

Barbara’s Answer: I don’t know whether it’s that men cannot, or just don’t usually. For one, I am sensitive to women or men’s self consciousness of undressing themselves
and showing private areas to be tattooed. I try to respond to individual needs in a caring and loving way without any guilt associated with it. Sometimes people feel guilty for being picky about what they want and having me either re-draw something or put the stencil on several times to get it in just the right place– I don’t want them to feel guilty about it. After all, tattooing is a permanent procedure, so you SHOULD get what you want! AND you should think about it and have some kind of spiritual or emotional
connection with what you get. I also tattoo with a spiritual bent—if someone wants me to design something for them, I often meditate about it and ask my higher power to give me an answer as to what I should draw. Most often people are quite amazed at how what I’ve designed really fits a deeper meaning for them. I think that I am a better listener to people than most men. I try to hear not only what they are saying, but also what they aren’t saying.

If you are thinking about merging your artist into a Tattooist it can be a rewarding and lucrative enterprise.

About the enterprise thing, business is business and in the current economic climate business is hard, even for established tattooists. I think you really have to look at where you are located geographically and ask yourself some important questions. What is your local economy like right now today? How will it potentially change in the future? What is the size of the population, big small? How many tattoo shops exist in your area? Will you work for someone or start your own business? Are you ready to work very hard to be successful?

Visit Barbara’s website:

Just a note, when Barbara read this article she noted several typo’s. This isn’t unusual for me to make a typo, it is pretty much the way it is. I told her I work with what I ‘ve got. She said you mean your brain. Yeah I answered. Barbara is also a very good speller and has very solid skills in English. She won the sixth grade spelling bee at her school. This too is a strong transferable skill especially when tattooing words on people. Always check the spelling. When it comes to names make the client verify the spelling. I remember a guy who tattooed mom on his own arm, it read WOW!