Tattoos have been etched onto the human body for thousands of years, from ancient Egyptian mummies to inked-up sailors and are now considered fine art.
BY TOBY THOMPSON
PHOTOS BY LYNN DONALDSON
The map of Linzi Hungerford’s tattoos begins at her shoulder. There, a praying mantis hovers menacingly, trailed by “an exploded view of a tattoo machine,” she explains. And pointing toward an audio fixture she adds, “This one’s an amplifier knob from Spinal Tap—dialed to 11.” Below that rests a bouquet of French fries, followed by a tat of a 35-millimeter camera and an inked-in magnifying glass.
“This one’s a pencil, then here’s a little paint tube,” she says. On a once-injured hand rests a broken firecracker. “Then I have a snowflake, then a little wheelchair guy because this finger was broken also.” On her sternum, beneath a violet teddy, is an elaborately rooted tree she sketched in Australia. “My first tattoo.” And across her chest is a double-headed snake with ferns and foliage, applied in Missoula. She steps from behind her desk. “Then my legs …”
These are but a few of more than a dozen pieces Hungerford wears—a modest number for a tattoo artist and downright skimpy for any 33-year-old addicted to ink. “It is an addiction,” she says, cocking a leg and scanning her body art. “Eventually my tattoos will make a sleeve or a body suit, becoming all one piece. I have an appointment with an artist in Four Corners to fill in some spaces.” She fidgets. “This looks incomplete.”
“The tattoo business is pandemic-proof. The tattooed man and the tattooed lady in the carnival show? That’s average people walking around.” – Nicholas Beuthien
We’re in the reception area of Jamais Vu Tattoo, a studio Hungerford opened last year in Bozeman, Montana, and which this morning she’s spent hours sanitizing, “because tattoo shops have to be a sterile environment.” She adds, “I was very worried during the pandemic about opening a business, let alone something boutique … but everybody’s coming in. It’s going to be hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a tattoo.”
There are currently 12 tattoo shops in Bozeman, 25 in Billings, and in smaller Idaho Falls, 10. The latter’s Bleeding Cowboy studio employs five artists who specialize in Western styles, including that of mountain wildlife art. There are 13 studios in Missoula where Nicholas Beuthien of the Union Tattoo Parlor has said, “The tattoo business is pandemic-proof. The tattooed man and the tattooed lady in the carnival sideshow? That’s average people walking around.”
Much has been written about body art as a form of modern primitivism, about the suburban class’s self-decoration as an embracing of street art, and even piercing and tattooing as a way for abuse victims to reclaim their bodies. Less has been written about American tattooing as having flourished not only in New York’s Bowery quarters and in sailortowns like Norfolk and New Orleans, but in the American West. This occurred in the early 20th-century years of San Diego’s and Long Beach’s parlors, yes, but more emphatically during the renaissance of modern inking—from 1969 to the present.
“I am a canvas of my experience.” – Kat Von D, High Voltage Tattoo
Tattooing, historically, is an ancient craft that originated with the Austronesian people of Taiwan. But its practice is universal. Archaeologists have uncovered tattooed Egyptian mummies from 3351 and 3017 BC. And in 1768 Captain James Cook’s crew brought tattoos from the South Pacific to Europe, where nautical and military persons favored them. Tattoos were used as passport IDs, as well as for decoration.
The New Yorker has reported that during the late 19th century, tattoos were familiar to English society: “Coats-of-arms, five-pound notes, and packs of hounds were punctured in the British epidermis, royal, noble, and otherwise.” This behavior reeked of slumming, and magnates such as King George V, Czar Nicholas II and Queen Olga of Greece indulged. Except for this early craze, the acquisition of body ink would stay raffish and devil-may-care for a century.
Then, in the 1970s, tattooers such as San Francisco’s Lyle Tuttle, Honolulu’s Sailor Jerry Collins and Los Angeles’ Ed Hardy—a San Francisco Art Institute alumnus—brought tattooing from skid-row hovels and biker shacks to mainstream boutiques with the pretentiousness of fine artists. “All I ever wanted to do was to make art and be an artist,” the 76-year-old Hardy writes in his memoir, Wear Your Dreams. “I didn’t want to be judged by the medium of my expression … In the public mind the kind of people who got tattoos were psychopaths, rapists, and killers … When I started, nobody thought tattoos were art or that people who did tattoos were artists.”
How that has changed. Pre-COVID New York and Los Angeles galleries have handled tattoo “flash” art, museums have displayed it, and national conventions and online festivals abound. Fashion utilizes tattoo-inspired patterns (e.g., tattoo tights), and the staid Yale University Press has published an image-laced book, The World Atlas of Tattoo. In its introduction, Anna Felicity Friedman writes, “Today tattooing exists in nearly every country on the skins of a phenomenal array of people. Perhaps at no time has this art form been more prevalent … Since the mid-1990s, an astounding range of new tattoo genres has arisen alongside revitalizations, reinventions, and continuations of Indigenous traditions.”
“I am a canvas of my experience,” L.A. inker Kat Von D writes in her book, High Voltage Tattoo. “My story is etched in lines and shading, and you can read it on my arms, my legs, my shoulders, and my stomach. But like everybody else, I was born naked and screaming, waiting for my life to write itself on my skin.”
“Montana has very traditional styles … very bold lines, very bold color, maybe four colors in one. That’s not my style.” – Linzi Hungerford
Hungerford’s life began in Korea, but she was adopted as a six-month-old by parents in West Yellowstone, Montana, and grew up there. She was valedictorian of her high-school class (“My dad taught shop and was a high-school basketball coach; my mom ran a daycare center.”) but was rebellious. Her paper art was removed from exhibits because “it was blood and gore, punk-rock stuff.” Her parents divorced and at 16 she left their house. “I was homeless for a while, which is hard in the winter in West Yellowstone.” She worked construction, welded and traveled widely.
“Originally I wanted to be a fashion designer or to make album art for rock bands.” As for tattooing? “I kind of fell into it,” she says. “I loved painting and sketching, but I never really thought it was a feasible career. My brothers actually pushed me into the tattoo industry. They loved tattoos … they thought that I would do well.”
Her tat designs are more in an “illustrative style,” as Hungerford calls them. “Pretty much all black. And with a little hint of color, just to pop certain aspects of the design. Montana has very traditional styles … very bold lines, very bold color, maybe four colors in one. That’s not my style.”
Tattoos are both permanent and fleeting: permanent for the wearer; fleeting for the artist. Instagram is the artist’s scrapbook and portfolio. Recently Hungerford posted photographs there of a sleeve she inked for a client tagged “Mark.” Done in the black-ink style, the tat features a human skeleton with a ram’s- head skull, arrows embedded in a second skull, a rustic cabin, a hunting dog and other outdoor motifs. The piece suggests Montana, but its artfulness is in its complex design. Images flow in a surrealistic manner, and though they are nature-focused, the effect is hypnotizing.
Despite such complexity, Montanans’ favored images are comparable to those in other Western states. “Here, it’s definitely mountains and trees, with wolves and grizzlies,” Hungerford says. “There are plenty of brands or rodeo style, cowboy stuff. I’ve seen plenty of landscapes, with Bitterroot flowers and stuff like that.”
To Google “Old Western Tattoos” is to find photographs of numerous cowboy tats—of pistols, horses, and at least one full-backer of a train robbery and a High Noon-style shootout. Many of such images’ creators are women. Hungerford is one of thousands of female tattooers who during this renaissance have embraced dermal art. “You could do a feminist take on tattoos,” she says. “But I think the majority of female artists just have their own style. Some people say, ‘Well maybe a female artist will have a lighter touch.’ But that’s definitely not true.”
Asked what the challenges are for sketching on skin, Hungerford sees tattooing as a different beast. “It’s a whole new breed of art,” she says, adjusting her mask. “You get frustrated by the fact that you can paint this on canvas, you can draw this, but on skin it reacts completely differently. You have to relearn all of it. You have the needles and skin and pain, and people’s tolerances, and everything about it is fairly difficult.”
“I felt as if I was connected to something that was beyond this plane of existence, a place connected to my ancestors in a way that I never felt possible.” – Dion Kaszas, Tattoo Artist
Is part of that difficulty being psychologically aware? “Abuse victims want to get a tattoo to signify their victory over something. Or there are self-harm people who come in, and they don’t want to self-harm anymore … they want to cover up their scars.”
There is a talismanic element to such tattooing. And for the tattooer, the process is palliative. Von D writes, “Whether I’m helping somebody cope or celebrate, when I give somebody a tattoo, I become part of a landmark in time for them. The connection is something way beyond a needle and some ink. I can’t magically take away people’s problems and pain, but I can help them honor, heal, and rejoice.”
Tattoo parlors crowd the American West. The World Atlas of Tattoo chronicles this growth and cites its artists. Whether in his Austin or San Francisco studios, the African American tattooer Zulu creates images that are brightly colored renditions of spiritual moments. The “godfather of spiritual tattooing,” he sees tattooing as “a healing force,” and the tattoo experience as communicative. “I’ve never tattooed a stranger,” Zulu told the World Atlas. “By the time I tattoo you, we know each other.”
San Francisco’s Jill Bonny works in the Japanese tradition of full-body art, inking geishas, warriors and mythological figures in black ink highlighted with color. She was trained in art at New York’s Cooper Union. British Columbia’s Dion Kaszas works with Indigenous images of North American spirituality. “When I [first] sat down to skin-stitch,” he’s quoted as saying, “I felt as if I was connected to something that was beyond this plane of existence, a place connected to my ancestors in a way that I never felt possible.”
Fountain Valley, California’s Jose Lopez tattoos lowriders on forearms in the Chicano, black-and-gray style, and Stanton, California’s Elle Festin works in neo-tribal motifs, “inspired by Indigenous Philippine sources,” World Atlas writes. Austin’s Nick Baxter inks in a style he calls “color surrealism.” The list goes on.
“Whether I’m helping somebody cope or celebrate, when I give somebody a tattoo, I become part of a landmark in time for them. The connection is something way beyond a needle and some ink. I can’t magically take away people’s problems and pain, but I can help them honor, heal, and rejoice.” – Kat Von D, High Voltage Tattoo
At Missoula, Nicholas Beuthien’s Union Tattoo is housed in a converted 1912 warehouse in a quasi-industrial neighborhood. His studio has thick wooden beams and pillars, brick walls and corrugated metal partitions. His paintings and charcoals rest on a bare wood floor, and his inking table stands near counters he constructed. I ask about charcoal sketches leaning against one wall. They are fine-lined and expressive portraits of women.
“I moved back to Montana from Seattle to pursue more oil painting and fine art on more of a Western style,” he says. “In tattooing, I’m a lot more into Western art: elk with mountain scenes, bears, trout. I do get asked to do a lot of the nature scenes, with animals and stuff. I’d like to do more cowboys and horses, for sure. Today, I tattooed a mountain lion skull on a girl’s thigh.”
The 38-year-old Beuthien—a fly fisherman, greenhouse gardener, pig and chicken farmer, beekeeper, machine tinkerer, and carpenter— wears a Hawaiian shirt, black shorts, a porkpie hat and sneakers. His tattoos, which pepper both arms and legs, are faded. “I’m covered in a bunch of junk,” he says. “I’ve started to laser it off. But I have the itch to get back into the chair.”
Beuthien grew up in Butte and Helena, where his motorcycle-club mother and stepdad had tattoos. “My step had a panther and a dragon. When I was 10, I watched the guy who ended up teaching me tattoo my mom. He was the classic ornery biker—he buzzed his machine at me. Years later, I thought, ‘I’d like to learn that.’”
An eighth-century Chinese text described how deep-sea Japanese divers would get tattoos of dragons and other beasts as protection from sea predators.
Out of high school, Beuthien joined the Air Force but was discharged because of visible tattoos. Quickly, he began to learn the craft. “At the time, you’d go into a street shop and it had checkered floors, girls and people everywhere. I loved the smell, the green- soap-scent heavy and clean, the artwork and tattoo designs on the walls, the buzzing of multiple machines, many conversations going and an energy that was controlled chaos.” Beuthien shrugs. “It seemed a lifestyle that was really interesting. I thought, ‘Man, these guys are cool.’”
He’d made art as a kid but never considered an art career. “Or any type of career, really.” But today, his clients vary from service- industry people to upscale professionals. “My client tomorrow is a pediatric neurosurgeon. I did a half-sleeve on him, and I’m working on his full back. It’s the medical symbol—a Caduceus—with wings across the whole upper back. On the sides we’re doing a nautical scene transitioning to a mountain one.” Despite these tats, “he looks like a neurosurgeon. He’s put together, he comes in with a Louis Vuitton bag, we have a good time and go out for drinks afterward.”
Designs like the neurosurgeon’s are expensive. For a really nice sleeve, Beuthien says you’re looking at a bill between $5,000 and $8,000. “Montana is generally $150 an hour,” he says. “I lived in Seattle for 12 years and it was $225 an hour at shops like Painless Steel, Slave to the Needle, Super Genius. Some people charge up to $350 an hour out there.” He glances aside. “I’ve tattooed well over 100 hours on people.”
On that note, cocktails are suggested and we decamp toward a watering hole off Higgins called Stave and Hoop. “It’s a kind of Prohibition style, underground bar,” Beuthien says. “You go down an alley which still smells like piss, but there are symbols spray painted on the wall, with a hand pointing down so if you know, you know.”
Motoring there we pass Blaque Owl Tattoo, a high-end “street shop” where Beuthien worked for several years, and another called Witch of the Woods. There, its founder, Lana Zellner, a spiritualist in the pagan religion Wicca, and self- described “psychedelic color maniac,” as well as an author and former architect who conducts Tarot readings for clients before she inks them, reasserted that business is thriving. “Everyone wants big tattoos,” she said.
“I’m not sure why,” Beuthien says. “Protection? Nowadays it’s a lot more fine art, in- depth pieces, where they’re wanting foreground, midground, background, lots of elements that tie together.”
I’m struck by the protective remark. And I’m reminded of what the LA tattoo artist Ed Hardy wrote about an eighth-century Chinese text, describing how deep-sea Japanese divers would get tattoos of dragons and other beasts as protection from sea predators.
Did the same hold true for pandemic folk? “Who knows?” Beuthien says as we negotiate the alley to Stave and Hoop. “It may be just that ‘I’m going to die, so why not get a tattoo?’ Or, ‘My life’s crap, I don’t have a job, but I got credit cards so the hell with it.’”
“People tell you some deep, personal things when they’re getting tortured.” – Nick Beauthien
Inside the Stave, the lounge space is dark, luxurious and filled with well-dressed, professional Missoulians. Beuthien, in his porkpie hat and Hawaiian shirt, stands out. But he greets the bartender by name and orders Hendricks gin and tonics. I speculate about how many of these bougies might be inked. “You can’t even get in with tattooers anymore,” Beuthien says. “Everybody stays months booked, the clients are throwing money at you. So, I’d say most.”
I mention Witch of the Woods’ spiritualist take on tattooing (“They do a lot of solid, dark, more simplified pieces,” Beuthien says.) and as our drinks are served we chat about inking’s pain quotient. The Blackfeet ledger artist, John Isaiah Pepion, who’s apprenticed with Shoshone-Bannock tattooer Kira Murillo and is inking traditional Native images on skin, thinks that pain is part of the attraction. “It’s addictive,” he says. “Endorphins get released in the brain. You want more. A lot of my clients love it. It’s like a spa day, but with wet lightning hitting you.” He taps his glass. “People tell you some deep, personal things when they’re getting tortured.”
Rendering tattoos is hard on the artist’s body, as both Beuthien and Hungerford attest. Needle machines are stressful to the hands and arms. Hungerford underwent carpal-tunnel surgery this fall. “I get so zoned in that it’s not good for my eyes,” she told me. “Every 20 minutes I have to look up. And since I’m hunched over, my neck is starting to curve in the back where it’s not supposed to.” Beuthien warns that the artform has a shelf life for its practitioners. “You can’t tattoo forever,” he says. “And you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen your whole life doing dishes. It can really limit your future.”
A guitarist strums folk-rock as we nosh on burgers. “You know the most satisfying thing I do?” Beuthien asks. “It’s cover-up work on the scars of breast-cancer survivors. I had a bout with melanoma, so I know a bit about cancer.” He’s quiet a second. “I have a whole art library at my house. A lot of my fine art is things I make and do so that I can work on my artistic skills to then match my needle skills. It’s like practice for the game.” He touches the brim of his hat. “At some point I’d like to transition a little further back into fine art. But tattooing still has a passion with me. The images will continue until the hand can’t.”
At home, on the pig, chicken and bee ranch, Beuthien has a partner of seven years. “But this life is hard on relationships.” He nips at the gin. “What can I say? Suspicion grows. It’s working all day on half- naked women, the bars at night.” He fingers his right forearm and its tattoo—of an apple and snake.
“Like I said. It’s the lifestyle.”
Toby Thompson has been a part-time resident of Livingston, Montana, since 1972. He has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Outside, Playboy, Men’s Journal, and The New York Times, among others. Thompson has published six books of nonfiction on topics ranging from Bob Dylan to art in the American West. He teaches nonfiction writing at Penn State University.