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Tattoo Stories

From peacocks to portraits, “boobies” to 3-D nipples, no regrets at Seattle’s Tattoo Expo.

September 15, 2016

On a sunny day in the shadow of the Space Needle, Andrea Wilson is focused on a different needle. She’s inside a dark exhibition hall lying belly down on a table ― her face flitting back and forth between a smile and a grimace of pain. Wilson is wearing only black bikini bottoms but she does not look underdressed. A colorful peacock swirls from below her knees up to her shoulders, where it’s growing, feather by hard-won feather.

Infographic by Mark Pedini.

“I would describe [the feeling] as someone holding a lighter to your skin,” the young woman says as a tattoo gun buzzes over her shoulder blade. So why is she smiling? “I try to do mind over matter,” she explains. “The result is so beautiful.”

Wilson is one of thousands of people who are spending part of a late summer weekend celebrating inked skin at the annual Seattle Tattoo Expo. We’re here to get an answer to this question:

What do people choose to have permanently drawn onto their bodies and why?

Turns out, the answer is often more than skin-deep. That is especially true of the tattoos created by Madame Lazonga, a veteran Seattle artist who has been doing this for 45 years. One of her specializations is reconstructive tattooing, creating 3-D nipples or beautiful designs to transform women’s mastectomy scars.

Andrea Wilson getting the latest work done on her peacock series, now three years in the making.

“Tattooing gives women something to show for the surgeries, the mental, emotional stuff that they’ve been through,” Lazonga says, flipping through photos of clients showing off realistic nipple tattoos or dreamy patterns. “I had one lady tell me it helped to fill a void.”

For Britt Lawson, family is what’s important to feature in her tattoos. She has a portrait of her mom as a young girl on her calf and an intriguing black-and-white 1950s ranch house emblazoned across her collar bone.

Grandmother’s house, a favorite childhood place, adorns Britt Lawson’s chest.

“It’s my grandmother’s house,” Lawson explains, pulling back her hair so we can see the whole house. “It was a kind of coveted place for me to dream and be myself.”

Zach Schaap wears his heart on his sleeve ― an epic tattoo runs the length of his arm that features sheep and tulips and lions representing his family’s Dutch heritage as well as different facets of his personality. Schaap is an art director at an ad agency. “I think in our employee handbook it says we are not allowed to have tattoos, but we would have to fire half of our staff!”

Though they have chosen very different tattoo themes, what Schaap, Lawson and Wilson have in common is that they are young adults ― the sweet spot of the tattoo demography. According to the latest Harris Poll, nearly half of millennials and over a third of Gen-Xers say they have at least one tattoo. And those numbers have been growing every year.

“Tattooing is just a personal ornamentation choice,” says University of Washington student Colin Davis. “It is no different than getting your ears pierced.”

Tattooing gives women something to show for the surgeries, the mental, emotional stuff that they’ve been through.

Apparently, gone are the days when tattoos were just for sailors and bikers. Lyle Tuttle remembers those days fondly. But how could he forget?  

“I just happened to have brought them with me,” Tuttle jokes, rolling up his long sleeves to reveal a tatted kaleidoscope of mermaids, old girlfriends, kangaroos and penguins ― souvenirs of a life well lived. The 84-year-old Tuttle, a legend in tattoo circles, is a special guest at the Expo. Known as “The Father of Modern Tattooing,” he started inking tattoos in the 1940s, back when anyone who had one was considered a rebel, maybe a little bit dangerous and possibly low-class. Tuttle, a tattoo historian as well as artist, loves to talk about when all that changed.

Lyle Tuttle shares the stories behind his ink.

“In the 1960s, over half of the human race was opened up to my service. And that was with women’s liberation.” A fact that proved liberating for Tuttle, as well. “I love ladies so we got along like two peas in a pod,” Tuttle says with a wink. “The bikini line, the bra line, cha, cha, cha! And that enamored the press, so it was like the stairway to heaven!”

Tuttle landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, tracing a graceful design onto a woman’s buttock. He also tattooed singer Janis Joplin in two places on her body.

“See, the one on my wrist is for everybody,” Joplin said, showing off Tuttle’s work in 1970. “The one on my (chest) is for me and my friends. Just a little treat for the boys, like icing on the cake.”

Tuttle also achieved a modicum of fame as a model. Renowned photographer Imogen Cunningham photographed Tuttle naked, tattooed solidly from his ankles to his neck

Caption: Lyle Tuttle’s artistry began over 50 years ago, when tattoos were most common among sailors and the seafaring. Courtesy

Given his personal history, it comes as something of a surprise that this illustrated man does not think the current spike in the popularity of tattoos is necessarily a good thing.

“It’s a trend and it’s a fashion. But trends and fashions only last so long,” Tuttle says, predicting that many young people will regret getting their tattoos and pay big bucks to get them removed.

But we didn’t hear any murmurs of regret (and we saw some doozies). Even the young man who, years ago,  inked his own skin with a rudimentary cross in the back of his ninth grade math class; or consider the gentleman who nearly won the “bad tattoo” contest at the Expo because he had carved the word “boobies” into his own leg in a bar. These guys told us they cherished their self-inflicted tats because they tell a story from their youth ― even if it is a cautionary tale.

“This tattoo is a visceral reminder, ‘Hey, you might want to think that through,’” Rex Poortvliet says, pointing to the cross on his ankle. “It’s the lamest tattoo I have, but it’s the most special to me.”

Top image credit: Alex Hockett. 


Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

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I enjoyed the story about the tattoo expo and related characters. I, too, wonder if people take the tattoo process too lightly. After all, when the skin sags, and it eventually does, those images may be a source of regret. Just in case, I'm thinking of having a six-pack tattooed high up on my torso so that when it sinks, it will right in place for my old age. Thanks for the local story-keep up the good work.