Thursday, March 28 2024 11:33

Beyond Skin Deep

Written by Shannon Montgomery

Tattoos are on the rise for all ages ... and genders

The Brandywine Valley is full of art. Stroll through downtown West Chester, for instance, and you’ll find vibrant murals, painted planters and charming galleries. You’ll also see a different kind of art, adorning the bodies of some passersby: tattoos.

One Gen-Z Chester County resident we spoke to has 10 tattoos. “Having tattoos makes me feel more comfortable and confident in my own skin,” he said. And it’s not just young people getting tattoos. “I have several coworkers who are women or a little older who have visible tattoos. It’s nice to see other people just be themselves instead of needing to cover up.”

Small tattoo by Casey Basher

Tattoos have officially entered the mainstream. From celebs like Miley Cyrus and Ryan Gosling to politicians like Senator John Fetterman and, of course, plenty of athletes, people are getting inked. Plus, the cultural norms are shifting, and the stigma surrounding tattoos is fading. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found eight in 10 Americans believe society has become more accepting of people with tattoos.

Wondering what the hype is about? Here’s a mini course — some history, tattoo culture and advice on getting your first tattoo, courtesy of local artists.

Ancient Origins

Black and grey realism by Drew Harris

Humans have been decorating their bodies with ink for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of ancient tattoos is Ötzi the Iceman, whose 5,300-year-old frozen body was found in the Alps. Archaeologists theorize that some of Ötzi’s 60-plus tattoos had ceremonial or religious purposes, while others were, ironically enough, intended to relieve pain.

In the millennia that followed, cultures across the globe used tattoos in vastly different ways. Ancient Egyptian women got tattoos for protection during pregnancy and childbirth. Greeks and Romans used tattoos called “stigmata” to mark prisoners and enslaved people. In Polynesia, elaborate tattoos indicated social rank, tracked genealogy and commemorated milestones. They still play an important role in Polynesian culture today. In fact, the word “tattoo” was borrowed from the Tahitian tatau following James Cook’s 1769 expedition, which popularized the art form in the west.

Tattoos Today

Fantasy tattoo by Jordan Cunningham

Tattooing is now a major industry ($2 billion globally) with no signs of slowing down. Pew reports that 32% of Americans have a tattoo, and 22% have more than one. Surprisingly, more women now have tattoos than men, including over half of women under 50. And while young adults are more likely to have tattoos, the number of older adults getting tattoos is rising.

Local tattoo artists have noticed these shifting demographics. Jordan Cunningham, co-owner of Ravensgate in Phoenixville, has been tattooing since 2018, specializing in illustrative tattoos, especially fantasy and mythology. “More women are getting tattoos now than men, which is a fascinating cultural shift. Women have been kept out of the tattoo industry for a long time, both as artists and collectors,” Cunningham said.

Casey Basher has been tattooing for about three years, primarily American traditional style, and recently started at Black Orchid Tattoo in Strasburg. “The majority of my clients are women in their twenties and thirties,” she said. “Lately, a lot of people have come to me for their very first tattoo!”

Tattoos can be inspired by classic works of art. By Mark Vincent

Mark Vincent, owner of Iconic Tattoo Co. in Downingtown, has been seeing newcomers as well. “Many people are getting their first tattoo,” he said. He’s been doing tattoos for 17 years, specializing in portraits and black and grey realism. Vincent also noticed an increasing number of older adults getting tattoos.

At Double Diamond Tattoos in West Chester, older adults are the main clientele. “The age group we get is 30 to 60,” said owner Drew Harris. “I’m seeing a few younger here and there, but definitely mostly a middle- aged demographic.” Harris has been in the industry for 20 years, opening Double Diamond (formerly Double Deez Tattoos) in 2008. These days, he does mostly black and grey realism.

Black and grey realism by Drew Harris

Why are all these people getting tattoos? The most common reason is to remember or honor someone or something. As a portrait artist, Vincent sees this frequently. “People come to me from many states away, looking for someone to do the portrait they’ve wanted for a long time,” he said. “Lost family members and lots of kids and animals, dogs mostly.”

But as tattoos become more accepted, many people are getting tattoos simply for aesthetic reasons. Almost a third of people get tattoos to improve their personal appearance. Basher agreed and added, “I think the biggest reason people come to me to get tattoos is to enhance their appearance with wearable pieces of art. A big part of tattoos is self-expression.”

Getting a Tattoo

American traditional style by Casey Basher

Thinking of getting your first tattoo? First and foremost, take it seriously — it’s a permanent decision. Good advice is to wait six months to a year before actually getting a tattoo. Display the design somewhere you’ll see frequently, like taped to your bathroom mirror. If you still love it after looking at it every day, you’re less likely to regret getting it inked later.

In the meantime, do your homework. Carefully consider the style and size of the tattoo, as well as placement. Decide how visible you want it to be. “The one thing I always warn people about is the ‘job stopper’ tattoos, like the face, hands and places that aren’t easily coverable,” said Basher.

Intricate tattoo by Jordan Cunningham

Once you know exactly what you’re looking for, decide who and where to get inked. “Researching your artist makes a big difference for your happiness with your piece,” said Cunningham. “Make sure you find someone whose style you like and in whose space you feel safe and comfortable.”

Harris agreed. “Before getting a tattoo, we encourage everyone to research the artist and studio. Every artist has their specialty, and with so many artists, especially in our area, there are plenty of options.” Most tattoo artists have online portfolios on their website or Instagram to help you get a sense of their style.

Black and grey realism by Mark Vincent

Vincent emphasized the importance of finding the right studio. “Look at studios’ reputations,” he said. “Every tattoo studio has its own vibe.” Online reviews can help narrow down your options, but talking to others about their experiences gives a fuller picture. Of course, the best way to decide is to visit the studio yourself.

When the big day comes, come prepared. “Make sure you’re well hydrated, have eaten recently and have moisturized the area you want tattooed,” said Cunningham. And take pain medicine beforehand, especially for your first tattoo. Before leaving the studio, talk about aftercare, which typically involves cleaning, moisturizing and avoiding sun exposure.


People get tattoos for many reasons, and you probably know someone who’s done it — friends, family or even yourself. Here’s hoping you have a newfound appreciation for tattoos and the dedicated artists who create them.

The Tattooed Moms Project

Janelle, Victoria and Anailyse, Tattooed Moms Project. Photo: Kevin Russo

While society is becoming more accepting of tattoos, some people — especially women — still face judgment. To combat this, local photographer Kevin Russo and artist Stacie Dale created the Tattooed Moms Project, interviewing mothers with tattoos and photographing them with their children.

“When my girls were young and played sports, there were several moms with tattoos whose children played on the same team as my girls,” said Russo. “As I watched over the weekly games and saw how these women were so supportive of their children, I started to question my own prejudice. I began speaking with them and realized that many of them were accomplished professionals and, more importantly, good mothers who cared for their children.”

Jamie and Samantha, Tattooed Moms Project. Photo: Kevin Russo

Russo hopes “to help break the stigma that so many of these women feel.” The project has been on view at several local galleries, including a recent exhibition at Neumann University. Russo and Dale are currently creating a book with all 85 photos taken for the project. More at