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Updated: July 17, 2013 6:05AM



Anthony Adams was an 18-year-old airman stationed in Biloxi, Miss., who wanted to feel closer to his baby daughter.

After a long illness, Susan Fireside wanted to do something to celebrate getting better.

Corey Murry admired those of his fellow students at Liberty Temple Full Gospel Academy on 79th Place.

Mark Anthony Lord, founder of the Bodhi Spiritual Center on North Magnolia, was nervous but just “felt it coming.”

Tattoos. A recent Harris poll found that the number of Americans reporting at least one tattoo has increased 50 percent in the past decade — from 14 percent of adults in 2003 to 21 percent in 2012.

And parents scolding their children about how much they’re going to regret getting a tattoo are just wrong — the overwhelming majority of people with tattoos say they are glad they got them and often get more.

If nearly a quarter of adults tell pollsters they sport at least one tattoo, the true figure might be higher.

“That sounds low,” said Joe Scapini, whose father, Fat Joe, founded Chicago’s oldest parlor in 1980, Jade Dragon Tattoo Studio on Belmont Avenue.

Perhaps he’s thinking of people his own age — 30. The tattoo rate of 30-somethings is nearly double that for all adults — 38 percent, seven times the figure in the 1980s.

Back then, “it was pretty much nothing but gangbangers and bikers and sailors and lots of criminals getting tattooed,” said Ryan Cockerham, a tattoo artist at Jade Dragon. “Now we get soccer moms from the suburbs.”

Trendy though it is, nothing about tattooing is new. Instead, it is among the oldest human practices — the 5,200-year-old “Iceman” mummy found in the Austrian Alps has tattoos (of dots and small crosses, applied for what scientists speculate were shamanistic medicinal purposes).

Tattooing is also among the most widespread of human activities, common among Native-American chiefs, Japanese samurai, ancient Egyptian dancers, African warriors and Pacific islanders (“tattoo” comes from a Polynesian word). Sailors picked up the habit from tribesmen and spread their exotic insignia, a link that lasted for centuries.

“Sailors,” Mike Royko wrote in the Chicago Daily News in 1960, “even in an atomic-powered navy, are still the tattoo parlor’s best friend.” Visiting a parlor at 500 S. State, Royko found the most popular designs were hearts, anchors, girls’ names and the word “Mother.”

No more. Nowadays, designs can be anything. Airline attendant Mandy Callas stopped by Speakeasy Custom Tattoo on North Avenue recently to have a KitchenAid Mixer tattooed on her back. “They’re pretty,” she explained. Tattoos artists find more whimsy and variety — almost any image the mind can conceive is being tattooed.

“Absolutely,” said Sean Adams, an artist at Speakeasy. “A lot of people are coming in for bigger pieces. It’s really interesting seeing the range of things people want to get.”

Such as?

“I had a guy who I did a sleeve on a while back, using the Japanese traditional sleeve as a template, only I replaced the Japanese elements with those more personal. He was from Minnesota, so rather than cranes and cherry blossoms, he had bears, a loon, pine cones. I had never tattooed a loon before.”

Scapini reports 60 percent of Jade Dragon business is walk-ins, usually on weekend nights. (Customers who are too drunk are turned away, but something 91-year-old London tattooist Professor William Stokes said in 1958 still holds true: “Drink is the great provoker of tattooing.”)

Some parlors avoid the impulse “flash” tattoo market. You can’t walk into Speakeasy at midnight because it closes at 8 p.m. “Not to slag them, but I don’t want to do it at 2 o’clock in the morning,” said owner Patrick Cornolo.

In fact, you can’t walk in at all — an appointment is necessary, and expect to wait, up to a year for a hot artist like Cornolo, who charges $200 an hour, which means that the steam punk Batman he put on the back of Kellogg School of Management MBA student Griffin Tato, 31, cost about $1,000.

Why the surge of popularity now? Sociologists argue that while Americans are tending to drift away from established rituals, such as those found in organized religion, they still yearn for significance, and need to mark passages in their lives.

“I’ve been rollerblading for 15 years, it’s always been my passion” said Gabriel Talamantes, 23, explaining the word “Blade” tattooed on his chest. “I wanted it to be on me, to mark that part in my life.”

As more people sport tattoos, tattoos are more accepted. In 1999, when Mattel introduced “Butterfly Art” Barbie with a tattoo on the doll’s stomach, protests forced the company to withdraw the doll. But 10 years later the “Totally Stylin’ Tattoos Barbie” with 40 peelable tattoos, including “Ken” written in a red heart, is sold without a murmur — you can buy it for $17.99 on Amazon.

In the 1990s, tattoos were a large part of the general freakishness of Bulls player Dennis Rodman. Now an estimated 70 percent of players on some NBA teams have tattoos, often over much of their bodies. Nor is the NBA alone as a profession welcoming tattoos.

“I’m 44, I’m a graphic designer, I own a design studio,” said Susan Fireside. “Tattoos are super common in design. All designers have ’em.”

Of course having a tattoo and showing it off are two different things — a 2010 Pew study found that the tattoos of most adults are not typically visible when clothed. Having a full sleeve tattoo or tattoos on your neck or hands is still considered extreme. The U.S. Marine Corps, for instance, while permitting most tattoos provided they are not “extremist, indecent, sexist or racist,” issued a directive in 2010 that no one with a full sleeve tattoo could become an officer.

Of course that might change. It would be hard to find a social trend that doesn’t encourage tattoos, from A-list tattooed celebs like Angelina Jolie, to real-life TV shows like “LA Ink” and “Inkmaster.”

Not that such shows are necessarily welcomed by tattoo artists.

“People see the TV shows and it looks easy,” said Scapini, explaining they order equipment on eBay and go to work on their friends.

“It’s easy to mess up your friends really bad or give them diseases,” he said.

Corey Murry admired the way classmates had written their names on their forearms in Chinese-style lettering. “Just peer pressure,” he said. “I wanted that same tattoo.”

And one tattoo leads to others.

“It starts with one. I’ve gotten three more since then,” said Murry, an independent music promoter, who plans on “getting maybe 10 more.”

Mark Anthony Lord also added more tattoos — of his dog and “soulmate” Brick.

“Tattoos really are art now,” said Lord, who is planning to embellish his “God is ...” tattoo and expand his homage to Brick. “I’m more bold, going to get more color, for me a reminder that what’s real for me,” he said. “This world is not the real deal, spirt is the real deal, to keep that before me I wanted that tattooed on my arm, to look down and get anchored.”

After Fireside got a symbol for long, happy life, the doors were open.

“That was the gateway tattoo,” she said. “Once you get one, you go through the pain, you think you’ll never do this again. By the time you’re walking out the door you’re thinking of your second one.”

Most people never regret their tattoos — 83 percent told one pollster they had no regrets. Laurie Alfaro, 39, is glad she has three, though might have rethought the Egyptian cat she got on her, umm, extreme lower back. “You don’t realize when you’re 18, the skin is going to stretch ... it’s kind of looking doglike now.”

“The next thing I know I’m practically covered,” said Anthony Adams, who has 15 to 20, and is “working on finishing a full sleeve.” His tattoos are mainly of Chicago — a city flag, a Chicago hot dog, Illinois Masonic Hospital. “It seems the more I leave the city, the more I miss it. I try to get a reminder of home.”

Adams, 32 and a tech sergeant, compared public acceptance of tattoos to “pretty much any social stigma in this country. It’s a culture change. The more education, the more acceptable, the less stigma. I’m pretty much a believer in each his own. If you’re not comfortable, don’t do it.

“I know firefighters, police officers, who are completely covered,” he said. “Once they put the uniform on, they’re there to do public service. You have to look past the tattoos and see the person.”



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