What’s in a tattoo? Locals describe shift towards art, acceptance

Elodie Reed

By Elodie Reed

Staff Writer

Just
The Facts

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ST. ALBANS — When 24-year-old Samantha Pebley first opened the door to her Swanton home Monday, the most noticeable thing was the hairless, Sphynx cat winding its way around her legs.

The second was the tattoo of the cat – Mufasa – sitting in the arms of a goddess-like woman on Pebley’s arm. Its one of 11 tattoos Pebley has on her body, and that number will most likely grow in the future.

“I definitely want more,” said Pebley. “They’re a neat form of expression and I just think they’re pretty awesome.”

Pebley’s not alone. At True Tattoo parlor on Kingman Street, tattoo artist Brenna Keefe said business is booming. She does an average of 12 tattoos per week and is never short on work.

“I only have a handful of appointments left for this year,” she said. “It’s not slowing down.”

Pebley and Keefe said that in general, tattoos are changing in form and function. They’re becoming more artistic, more creative. And despite some workplace policies that require body art to be covered, enthusiasm for – and acceptance of – tattoos is spreading.

“It’s definitely become something any type of person does,” said Keefe.

Appreciating art

Growing up in Williston, Pebley didn’t think much about getting a tattoo. “No one in my direct family had them,” she said. Then her two older sisters began getting them.

“It kind of turned into, ‘I want one,’” said Pebley. She was 17 when she received her tattoo. “Now my sisters and I are all covered,” she said.

Of the 11 tattoos Pebley currently has, the one of Mufasa on her harm, another of a bird on her shoulder, two words “I am” on her wrist, and a feather on her foot are all visible on first sight.

“They’re all art,” she said. “I like to let the artist be passionate about what they’re doing. They put their spin on it.”

Keefe said that tattoos have changed in that respect. “It’s come a long way artistically,” she said. “They used to look a certain way and it wasn’t that great. You can make them look like art now.”

As she spoke, Keefe was looking at a photo of an owl’s face, which she was then drawing – with a needle – on the arm of St. Albans 18-year-old Quinn Lumsden.

As the humming needle moved around his shoulder, Lumsden explained he was getting a tattoo that combined many things – mountains, snowboarding, deer antlers, maple leaves and snowflakes.

“We’ve just been figuring out this design as we go and coming up with cool ideas just to make it look awesome,” said Lumsden. “It’s got a Vermont theme – an outdoorsy theme – I love it here.”

When asked if it hurt, Lumsden said it stung, but was bearable. Pebley said that when she gets tattoos, it begins to hurt towards the end of the session, but is usually worth it.

“You never get used to it, but… it’s temporary,” said Pebley of the pain. “I’m like, ‘I’m going to have this beautiful thing forever.’”

The pain isn’t too bad, and the experiences with the artists Pebley has chosen – she often goes to Nora Townsend of Magnetic North in Burlington – have been good. For that reason, Pebley plans on getting more tattoos – though, she said, she and her husband, Cliff, did just buy a house and will need to let their bank account recover. Tattoos can cost as little as $50 and as much as $600 or more.

“Financially, you have to take a break sometimes,” she said.

At work

While they may be art, tattoos aren’t always freely displayed. Policies vary in the workplace – some require tattoos to be covered. At Northwestern Medical Center, for example, the “Dress & Personal Appearance Policy” has this section:

“Tattoos of an offensive nature must be covered. All other tattoos must be covered if possible. Offensive is defined as anything related to violence or gang activity, sexual content, and inappropriate language. If complaints are made about an individual’s tattoo, a manager or supervisor may require that the employee cover the tattoo.”

Most other workplaces – such as the Messenger – have no policies at all.

Pebley has experience a range of these policies. She is a member of the military, and before that, she worked in a doctor’s office and a natural foods store. At the doctor’s office, Pebley said she was conscientious of what she wore and which tattoos showed – she would cover up her “I am” wrist tattoo with a watch, for example.

At the natural foods store, it didn’t matter one bit. “There it was pretty much, the more tattoos, the better,” said Pebley, laughing.

As a member of the Vermont Army National Guard, Pebley is required to have all her tattoos covered by her uniform – otherwise, no tattoos from the neck up or on her hands. She also is not allowed to have any offensive or gang-related tattoos, coverable or not. Inappropriate tattoos have to be removed.

“They’re not going to look the other way,” said Pebley.

The U.S. Army regulations were recently updated – on July 1, 2015 – in regard to this policy. Pebley said they are slightly less stringent now – before, only a limited number of tattoos were allowed below the elbows and knees.

“Because of the way they want soldiers and military personnel to be perceived, they have to have some sort of regulations,” said Pebley. “A lot of military people have tattoos.”

She added, “You are basically government property. They can basically tell you what you can and can’t do with your body.”

For Pebley, it’s not really an issue – all her tattoos are covered when she’s in uniform.

It doesn’t appear to be an issue for many other people, either. In response to a Messenger Facebook post requesting people’s experiences with tattoos in the workplace, most people responded that they were free to show their body art.

Mariah Yates-Murphy wrote: “Our workplace embraces diversity! Just how it should be! Love NCSS!”

There are some situations, however, where tattoos and body art are technically allowed to be visible, but not necessarily approved of. Darci Benoit, a Swanton resident who works as a legal assistant at a Burlington law firm, said while she feels free to show her tattoo of flowers and vines that goes from ankle to knee, she does hear negative comments.

“I have never been told that I could not show it, however there is always ignorant remarks about “tattooed people” being criminals and other similar remarks,” Benoit wrote in an e-mail. “I tend to ignore it and show them off anyway. Because frankly I am not out to impress them with my ink, just my work.”

Towards acceptance

Despite the stereotypes that linger in connection with tattoos, those who have them say it’s always getting better.

“In general, just hanging around now that it’s summer, I’m wearing tank tops, and (there are a) number of people that stop to talk to me and comment on them in a good way,” said Pebley. “I think people are generally more accepting.”

That may be because there’s more diversity in who’s getting inked. Keefe said her clientele at True Tattoo is as varied as it could be. “I have people from the ages of 16 to – you know – in their 80s,” she said. “Moms, dads, grandparents –pretty much everybody, really.”

Keefe added, “Everything is kind of being more accepted, not just body art. Everything that was different use to be feared, and that’s changing, which is good.”

And in the end, people’s bodies are their own.

“There are still certain family members or people you see who kind of have this look on their face – they don’t like them or don’t understand them,” said Pebley. “I understand.”

She added, “But at the same time, it’s my body. You don’t have to like them.”