Part 1 of 2
Tattoos often hold deep meaning for a person, though regret can lead to removals or cover-ups.
Jodi Maeser gives a small flick of the foot as Mike “Cowboy” Cowling settles in and reaches for his tattoo pen.
“Get comfortable,” he tells her. “You ready? Not too bad? Where we are going now is super sensitive. A little wiggle room there.”
Maeser isn’t new to tattoos. This one is to remember an uncle who passed away last year. It’s the first one she’s been able to get close to home, at the recently opened South West Tattoo in Green Valley.
Cowling chuckles over the buzz of the needle in skin.
“Women are tougher than the guys. They are.”
Maeser laughs, too.
“I had two babies. I’m making it Mike. Don’t you worry.”
South West Tattoo opened in October and is bringing a taste of the growing tattoo industry and culture into Green Valley and Sahuarita. Gone are the days tattoos were considered taboo, often associated with Navy sailors and a rough crowd.
“Now it’s gone into your house, moms getting tattoos now, your doctors, therapists,” says Cowling, who’s been tattooing more than 10 years. “Everybody is getting tattoos now so it’s really changed the whole dynamic of the situation.”
The industry has grown and adapted to increased demand and interest in quality body art, with advances in technology progressing faster than ever before.
The tattoo industry has grown on average 9.2% annually from 2016 to now. Market researcher IBISWorld also found nearly half of all Americans have at least one tattoo.
For artists, tattooing is a work of passion, often taught through apprenticeships or a trial-and-error process of teaching themselves. The profession requires artistic skill, patience, physical stamina, focus, strong principles and a commitment to safety.
And, for the shops and artists, reputation is everything.
When Candy Moulis moved to the area six years ago, it was her dream to open a tattoo shop with her son, a tattoo artist in Scottsdale, and daughter, an apprentice in Tucson.
“I knew we would have people who would want this,” she said of the shop on Calle de las Tiendas. “The thing about this space is that we can accommodate the families, the kids over 18 getting their own tattoos, but also a lot older tattoos. If you have a piece you got while you were in the Army or you got when you were first married 40 years ago, you can get it covered up.”
When she landed the location for South West Tattoo, she knew she wanted talented artists.
“I just wanted it to be the best to come out of here,” she said. “They are amazing artists and I can send anyone over here and I know they are going to leave with some good work.”
She said reputation is everything in the industry, and it’s through good work and word of mouth that shops thrive.
Moulis chose her team based on portfolios and experience — many of her artists have been at it more than a decade.
Becoming a tattoo artist often starts with a skill for drawing and finding enough friends and family to donate skin to practice. The traditional path typically involves apprenticing or mentoring with an established artist.
Jesus “ChoppinChu” Arvayou had his first apprenticeship at 27 at a shop in Tucson. He mentored under an artist for two years.
“From there I got over my phobias, understanding the ABCs of tattooing, general setups and stuff like that,” he said. “After that, a lot of trial and error learning from my experiences.”
He worked at another shop for six or seven years before coming to South West Tattoo.
“It really helped me progress my skill and tighten up my work, and working with other artists helps me grow,” he said. “As they say, you are the best artist at your house, so if you can elevate to a higher level it’s nice.”
Cowling first got his hands on tattoo equipment as a teenager thanks to friends.
“They bring it to me and we stayed up all night tattooing and I kept doing it and doing it until I got better and I decided to take it seriously when I was 17 or 18,” he said. “I got a little apprenticeship with some biker guys, because it used to be all biker guys in shops where I was at. Got in with them guys, been doing it ever since.”
Don Kerby had a similar introduction, inking a friend at age 17 one night. For him, tattooing became a hobby that transformed into freelance work from home until he took the job at South West.
“At first, starting out it’s really nerve racking,” he said. “I never did no apprenticeship, never had no mentor, I just dove head-first into it... Trial and error.”
“It’s a lot less nerve-wracking, it’s almost natural now. It’s a muscle memory thing. There’s times I swear I know it’s going to take like 10 hours and I feel like I just kind of wake up at the end of it. You have to have that focus on the needle going into skin.”
Alex Molina said starting off is “hectic” and involved him teaching himself until an artist took him on for an informal apprenticeship in Tucson.
“You don’t have any actual education for this so it’s kind of hard, it was literally researching online, trial and error, and I started with myself,” he said.
Thanks to mom
The process isn’t much different in Nogales, Sonora, where Edgar Kropf runs his tattoo shop, called Sorry Mom.
“I was studying to be a chef, for food, in Guadalajara and one of my friends, he was a tattoo artist, and some day I asked him if he can show me how to do tattoos,” he said. “I was always drawing when I was a kid. My mom always say, ‘Mijo, you are an artist.’ I guess she was right, huh? And then I made the first tattoo for a friend and I did three or four tattoos in that year.”
Kropf practiced on friends; when he figured out working food service in Nogales wasn’t profitable, he opened his own shop. He had takers on the first day.
“Since that day, I haven’t stopped. It’s my big blessing. I just started with just me and now there are six people, and in July next year, I’m going to have four years with the business.”
Not many rules
There are just two requirements for tattoo shops in Arizona: Use sterilized needles and get parental consent for minors. There are no required certifications and no formal shop inspections.
Pima County has no regulatory oversight of tattoo shops. In Arizona, only Coconino County regulates shops.
While shops don’t have to follow formal regulations, many self-regulate to protect clients and their reputations.
Arvayou said they follow a strict process for sanitizing equipment and preparing clients; they always wear gloves and use a cleaning agent that kills blood-borne pathogens.
But there’s more to it than fresh needles and cleaning. Tattoo artists have to understand how to navigate various skin types, how deep they can go with the needle and occasionally when to say no.
“You have to have morals,” Moulis said. “They (artists) are not going to put themselves in any situations where it’s going to go badly.”
Cowling said with tattoos or piercings, a service he will bring to South West Tattoo soon, there are certain things he just won’t do.
“They come in and want a tattoo on their face or something and I’ll ask, ‘How old are you?’ Oh, I’m 20. No, bro, come back when you’re 40,” he said. “You know it’s going to ruin his life in some way.”
For minors, even with parental consent, he will only pierce the ears and nose.
Arvayou said they talk to clients about possible job impediments of some tattoos, like those on the face and hands.
“There are some job-stoppers, and that’s something we also have to speak to our clients about, too,” he said. “We can’t tattoo certain areas or we don’t feel comfortable doing it.”
Sonora, Mexico, has more regulations than Arizona. Kropf said the government requires annual inspections and permits. Doctors verify the health standards at a shop.
He said everything gets wrapped and cleaned between clients and the only item they reuse are the machines themselves.
“Responsible, we are always responsible,” he said. “We have a lot of rules.”
The shop closed for three months during the pandemic and the government placed regulations on practices when they reopened, such as capacity.
“We had regulations but we never stopped the work,” he said. “My sales were more in the pandemic than normally. The pandemic for me in my business was good.”
Changes and gear
Tattooing has come a long way.
South West Tattoo has a display of the evolution of tattoo guns on the wall and Molina said it’s only progressing faster now. He said tattoo guns used to take 20 to 40 years to advance, and now it’s about five.
Cowling said tattoo guns went from being coil-and-spring based to a rotary motor; now they use pen-style machines: “smaller, stronger, lighter,” he said.
Thomas Edison is credited with creating the first tattoo machine in 1876, though it was only used to duplicate documents. In 1929, a new design that closely resembles the modern tattoo machine was invented.
Inks have evolved, too.
Kerby is known for his UV lighting ink work, like bolts around the Mortal Kombat symbol on the arm of Raiden Lopez, who came from Tucson just to work with Kerby again. The details in the UV ink only show under a black light.
There’s yellows that last longer and inks that appear more vibrant. Over time, the ingredients in inks also improved and there are now even vegan options.
“Smart tattoos,” or tattoos featuring digital components, have also started to develop. A company called Skin Motion creates audio file stencils. People who get these can use an app to play an audio file much like a QR code when they scan their tattoo.
There’s other advancements, too, like a lidocaine spray to help numb pain. And special printers make it faster than ever to create a stencil.
The industry takes itself more seriously, too. Cowling said when he started, becoming a tattoo artist was not a full-time career option.
“Tattooing used to just be a side job and now there’s guys making $100,000 a year easy off it,” he said. “That’s just a good feeling because when I first started this I always had it in my head that I’ll never be well-off or never have benefits or a 401k. It’s definitely changed.”
According to IBISWorld, the number of employed tattoo artists has grown by about 5.7% each year since 2016. There’s an estimated 38,774 in the U.S. this year, compared to 21,744 in 2011 — a 78% increase.
According to Zippia, a career research company, the average salary in 2021 was $61,000 for tattoo artists, though that number can vary greatly.
Kropf said he wants to create history in Nogales. He put together a tattoo expo in the city earlier this year and wants to branch out to be a supplier and teacher. He said his shop draws clients from the U.S. every day, and about seven in 10 are women.
“I think the mind of people is changing and with the women, it’s making tattoos more open and acceptable.”
Kropf said when he started his shop, he had $100, a 4-by-4-foot space, one machine and five inks.
“Since that first day it’s always a blessing for me, a blessing for us,” he said. “It’s about happiness. The money and success comes along, but I’m looking for happiness and that makes me rich. It’s good to get a place and make a lot of families happy.”
The team of South West Tattoo are hoping to be a success in Green Valley and Sahuarita and show the community what the evolving industry is really like. Just like many of the clients who come in for matching tattoos, it’s a family feel.
“We are a good team together and we all want the same thing and get along really well; our personalities are a good match,” Moulis said. “It really feels like a family thing.”
That extends to their clients, who often share their lives during the work.
Sometimes a tattoo ends in tears and a hug; sometimes a cover-up — fixing a tattoo no longer wanted — gives insight into a person’s life story, and sometimes there’s just satisfaction in making someone feel good about themselves.
“You get to change somebody’s body permanently and sometimes they just love how they look,” Molina said. “I love making that change in people and seeing them grow secure in themselves.”
For Arvayou, it’s an experience unlike any other.
“It’s beautiful all the time,” he said. “They get to talk to us and hear from us, almost like a bartender to someone at the bar.”