There isn’t a lot Marisa Kakoulas hasn’t done. She’s a lawyer. She runs Needles and Sins, a popular blog focusing on tattoos and tattoo culture. She’s a journalist who’s written for Glamour, Salon, and Bust. Most recently, she’s published a book: Black Tattoo Art: Modern Expressions of the Tribal, a monumental exploration of black art tattooing from around the world, ranging from avant-garde “art brut” to neo-primitive inkings. I interviewed Marisa about her tattoos, her life as a “painted lady,” and why she decided to dedicate herself to the art of tattoo.
The Frisky: How did you get interested in tattoos?
Marisa Kakoulas: Old circus ladies, tribal matriarchs, Joan Jett. Since I can remember, images of tattooed women in books, magazines, and on TV mesmerized me, not just for their pictures on skin, but because they looked so strong, so … badass.
But really, it all comes downs to sex. I was always a nerd who loved bad boys, and because I came into my curves early, the bad boys loved me. At around 16 or 17 years old, I was dating an 18-year-old skater who wanted a sleeve (a full arm tattoo), and he asked if I wanted to watch as he got tattooed. Back then, tattoos were still illegal in New York City: it wasn’t legalized until 1997. We went to a basement tenement in the East Village, got eyed by a scary-looking dude at the door, and then allowed passage; yet, despite the whole cloak and daggerness to it, the studio inside was nothing like the old school parlors. It had shelves of art books rather than flash designs on the walls. The artist wasn’t a gruff old biker as I had expected, but a lovely English woman who stood at an easel sketching the design she was going to tattoo on him. It hit me then that tattooing can be a real art. I’ve been hooked ever since.
The Frisky: How many do you have?
MK: I’m working on one. One really big one. But I didn’t start off big. My first three tattoos were small designs, because I didn’t think I could be heavily tattooed and still be a lawyer. But as I got older and progressed in my career, I felt comfortable getting more work. My first large piece began with my back, followed by sleeves that stop about two inches above my wrist, so I can still wear a suit jacket and gesticulate like I usually do without anyone seeing it. More recently, I got my stomach and ribs tattooed. Ouch — still hurts thinking of it!
The majority of my tattoos follow a certain style: all graphic black tattoos that reflect deigns and patterns I’ve found in my travels interwoven like a lace tapestry. While I’m no longer married to my tattooist, we’re still good friends, and he’ll tattoo my thighs next — just above my knees so I can still cover up in a business suit. The gift to myself in my old age or when independently wealthy — and don’t need to worry about “being employable” — will be to finish my legs, feet, and hands, completing my body suit. I can’t wait ’til retirement!
The Frisky: What’s it like to be a “painted lady”?
MK: The life of a painted lady is blessed and cursed.
So now, even though I’m over 36 and my curves are looser and lower, I feel the sexiest I ever have in my life. Of course, with age comes wisdom and confidence, which are a part of that, but it does help that I’m getting hit on more because the tattoos offer an easy way to approach. And, yeah, maybe some are thinking about that “Wedding Crashers” line that tattoos “might as well be a bull’s-eye” for an easy one-nighter. To this I say, “A tattooed woman may be going home with somebody tonight, but if all these guys are thinking the same way, you have way more competition, buddy.”
The greatest blessing is that my tattoos are a conversation starter, and I’ve met so many wonderful people and learned so much from them, because the pictures on my body inspired some curiosity or commentary. The greatest curse of being a painted lady is … that my tattoos are a conversation starter. Sometimes I just want to run quickly to the store for toilet paper without having to give a dissertation on the pain, cost, time, and longevity of tattoos. But most of the time, I feel blessed.
The Frisky: Why did you decide to write a book about black tattoos?
MK: Blackwork tattoos are timeless. Even though tattoos are not fashion, there are trends like the 80s barbed wire armbands, the 90s Japanese and Chinese characters, and this decade’s old school tattoos like swallows and pin-ups. Portrait tattoos are also huge now thanks to the tattoo reality TV shows. The level of artistry has risen so greatly that we’re seeing so many colorful walking works of art — and I do love all tattoo styles. But for tattoos that truly complement the shape and flow of the body, black tattoo art is best at harmonizing with a 3-D canvas.
Yet so little has been written about them, and there has never been a book in English that highlights blackwork in its many forms. So I wrote one. Black Tattoo Art: Modern Expression of the Tribal is published by Edition Reuss in English and German. It looks at the different styles that encompass blackwork: traditional tribal tattooing, NeoTribal, Dotwork, Thai/Buddhist art, and the latest avant garde tattoo style, what I call “Art Brut,” that is feverish and raw, but beautifully constructed. Dotwork and Art Brut are popular in Europe but have yet to make a real debut in the U.S. I hope this book introduces people to new forms of tattoo art. If you order the book through Last Gasp, and put in the promo code “needles,” you get free shipping.
The Frisky: Why do you think tattoos have gone mainstream in the last decade?
MK: There’s good and bad in any development. You’ll hear many tattooists talk about how the “magic has been lost,” but I’ll gladly give up some magic for stricter hygiene laws and more information, which has really transformed tattooing into a fine art. I don’t wax poetic about the old underground days. You won’t hear me telling kids to get off my lawn, but sometimes I do mutter it under my breath.
The Frisky: What are some of the worst tattoos you’ve ever seen?
MK: Tattooing is a get-what-you-pay-for biz, so the worst tattoos have often been free or cheap. And as the saying goes, “A good tattoo ain’t cheap, and a cheap tattoo ain’t good.” I don’t understand how people can spend thousands on handbags for one season or electronics that are obsolete in a year, but won’t invest in art that will be on their bodies forever. Then there are the joke tattoos, like the finger mustache or hipster ironic ink. Imagine hearing the same punch line every day. That’s an ironic tattoo.
And, of course, I cannot fathom why people will get monstrous portraits of Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, and Patrick Swayze as a Chippendales centaur. If you’re gonna devote your body to someone, make it someone like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, or even Margaret Cho.
The Frisky: What’s your advice for women who are thinking about getting a tattoo — or having one removed?
My advice is not to get one if you have any doubts. Tattoos last longer than a marriage. Tattoos last longer than death — by at least a few weeks. So unless you are certain that you want a particular work of
art on your body for the rest of your life, go with temporary options like henna or transfers like the cool ones Temptu cosmetics has.
If you feel certain that you want a tattoo, research your artists. If you’re looking for a particular style of tattoo, like Japanese floral work, then go seek out someone who specializes in that style or an all-around artist with a great portfolio and experience. You may also fall in love with a tattooist’s work but are not exactly sure of the design; maybe you just have a general idea. It’s fine to go to a trusted artist and let him or her create something special for you, as long as you give them some parameters to work with.
Don’t be shy with your tattoo artist. Tell them what you like and don’t like. Discuss placement and size. In the end, tattooing is about taking a leap of faith, but you want to make sure it’s a small jump. Because if it doesn’t come out the way you want, you’ll plummet into the abyss that is laser removal. That brimstone smell? Yeah, that’s your skin being burnt off because you made a bad decision. Believe me, I know. I’m on my fourth laser removal session on one of my first tattoos, and it hurts more than any I’ve ever gotten, even with numbing cream.
Avoid it by doing your homework on artists, research designs in books and online, and, of course, read tattoo blogs like NeedlesandSins.com. Was that too shameless? Painted ladies can be brazen.