It's a painful art

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By Elizabeth Troutman

Brandon Harrison is quick to admit he failed his sophomore art class, which some would consider a black mark on the resume of an aspiring artist. But the 17-year-old grins as he confesses. He calls it a stroke of irony. Harrison said he isn’t concerned if his imaginative sketches are praised in a high school classroom. He doesn’t work with oil paints, acrylics or canvasses. He’s more interested in needles and skin. His goal is to master tattoo artistry, and he’s using his body todisplay his portfolio. “I really like art – this is just a dramatic way of doing it,” Harrison said. Harrison designed an intricate tattoo of a heart, key and a pair of doves. Displayed below his collar bone, streaks of purple and blue burst from the crimson heart, and the doves are perched alongside carrying golden banners in their talons. The tattoo covers most of his upper chest. Harrison said he has grown to become a sort of tattoo snob – he doesn’t like cliche tattoos like tribal symbols. His loathes Harley Davidson tattoos or what he considers spontaneous, thoughtless pieces, like the Playboy Bunny trademark. With consent from his dad, Harrison purchased his first tattoo when he was 16. He showed his design to a tattoo artist who agreed to recreate it on his chest. Harrison returned a week later for his first spin in the tattoo chair. The artist first dragged the needle across Harrison’s skin to see how he would react to the pain. “It feels like my bone is scraping through my skin,” he said of the needle gliding across his chest. Harrison’s first tattoo took two hours and $240 to complete. He wore a bandage over the tattoo – which felt like an extreme sun burn, he said – for the first few days. He’s added to the tattoo since then. His grandmother, Shirley Harrison, abhors it. Shirley Harrison said she thinks tattoos are a trend, and she suspects her grandson will someday regret his tattoo. She is pushing him to consider graphic art as a career instead of tattoo artistry. “What’s fashionable today could be pass tomorrow,” she said. “I’m not sure the tattoo fad is going to last.” Harrison hopes to earn an apprenticeship at a tattoo parlor after college. Apprenticeships range from six months to two years. Harrison said tattoo artists work more than a year unpaid before they can work with a needle. Harrison believes there are two kinds of tattoo artists: those who create and those who trace. But he hopes to use his creativity as a tattoo artist, while acknowledging he won’t always agree with his customers. Since he’s not trained on the needle, Harrison draws would-be tattoos on white tennis shoes and sells the shoes online. His friends have also asked him to design tattoos, he said. Scott Winskye, owner of Ink Well Tattoo in La Grange, said the best thing an aspiring tattoo artist can do is build a portfolio – or draw. He’s seen a rise in teen clients in recent years, and believes television shows like TLC’s “Miami Ink” have lured more young people to tattoos. Winskye didn’t get his first tattoo until he was 23. He isn’t surprised that teens get hooked on tattoos. “I would say it’s part of them getting independence of parents and such,” he said. “It’s freedom – that’s kind of the ultimate expression of it.” Brandon Harrison’s girlfriend, Lydia Clore, steers clear of tattoos for now. She’s been dating Harrison since November 2006, and she accompanied him when he got his first tattoo. She remembers his toes squirming as he sat in the chair. “When I turn 18, I’ll be getting tattoos,” she said. Clore, 16, isn’t sold on a certain design. But she has considered a tattoo that will reflect her love of horses. “I don’t have anything set in my mind,” she said. Clore’s father, Brann Clore, strongly opposes his daughter getting a tattoo before she’s 18. Of Clore’s four children, Lydia is the only one who has expressed an interest in tattoos, he said. Brann Clore said he thinks Harrison is the reason his daughter wants a tattoo. As long as Lydia lives under his roof, Brann, 50, said she will abide by his rules. He worries she will have trouble getting a job with a visible tattoo. “There’s some societal ramifications to having tattoos,” he said. “I want her to be old enough to understand what goes along with that.” Clore acknowledges after high school he will relinquish control of his daughter’s actions. For now, a tattoo comes with punishment for Lydia, he said. But Clore isn’t “anti-tattoo.” In fact, he got a tattoo of a leather band with feathers on his upper arm at 48. But he stands firm in his position Lydia is too young to make a permanent decision about her body. “I told her, ‘When you get to be 48, you can make that decision too,’” he said. Laura Madden, 18, said she thinks some teens get tattoos just because they want to exercise freedom. “They turn 18 and think, ‘I can smoke cigarettes, I can buy a lottery ticket or get a tattoo,’” she said. Madden has friends with tattoos and approves of any tattoo that commemorates the life of a loved one. Even though she watches TLC’s “Miami Ink,” she’s never had the impulse to get a tattoo. She said it’s easy to buy-in to the stereotype that people with tattoos are “up to no good.” “There’s no reason for it,” she said. “But the stereotype still exists.” Harrison agrees. Teens with tattoos are sometimes assumed to be the same teens involved in drugs or alcohol, he said. But Harrison said he and his friends with tattoos are “straight-laced” students. He said tattoos don’t equate with bad grades or poor lifestyle choices, but instead show a young person’s need to express themselves with visual art. Harrison added he’s never had second thoughts about the permanent tattoo over his heart. He has no problem growing old with his art. “When I am 80, I’ll think about what I didn’t do – not what I did,” he said. Playing a prank at Oldham County High School last year sent Andy Mullineaux into a rut of bad luck. He and other students broke into OCHS after hours, scattered dog food on the floors and splattered senior pictures with paint balls, among other things. The prank warranted expulsion and fines – not to mention a bad reputation, he said. Down on his luck, Mullineaux, 18, decided to get a tattoo to symbolize a turnaround in his life. He had a green four-leaf clover tattooed on his wrist. In November he added a grey tree to his opposite forearm and a pair of bars on his other wrist. The clover reminds him of his bad luck. Mullineaux also believes it keeps bad luck away. “I haven’t been in jail, I’ve got Bs – and no more parking tickets,” he said. Zach Thomas’ appearance sometimes causes confusion about his faith. He has a lip ring, a thick red beard and often wears band T-shirts. He’s planted checkered gages in his ear lobes. And most recently, he shaved his head. But if it wasn’t obvious from the tattoo of a cross on his forearm, Thomas has faith as a Christian. He refutes the idea that his appearance contradicts his beliefs. He and his father, David, got matching tattoos of a cross on their trip to Gatlinburg, Tenn., last fall. The cross is two stakes dripping with blood. Thomas said getting his tattoo was easy compared to getting his lip pierced. He thinks getting a tattoo would be more popular for young people if there wasn’t an age restriction. Zach’s mom, Brenda Thomas, said tattoos are addictive. Brenda Thomas realizes many parents oppose their children getting tattoos, but she doesn’t mind her son’s tattoos.“It’s what he wanted to do, so it’s fine with me,” she said. “It’s his body.” When someone asks to see Josey Jeffries’ tattoo, she pulls the waistline of her jeans below her belly to reveal set of black intials: M.E.L. She’s nonchalant about it. Students approach her in the hallway of OCHS to get a quick glimpse. It’s a set of initials hovering over a pink shooting star on skin below her hip bone. It’s simple and feminine, but it’s not about Jeffries. She’s dedicated the tattoo to the late Megan Lucas, her friend who died in a crash on Interstate 71 in November. “It’s my own memorial,” Jeffries, 18, said of the tattoo.E-mail us about this story at: