By Sara Matthis and Sarah Thomas
On the heels of National Tattoo Day (it’s July 17, by the way), and in the middle of a record-hot, skin-baring summer, it only seems appropriate to talk tattoos.
When it comes to getting inked, Bob Dylan was right: “Times they are a-changin’.” (The music legend also happens to be the subject of well over 5,000 tattoos, according to Google images). While the Keys have always been an outpost of the counter-culture, we too have come a long way on tat toos.
“The industry has changed immensely since I became involved in it,” said Anjy Megow, whose name is often dropped when a Key West local is asked: “Who did your tattoos?”
“When I was first offered an apprenticeship, it was still not mainstream,” she said. “I was heavily tattooed, and not many women had more than one or two. People would literally walk up and grab my arm and twist it to look. It’s not an invitation.”
Megow joined the ranks at Paradise Tattoo on Duval Street in the spring of 2008, when she first arrived in Key West from an apprenticeship (and a lifetime of drawing and painting) in Cocoa Beach. She apprenticed under Tommy Dycus and continued to work at Paradise for 11 years, recently branching off to start something new in the works, as yet unannounced.
Megow’s experience may be unusual for most of us, but it’s not unique among women who have a history of being heavily tattooed.
Rachel Bowman of Marathon said the adults in her life weren’t wild about tattoos when she turned of age. The stigma was so much that her godmother, now step-mother, Margie used to have dreams about rubbing tattoos off Rachel’s skin until a pivotal experience.
“Margie ran into a friend who said something like ‘Isn’t it a shame what Rachel has done to her body.’ And stepmother Margie was suddenly furious. She told the woman it could be much worse — Rachel could be mean, or dumb, or cruel.
“It was a turning point for her,” Bowman said.
“I think that the mindset has shifted quite a bit, even among people that it would have never shifted with,” said Megow. “I tattooed a woman on her 93rd birthday. … While I was doing it, she explained that her parents would have disowned her and her husbands didn’t like it, but she always wanted to do it.
“My grandmother about disowned me when I started getting tattooed. And now she’s very open to it,” Megow added.
The shift isn’t just anecdotal. According to the county Health Department, there are now 23 tattoo parlors in the Keys. Nationwide, it’s more like 21,000 tattoo parlors, according to tattooschool.com. It’s also estimated that between 30% and 40% of the American public has a tattoo, but about 75% of those are covered by clothing. But in the Keys, where swimsuits are more common than dress suits, and sleeves of ink see the sun commonly, tattoos have become a new norm.
Key West has historically had two tattoo shops on Duval Street, and everyone has their favorite. There’s Southernmost Tattoos, owned by local painted lady Jamie Snediker, and Paradise Tattoo, owned by longtime Keys couple Greg and Jenny Eppy. Paradise started by the old dog track on Stock Island (now home to three tattoo shops!) but relocated downtown after their demand and business grew too large for the 700-square-foot space. They’re now celebrating over 25 years in business.
Marathon only has one tattoo parlor — Doc’s Tattooz. It’s been in business since the mid-’90s and under the stewardship of owner Allen Mertsock for about a decade. Tony Napoli and Chuck Hollan are two of the artists at work. Nowadays, they say, they meet many more older people coming in for their first tattoo.
“My mom came in for her first at the age of 73,” said Napoli.
And what do they want?
“Palm trees,” he said.
“Turtles are a close second,” Hollan said.
Both artists said they encourage their clients to choose something original. Napoli said they try to take the “flash” and turn it into a custom drawing. One of the most original tattoos to come out of the shop has to be a simple line art drawing of “Fred,” the tree in the middle of the old Seven Mile Bridge.
“Yes, we did that one,” said Napoli, with pride.
Everyone, of course, has different inspirations and different reasons for their ink.
“Tattoos are armor, in my humble opinion,” said Rachel Bowman. She said growing up she had the “body of a boy and red, frizzy hair.” But Bowman saw people with tattoos who looked tough and cool.
Over time, her attitude has changed.
“Now, they’re just f@#king awesome,” she said. “I have pole spears, Star Wars, nautical things — all images that I love for different reasons. In retrospect, I am so glad that I got the tattoos — it’s a much healthier way of coping than other choices I might have made.”
Anjy Megow, who is also heavily tattooed, is going through the process of removing much of her ink. She (very politely) declined to be photographed for the piece, as she said, “At some point as an artist, you want to be recognized for your work rather than who you are. It’s better for someone not to just recognize me, but recognize my work and be like: ‘Oh did Anjy do that?’”
Walking the streets of the Keys, from seahorses to sunflowers to mermaids, tacos, turtles and schooners, one will often hear that very question.
Any advice from the tattoo-savvy artists to those of us in the Keys thinking of getting inked?
“Don’t get a sunburn.”
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