“Until I hurt my hands”

When customers call Boulder’s Tribal Rites Tattoo and Piercing between Tuesday and Saturday inquiring about a tattoo, they are handed off to Amanda Sharpless, one of the tattoo artists. Amanda is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she started her professional career as a tattoo artist six years ago. She has been passionate about art for her entire life; as a child, her parents would find her awake in the middle of the night drawing quietly in her room.

Tribal Rites, located on College Ave, has an unusually friendly and open atmosphere for a tattoo shop, one of the many reasons Amanda and other artists choose to work there. After first talking to the customer about the desired tattoo, Amanda patiently starts to sketch, spellcheck, and make stencils of the design. She takes pride in the fact that she has yet to make a spelling mistake on a tattoo, and has no intention to ruin her streak. She focused her studies on art from an early age, when she chose to attend Cheyenne Mountain High School for their unique AP art program although it was out of her district. She went on to attend college at both Fort Lewis and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, graduating with a major in fine arts.

In the beginning of the tattoo process Amanda snaps on her purple gloves, shaves and cleans the area, and applies the stencil. When Amanda first graduated from college she worked as a waitress, but in 2005 a close friend started a roller derby league in Colorado Springs and it caught her attention. She quickly got deeply involved with the sport, and soon noticed that the words “tattoo” and “roller derby” go hand in hand. Unfortunately, the path to being a tattoo artist wasn’t easy. The field is male-dominated, and Amanda faced a significant amount of sexual harassment in her first apprenticeship experiences. Fortunately one of the other Derby Dames introduced her to Steve Bauer, the owner of a respectable local tattoo shop, where she began her final apprenticeship.

Once the stencil is applied to the skin, Amanda asks the customer to make sure that they are completely happy with the placement of their tattoo, repeatedly assuring them that she won’t be mad if they’re picky or want the stencil to be moved. Amanda spent a year and a half at her last apprenticeship before becoming a licensed tattoo artist. During a tattoo apprenticeship, the apprentice generally works around the shop in exchange for learning the knowledge of an artist. The novice answers phones and cleans up, meanwhile learning how to make needles and repeatedly tracing over sheets of stereotypical “flash” tattoo designs in order to gain confidence in the style and keeping a steady hand.

After the customer finishes adjusting the tattoo placement Amanda changes her gloves again, and gets all of her instruments together in order to start tattooing. Although there are quieter rotary tattoo machines, she prefers the coil machine, a slightly older model that she learned on and is more comfortable with. Artists at Tribal Rites are responsible for supplying their own inks, machines, needles and miscellaneous supplies, while the shop specifically keeps gloves, soap, and other cleaners in stock. For Amanda, tattooing is a full-time job and her only source of income. She is technically “self-employed,” and pays the shop a percentage of each tattoo she gives, which on some days can be 10 to 12 tattoos, while on other days there are none.

“I’m just going to start with a small line,” says Amanda, in order to prepare the customer for the feeling of a tattoo. How each person handles tattoos is different, and the best way to deal with that is to ease them into it. Amanda’s favorite part of being a tattoo artist is the freedom; it’s easy to take time off in order to travel with her roller derby team, and it’s a very low-stress, enjoyable job. Adversely, the hours that tattoo artists work are generally “lazy people hours,” as Amanda put it, because customers generally don’t want tattoos at 9am. Most days she works from noon until 8 or 9pm.

Working her way through the tattoo, Amanda continues to explain where she is on the piece, and gives a warning if it’s a specifically painful area. Some of the challenges she faces in the tattoo profession include people not understanding tattoo limitations, and people who are impatient with artwork. Although it seems like some artists have no discretion on whom or what they tattoo, Amanda holds higher standards.

“I would never tattoo a swastika, although I have yet to be asked. On the other hand, I once spoke to a male caller who wanted to get an elephant tattooed around his genitals – so that his ‘junk’ would be the trunk – and I told him no, he could go somewhere else.” The combination of roller derby and tattooing have given Amanda the ability to put her foot down and handle tough situations. She also declines to tattoo children under 18, with few exceptions for memorial pieces.

After the finishing touches, she makes sure that the customer is pleased with the finished work, and informs them of all of the appropriate after-care in order to help it heal properly. She also makes sure they know that if they’re dissatisfied with anything touchups are free. For Amanda, the hardest part about being a tattoo artist is self-motivation. Although she’s doing what she loves, the slow days can take a toll on anyone’s enthusiasm. Her final advice on getting started in the tattoo industry or any art field is first to get to know local experts, and to always keep practicing. When she doesn’t have an appointment to be preparing for, Amanda is always drawing and painting in order to improve her skills; even though she’s been an artist for her entire life, she knows there’s always room to grow.

“I’ll be tattooing until I hurt my hands,” said Amanda. “I can’t see myself doing anything else.” After years of hard work she can now make a living doing what she loves, and even afford to continue to participate in roller derby, her other passion. Amanda is a success story when it comes to following your dreams, and she plans to continue enjoying this lifestyle for as long as possible.

Peri Duncan // November 13, 2014

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