Rhonda Elliott loves her children so much she’s having them burned into her flesh.
When her son, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, announced he was headed overseas for a one-year tour in Japan, the forty-something Jurupa resident decided to have a photo of him and his two sisters tattooed on her upper back.
And so, all morning long on a recent Saturday at Mission Tattoo in Jurupa, Elliott sits backward on a chair and stoically grips the headrest while artist Cathy Hennessey gingerly transfers the image from photo paper to skin with hot ink. While a work in progress, the tattoo thus far is startlingly realistic. On Elliott’s smooth brown skin, her children—the handsome young man in his sailor uniform, the pretty young women flanking him—positively quiver with life.
Hennessey, 44, is clearly proud of her work, and not just for its aesthetic quality. It pleases her mightily that Elliott is a repeat customer, so loyal that she’d trust Hennessey with this permanent family memento.
“Rhonda’s a good example of why I love what I do,” says Hennessey, who’s owned Mission Tattoo at 9110 Mission Blvd. for four years. “She gets good art, and wants more—they’re an extension of her personality. I really love it when someone comes to me and wants something for the family. This is a family shop.”
Customer loyalty is everything in the skin-art business, a close-knit world where reputation is everything and a single botched job can follow an artist around for years. For Hennessey, a gifted artist whose work has been profiled in the New York Times, an important part of developing a good standing in the community is providing not only what the clients want, but what they should want.
“A big part of what we do is understanding the client,” she says. “It’s not enough to just give the clients what they want. There has to be a joining of minds to create a good piece of body art. I like to think of it as an exchange of ideas.”
When it comes to getting a client to open up to her, it helps that Hennessey has a background in psychology. She took a roundabout path to tattooing, learning the basics of design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, then switching gears and getting a B.A. in psychology before switching up again and getting a master’s degree in special education. After working in education for several years, she came to the realization that she simply wasn’t happy. Her husband, Tim, suggested she return to what seemed to make her happiest—art.
Having gotten her start through a rigorous apprenticeship, Hennessey is now mentoring someone she describes as “the next great up-and-comer,” artist Dave Hill. Hill was referred to Hennessey by legendary IE tattooist Corey Miller, after Miller’s involvement as a featured artist on TLC’s upcoming series L.A. Ink prevented him from finishing Hill’s apprenticeship. Like Hennessey, Hill got into business after a stint in another field.
“I used to operate a crane, and then I had surgery on my knee,” Hill said. “When it was clear I couldn’t be doing what I was doing, I decided that since I was always into art anyway, tattooing was the next logical step.”
Hennessey and Hill entered the world of body modification at a time when the field was exploding. A 2003 Harris poll showed an estimated 16 percent of Americans had at least one tattoo. In 1936, the number was percent. Thirty-six percent of Americans between 18 and 29 have tattoos, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. (Incidentally, Democrats are 4 percent more likely to get skin art than Republicans.)
But the same Harris poll reveals an estimated 17 percent of those who have tattoos regret having gotten them. It’s a number Hennessey disputes.
“What we’re seeing are a lot of people who want their existing tattoos modified,” she says. “That’s what you’re seeing: It’s not that people want their tattoos removed. They’re just saying they want something else.”
According to Hennessey, clients offer any number of reasons why they’re unhappy with their tat, the most common being that they’re no longer with the person whose name they chose to permanently embellish on their skin. Not a problem. In the hands of a talented artist, a name can easily be changed to something else—another name or a flower or a unicorn—anything but the moniker of that former boyfriend or girlfriend who turned out to be an asshole.
Another thing she sees often are clients whose bodies were defaced by one of the legions of “scratchers”—unlicensed street artists who insist on tattooing but refuse to get the training necessary to do so safely and professionally.
“A scratcher on the street who’s not abiding by our laws give real tattoo artists a bad name,” she says. “When artists follow the industry’s guidelines, we’re safer than a hospital.”
When artists don’t, she says, the recipient can find him or herself with “bleeding” ink lines, faded coloring or, worse, serious blood-borne infections. The subject makes her visibly angry. Why, she wonders aloud, should she have to compete with such incompetence when she’s gone through so much trouble to professionalize her practice? Among all her certificates and licenses, Hennessey is most proud of her recent acceptance into the Alliance of Professional Tattooists—a national organization that requires its members to go well beyond the rigorous safety standards set by local, county and state health agencies.
Another trend Hennessey sees are an increasing number of requests from either members of the military or their loved ones for family “portraits.” A Marine headed for Iraq will ask Hennessey for a tattoo of his or her spouse, or the spouse will want a tat of the soldier. In the back of Hennessey’s shop is a large bulletin board with “God Bless America” and “USA” splashed across the top. Underneath are 13 photos of soldiers who visited Mission Tattoo before leaving for Iraq.
“The idea was they’d pin their pictures up before going, then take them down when they got back,” Hennessey says. She shakes her head and looks away. “Obviously, some of the pictures won’t ever be coming down.”
Hennessey’s shop is thriving: she’s booked through October. It’s a success she in no way attributes to any encouragement from local government.
“The situation in Riverside is the City Council won’t allow more shops in our area, while the county has a moratorium on new tattoo parlors,” she says. “There’s a shop in Rubidoux, four in the city of Riverside, and myself in Riverside County—and that’s it. That’s all that the council and the county will allow. As a result, people who want to expand their business have to move out into the desert.”
Calls to Riverside City Hall and the Riverside County health department, which monitors tattoo parlors, were not returned as of press time.
Hennessey said her own efforts to expand into the city of Riverside were shot by a council whose members flatly refused her invitation to at least visit her shop.
“You’d think that in California, one of the most liberal states in the union, we’d see tattooing for what it is—an art form,” she said. “But we’re so far behind. I wish we could get our leaders to be more open-minded.”