If you want to get inked by Chris MacCharles—a tattoo artist with Inland Empire Tattoo Studios in Riverside—take a number and get comfortable.
“I’m booked for the next six weeks,” he says.
MacCharles has been working as a tattoo artist for eight years and says it can be a very lucrative business, depending on your commitment. Artists earn about $100 per hour and business is largely generated through word of mouth. “It’s up to you on how much money you make,” he says. “But if you are a good artist, people will come.”
Being “a good artist” is easier said that done. Steve Varner, who works alongside MacCharles at Inland Empire Tattoo Studios, says one of the keys to earning a reputation is having sound people skills. After all, as Varner says, tat-artists have to sit with customers for up to five hours. In other words, the more personable an artist is, the better the experience.
As a kid growing up in Rancho Cucamonga, MacCharles was always interested in art. When he got his first tattoo—the word “family”—it was to represent the closeness he shared with his group of friends. Now he’s on the other side of the needle, turning legs, arms and backs into his own human canvases. His work is known for its intricacy, featuring heavily detailed, colorful designs.
MacCharles said his parents were supportive of his decision to make a living inking people. His dad’s primary condition was that, if he liked tattooing so much, he should turn it into a job.
This proved difficult at first. There are not many schools that specialize in or teach the art of body decoration. So MacCharles did the next best thing: he took an apprenticeship.
“An apprenticeship is always better because you learn from someone who has a lot of experience,” MacCharles says. “It took me three to four years before I was comfortable enough to do a good tattoo.”
MacCharles thinks that the tattooing business has moved away from the grungy back-alley perception it had several decades ago. Nowadays most tattoo shops try to stay clean because of diseases like Hepatitis.
“The standards have gone up — it’s close to like being in a doctor’s or dentist’s office,” MacCharles said. “We have to stay as clean as possible because of the scrutiny we receive.”
Tattooing has become more mainstream over the years, much less associated with the rebellious element of society that it was back in the day.
“Tattooing is getting a lot more accepted,” Varner said. “When I first started it was looked at as a thing for servicemen and criminals.”
And all of the body is prime real estate for a tattoo, depending on if you’re male or female. Men and women favor different kinds of tats, in different places. MacCharles said men are now leaning towards larger tattoos—such as whole sleeves—while women tend to favor floral designs on their feet, along the wrist or on the back of the neck. He also notes that tats on breasts and on hind regions were popular among women a few years ago, but has dropped off since.
MacCharles takes his art very seriously and has lines he won’t cross, saying, “I don’t do any gang-related or hate-related tattoos.” He also points out that one of the unwritten rules in the tattooing world is decorating somebody’s face—because nothing leads to remorse more quickly.
“I don’t want the responsibility of sending some guy down the wrong path,” MacCharles says. “Let’s put it this way, if I owned a tattoo business I would second-guess hiring someone who had a face tattoo.”
MacCharles is very aware of the gravity that comes along with getting a tattoo, and artists often try to counsel customers about the consequences they could face beforehand. In fact, it is not uncommon for an artist to caution a young person about how a tattoo can plague them down the line, such as affecting job prospects. Although he warns each client, MacCharles says he sees tattoo art as a form of body decoration, and doesn’t see why a tattoo would garner any employment prejudice.
“I just think all of it’s a form of self expression which should not be judged by a business owner,” he says.
One reason people get tattooed is to show respect. According to Varner, many customers come in to get inked as a way of showing their love for a family member who has passed. “ I do a lot of in memory tattoos,” he says. In fact, one of the most touching tattoos he did was for a customer who got inked with the images of his young niece and nephew who had been recently killed. Memorial tattoos have a lot of meaning to both the artist and the client.
MacCharles says one of the most memorable tattoos he ever did was with a customer named Lou Costello, who got his first tattoo to commemorate his 70th birthday. The septuagenarian got inked with an image of Goofy, the Walt Disney character. He was hardly tinged with regret, as he came in for a second tat two months later.
Meanwhile, Varner said the strangest tattoo he ever did was a customer who asked for a game of hangman to be played on his back. It turned into a bet, where if the customer won the game, he would get a free tattoo, and if Varner won, the customer would pay.
“I won,” Varner says laughing.
What the word that was spelled out on his back was not disclosed. But a as far as Varner is concerned, it looked like this: L-U-C-R-A-T-I-V-E.