Nathan McEleney, owner of Lucid Arts in Tewksbury, works on a tattoo on the arm of Stefan Tenaglia, who calls himself an "illustrated man." PHOTO
Nathan McEleney, owner of Lucid Arts in Tewksbury, works on a tattoo on the arm of Stefan Tenaglia, who calls himself an "illustrated man." PHOTO BY SCOTT SHURTLEFF

We in the newspaper business are proud of the ink we produce. But another industry also uses ink as its daily wares -- tattooing.

Both vocations serve as merchants of information -- journalists through printed words, and tattooists through images and symbols. We write stories. Tattoo artists portray stories of their clients' lives.

One of these local artists who gets under the skin is Nathan McEleney, owner of Lucid Arts at 361 Main St.,, Tewksbury. His small shop is one of dozens that dot the local landscape in an expanding industry.

Tattoos are not just for sailors and rebels anymore. According to a recent Pew Research Report, as many as 38 percent of millennials in America have at least one tattoo.

A silhouette
A silhouette

"It has become very mainstream," McEleney says. "You see housewives and teachers -- even preachers -- getting tattoos."

The motives for getting "tatted up" are nearly as numerous as the range of images people have to choose from.

Whether it's to remember loved ones, show team loyalty, tribalism, self-adornment or on a dare, more and more people are wearing art. And that is good news for the artists.

Stefan Tenaglia is an "illustrated man." He is a frequent visitor to McEleney's year-old studio.


His plethora of skin pictures include warriors of various eras and arenas. His newest piece is a Taurin, a fictional combatant from a video game. With the outline etched onto his forearm three weeks ago, he surrenders his arm to McEleney, who begins the meticulous process of filling in the colors of the elaborate design.

"He does great work," Tenaglia says of McEleney. "You'll find that most people are loyal to a particular artist, like any other industry.

Paige Taylor, an apprentice at Sugar Skull in Billerica, prepares the equipment. PHOTO BY SCOTT SHURTLEFF
Paige Taylor, an apprentice at Sugar Skull in Billerica, prepares the equipment. PHOTO BY SCOTT SHURTLEFF

Inside McEleney's private room -- where color wheels, charts and various designs decorate the walls -- all the equipment is covered in plastic that is replaced with each new customer.

Sanitation and certification are the two aspects that first-timers should consider. Every ink spot in the state must be approved on two levels of stringent criteria -- the artist must be certified according to state requirements; and the establishment must be licensed according to local ordinances, including Board of Health oversight from the town.

Paige Taylor, an apprentice at Billerica's Sugar Skull, says the process toward licensure of an artist is a lengthy one.

"But that is a good thing," she adds. "It protects the clients and the industry."

Taylor explains that the actual process, from design selection to completed image, may take several weeks over multiple visits, depending on complexity and pain tolerance.

And about that pain, which is one of the reasons some folks may be hesitant about getting tatted.

The old cil machine
The old cil machine

"It feels like a cat scratch on a sunburn," says Taylor, who has multiple tattoos. "None of it is extreme, but some areas are more painful than others."

The subject chooses from a menu of thousands of in-house, online or custom designs. A stencil is made and reproduced onto a sticky membrane, which the artist attaches to the skin. Before that, the skin is washed, shaved and sterilized.

The stencil serves as a pathway for the outline.

"There are some people who can work freehand," Taylor says. "And I commend that level of confidence and skill."

Most artists, even veterans, use a stencil.

The artist mixes paints according to the original template, using a sophisticated formula laid out on a color wheel that serves as a universal guide for most shops. There are several gauges of needles, which are defined by the number of points on them -- one is for extreme finery, up to 14 for large coverage areas.

Using either a rotary or coil-type tool, the chosen needle and a cartridge of paint are attached to a stylus. The depth is adjusted depending on the person and the skin area.

"Ideally, you want to penetrate between the second and third layers," Taylor says.

The key is to keep the device moving so no area gets too saturated with color.

The fill-in and shading colors are done similarly in separate visits.

Tattoo artists are required to pass a number of health-related exams, including CPR and a skin class.

Some tattoos wear away or fade faster than others, mostly due to the part of the body. For example, anything on the hands or fingers will fade within a few months due to constant use and friction.

Fight or Flight is a popular ink pad in Fitchburg. Resident artist Brad Touchette estimates that about 200 people per month walk into the shop at 206 Summer St., looking to decorate their flesh.

"There has been a steady surge in popularity over the past decade or so," Touchette says.

His shop has a three-month waiting list, "mostly to increased exposure to popular culture," he says.

"Through entertainment and social media, people see celebrities and athletes with tattoos," which inspires fans to get like-looking images.

"There has been a growth in styles across the board," he adds.

Richard DiCato, owner of River Raven at 701 Main St., in Fitchburg, has also seen an upward trend in popularity and a particular fondness for custom tats.

"I would say that most of our clients are looking for custom designs," DiCato says. "Something personal and unique to them, that they discuss with and have drawn up for by our artist. That's not to say we still don't do lettering or traditional-style designs, but the shift in trend seems to be -- and has been for a number of years -- custom artwork."

Tattoos were found on a recently unearthed 5,000 year-old iceman, dubbed Otzi. The primitive form of self-expression has evolved over the millennia, becoming more elaborate and ubiquitous, but the techniques have barely advanced beyond the implements used to pierce the flesh.

Ink about it.