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John Lamb, Published May 21 2012

Written in flesh: Tattoos take on more text

FARGO - The tats, they are a-changing. Tattoos, that is. Tribal bands are out and text is in. Script on skin is the current trend in body art making up the bulk of the business for local shops.

While the tattoo artists’ busy schedules have them seeing more green, some feel a lack of artistry in writing.

“In a(n) age where tattoos are done with so much art and beauty, why does it seem that everyone wants a poem, a verse or some other words written on them?” Paul Johnson, owner/operator of 46 and 2 Tattoo, recently posted on Facebook. “Don’t people say a picture is worth 1,000 words?”

Textoo you

“Lettering has become the most popular thing these days,” says Trent Balvitsch, co-owner of Addictions in Fargo.

He says the writing has been on the wall, or the body, for the last five years or so and it just keeps getting more popular.

“It’s straight-forward, to the point,” Balvitsch says, adding that the marks speak for themselves. “No one needs to ask questions.

Balvitsch, Johnson and Chuck Kesler, owner of Dead Rock Star, all agree that the textoo boom came with tattooing TV shows and more celebrities showing their inked skin. Sex symbols Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox both have a number of scripted tats.

As he looks through a book of a couple hundred different fonts – with more available through the shop’s computer - Balvitsch and his co-workers estimate using some type of script in 90 percent of their walk-in work.

Most are either done to remember someone or some time or to inspire the wearer.

“A lot of tattoos have shifted to documenting a moment,” he says. “Some of it is to tell a story. Some of it is to remember somebody.”

Kids’ names are popular with parents having them written on forearms or above the heart. Even grandparents come in to get grandchildren’s names inked in.

Likewise families will come in to have the surname etched into skin, or the name of a lost loved one.

Not all of the familial tats are for the fallen. To celebrate his father’s return home from a lengthy tour overseas, Kyle Althoff was at Addictions having the words “Forever my heroes” written on the back of his left shoulder. The large, flowing script was encircled by a chain with his father’s and mother’s names on illustrated dog tags.

“My dad’s been in Iraq forever and he gets home (this week). And my mom raised me and my two brothers,” Althoff says.

It was the first tattoo for the Fargo man, who didn’t just want a mark or a design.

“If it doesn’t have meaning, I wouldn’t get it,” Althoff says.

The good words

Biblical verses are popular, the tattoo artists say, though some may be better known for pop culture references. Balvitsch recalls a number of versions of Ezekiel 25:17, the lines Samuel L. Jackson’s character uses in the film “Pulp Fiction.”

Johnson says he’s asked weekly to ink “Walk by faith” from Corinthians, 5:7.

Even more popular, he says is “Hakuna matata,” the Swahili saying from “The Lion King” that translates into, “No worries.”

Kesler says lines from children’s books like “Where the Sidewalk Ends” are popular, too.

Others, like Katina Rorvig, want something more motivating. The 18-year-old already has seven tattoos, four of which are text-bashed. She was in Addiction’s last week to get another that would read, “Stay afloat the key is hope,” lyrics from the Kid Cudi song “Up, Up and Away.”

She says the text tattoos have more of a meaning to them, like the stylized script of the word “Always,” with a heart over it. That tattoo was for her sister. “No matter how much you fight, you always love them,” Rorvig says.

The other marks are for her, like “Be the one to guide me” etched on her inner right bicep and “But never hold me down” on her inner left bicep.

“The only tattoos I worry about are my inner biceps as I get older,” she says, thinking how they may look as she ages and her skin grows less taut.

Some marks are more private, she says, adding that she has textoos on the sides of both of her ribs.

“It’s the new lower back. It’s probably the most popular place,” Balvitsch says, adding that it’s also one of the most painful spots to mark because it’s so close to the bone.

Another popular spot can be arching over the belly button or the top of the pelvis. He says he talks to clients before making marks because the size and shape of the stomach could change significantly over time.

“As your body changes, your tattoo changes with it, too. Women have babies and men have beer (bellies),” he says.

Missing the mark

Balvitsch and other tattoo artists also say they try to help the client come up with something that reflects customer, not just repeating something they saw someone else wear.

“You’re putting something on your body forever. Take the time to make it what you want,” Balvitsch says.

Some tattoo artists say the trend toward textoos is frustrating as the client has a blank canvas and only wants to write on it, not paint an image.

“You have so many artists now in tattooing and it’s moving away from the art,” Johnson says. “I could train anyone with zero art skills. As long as you can follow a line, you could do tattooing day-in and day-out because we do that much text. It’s frustrating. I do feel stifled quite often.”

“I think every artist struggles with that. You want them to have art on their bodies, not a walking billboard,” Balvitsch says. “We would love to see people incorporate art with it. Try to challenge them to make it more than just lettering. We try to push the art side of it.”

Still, there’s one standard scriptoo that always makes Balvitsch smile.

“You never get sick of doing ‘Mom’ tattoos,” he says, lighting up. “Who wouldn’t have a ‘Mom’ tattoo?”

Even the traditional “Mom” is getting a makeover, with both the fonts and design, now often including her full name.

Johnson doesn’t get as much “Mom” tattoo business, but says the style has changed.

“I’ve had people put on their mom’s name and the birth date, then leave room so that when she dies they can put the death date,” he says. “That’s just kind of morbid.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533