Tattoo artist Laurie Stewart has been creating custom body art for more than a quarter century and she attributes her resilience to a long list of satisfied clients, support from her talented team and maintaining a personal sense of wonder.
“Years ago I wondered if this business would keep going and keep growing and the answer is a resounding yes because everyone has a story to tell and you can do it in all these funky, unique ways,” said Stewart. “It is good for people. It gets them thinking. You have to think about who you are before you decide what you get.”
People have gotten inked for a variety of reasons throughout history and the art form’s cultural ebb and flow is in many ways a study of the human condition.
“It’s people challenging themselves,” said Stewart. “Sometimes they get so scared they don’t think they can do it. They leave here with a whole new sense of themselves. It’s a teachable moment.”
The experience can be very therapeutic for people dealing with grief or other types of trauma.
“Physical pain is a lot easier to deal with than emotional pain,” said Stewart. “Sometimes you need a little ouch to make the other stuff go away for a while and sometimes it comes out of your mouth in that chair. I put some ouch in you and some ouch comes out.”
She opened Nighthawk Tattoos in 1992 when the business was male dominated and tattoos still held a cultural stigma.
“Everyone told me I was going to fail,” she said. “I was a freak for a while but there were all kinds of people who wanted tattoos that wouldn’t go to a traditional place. I didn’t have to do the same stuff to be in this business. I didn’t have to join a bike gang and I didn’t have to be a dude.”
Her business benefited from changing attitudes about tattoos but she recognized the relative permanence of her work and often found herself counselling clients against getting tattoos she thought they might come to regret. That includes swastikas and other hateful or racially charged images that had come to represent the darker side of tattoo culture.
“There is stuff I would never do but we don’t have as many people asking for it anymore,” she said. “There is enough ugliness in the world. It’s not my job to make it uglier.”
She has done a lot of work covering up bad tattoos and Nighthawk is one of the few ink shops in the area that offers laser tattoo removal services.
“Even removing a tattoo can be cathartic,” she said. “I have a friend who broke up with his wife so he is having her name taken off. It doesn’t seem appropriate anymore.”
She describes herself as a bit of a hoarder and has saved many of the designs she created over the past 25 years
“Lots of good and bad things happen in people’s lives and sometimes it is easier to communicate through symbols – a condensed life history,” she said. “If it has some spirit stuck to it or part of my soul on it I can’t part with it.”
Helping people tell their stories has been a joyful and rewarding experience.“If this was just about making money and having a job I don’t know if I could do it all the time,” she said. “You get up and come to work because you never know when those stories are going to surface. You never know when life is going to need you.”