Trust. On the surface, we’re losing it. People have lost faith in the government, friends, family, fellow humans and even God.
Fortunately, a sliver of trust is on display each day in a most unexpected embodiment, if people are willing to push aside stigma.
Tattoo artist Michael Roybal has committed his life to trust and acceptance through a misunderstood art form.
The assuring scent of cleanliness freshened the parlor’s air as the purr of the needle inched closer to the bare skin of the client, her arm stretched long toward Roybal’s steady hands. The needle pulsed and punctured as shades of blue and green radiated between the black, and the client-artist trust has never been broken, proven in the permanent sleeve and past hidden etchings that have taken almost a decade to craft. That’s longer than some officials’ tenures in public office, or a person’s stint with their primary care physician or even some friendships.
Drawing his path
Roybal aspired to be an artist since his youth. Born and raised in Las Vegas, New Mexico, he discovered self-expression through art. While studying at Highlands University to become an art teacher he started running errands and doing various grunt tasks at a local tattoo shop.
Eventually, the owner suggested he learn how to tattoo, and a new dream was shaped.
“When I started learning how to tattoo, I realized that the way I drew and the way I did my art was gonna be a lot different,” Roybal said. “There’s a lot more that goes into it.”
Tattooing is a viable career option for artists in an industry that promotes growth; some artists making six-figure annual salaries – which is only achievable through hard work and devotion.
Tattoo artists need to be business savvy, patient, confident, trustworthy, intuitive to a client’s character and committed to advance in the field. Roybal said “you never stop learning” as a tattoo artist.
“It really is a lot of hard work, but it can take you all over the world,” he said. “It’s more like … do you really want this lifestyle? Because if you don’t, it’s gonna eat you alive.”
Next May will mark Roybal’s 10th year as a licensed tattoo artist in New Mexico.
A living canvas
Roybal’s abilities are vast and his style broad. He’s able to create original pieces, cover up old tattoos without leaving a memory in sight, or touch up aged art to make it pop. Known for his color schemes, he’s an expert at blending standard hues to create striking tints and vivid detailed work, but is also capable of executing intricate tribal designs with smooth shading and gradients.
Being Hispanic, he understands that the culture has a lot of black and gray realism, and he embraces the challenge of expanding his creative style as well. His openness and versatility are helping him build a loyal customer base, and he starts by realizing everyone is unique.
“You have to take so many different things into consideration when finding a design. One thing, first and foremost, is the flow of the body and the shape of the body … everyone’s body is different,” Roybal said.
Tattooers deal with a living canvas. Each breath changes the landscape; every laugh, sneeze, cough or fretting kink could affect the path of the needle. It’s an important decision on what someone wants to permanently stamp on their skin, and they’re putting the fate of their appearance in the steady hands of a tattoo artist.
“I try to do my best job on every single tattoo … and make sure it’s going to stand the test of time,” Roybal said. “I just approach it that way, try to be humble about it. I don’t like to judge people by their ideas.”
People are tattoo artists’ walking portfolios, and their gallery has no borders or admission. The pressure to create quality work is essential for maintaining a positive reputation.
Roybal himself hopes to be covered in tattoos one day, and his look is already bold. Though he has tattoos on his head, he noted that his face is off-limits. It’s his way to not only express himself, but showcase the work of great artists he admires.
Yet, his look does turn heads, and acceptance has been an issue that has fluctuated through history.
A rich history
The buzz of a tattoo needle was once synonymous with pain, and a parlor full of vivid wickedness and promiscuous imagery cluttering the walls once represented bad seeds. That hum and those seeds are victims to surface judgment. Yes, there is an unsavory affiliation and machismo and marianismo element to tattoos, but not all pride and expression should be labeled as aggressive. There’s a lot more to tattoos than what we see in modern culture, just like there’s a lot more to an individual under the ink.
Researchers have determined that the oldest preserved tattoos on human skin belong to Ötzi the Iceman, a man found on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991 who is believed to have lived in 3370-3100 B.C.
Allison Hawn, tattoo art historian and a professor of communication at Phoenix College, explained that the acceptance of tattoos has waxed and waned throughout history.
She said, “They’ve been high art, and then … relegated to gutter trash, only to be picked up again as high art.”
Hawn explained that various cultures have considered tattoos sacred art, some affiliating tattoos with respect and status. She referenced the Victorian era when royalty would get tattooed to show off their wealth, but when Samuel O’Reilly invented the electric tattoo machine in the late 1800s, it became easier and affordable for average people to get tattoos, and they suddenly lost value in the eyes of high society.
Hawn believes that the art form is elevating again as technology and ink have improved, increasing intricacy and changing the perception of the art.
“You’re seeing a lot more … push into certain areas like photorealism, you’re seeing a bigger push into things like abstract surrealism,” she said.
Researchers estimate around one in three Americans have at least one tattoo. Yet, there is still a stigma surrounding the art, as well as the artists.
Hawn said, “Tattoo artists deserve far more respect, both generally and in the fine art community, because it’s such a hard art to actually practice.”
She added, “It’s always amazed me that tattoo artists have this ability to build almost instantaneous trust with the people that are coming in to get tattooed. … Basically, I’m allowing a stranger to come into my very intimate space … and permanently change my appearance.”
The art of trust
The cooling touch of ointment eases the light swelling before Roybal gently places a wrap over the artwork. The wound will heal and the pain subsides shortly after the session began. The art, however, is forever, and the customer is part of your community.
“People right away assume before realizing you’re not a criminal or you’re not the devil,” Roybal said of the attitude shift toward tattoos. “Not everything is as it seems … look a little bit deeper than the surface.”
Your doctors, nurses, first responders, accountants, financial advisors, teachers and even your friendly neighborhood journalists may have tattoos. These are all people we trust on a daily basis – which is fitting considering a tattoo artist kind of has to be the most trusted artist of all.
You don’t have to go and get a tattoo if you don’t want to, but you also don’t have to judge a book by its cover – especially when we’re all in desperate need of a little trust in one another.