Sarah Fitzhugh wanted to think of a way to honor her family and its long military tradition.
A World War II history buff, the 28-year-old Fitzhugh also felt obliged to pay her respects to the soldiers, sailors and airmen who she feels protect America’s way of life.
“I thought about it a long time,” she said, while serving as a communications specialist in the Air Force. “I felt that we owe them, that they deserve some homage. I’ve read about Normandy and the sacrifices that were made, and I just needed to do something.”
So Fitzhugh covered the top half of her right arm with a pair of tattoos.
They’re bold, as she intended: one a spectacular replica of a 1940s pinup girl, like the ones fliers painted on their planes, and the other a detailed B-52 Liberator.
“That was the plane used so often by what was then the Army Air Corps to transport soldiers, to bring them near the front,” Fitzhugh said.
For the record, she had to be careful.
Military regulations state that in addition to being in acceptable taste, tattoos must not cover more than 25 percent of your exposed skin.
“I cut it pretty close with a shortsleeve shirt on,” she said, “but I think they’re great and they display the message I wanted.
“They represent me, my life.”
Fitzhugh’s tattoos are intended to be works of art.
But there was a time that the general public might not have agreed.
“Back in the day, a woman with any kind of tattoo at all was considered trashy, you know, rough,” said Chris Tassin, tattoo artist for 20 years and now owner of Twisted Apple Tattoo in Aggieville.
Tassin has several tattoos herself — naturally — and believes the image of inking your body has changed completely over the past two decades.
“It’s hard to pin down the exact time,” she said. “I think it started about when I first got into it, and it just keeps going more and more mainstream all the time.
“People don’t even look twice at a man or woman with tattoos these days.”
John Fitzgerald, who owns Stray Cat, another Aggieville tattoo and piercing shop, offers a wide smile with his own explanation of how society changed its view of tattoos.
“You know, there was a time when we were all young and it was cool for theater majors,” he said. “Now time has passed, and those theater majors went out into the real world.
“Now they’re CEOs… but they’ve still got the tats.”
There was quite a fuss last year when Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, appeared in a bikini at the tradition- bound Miss America pageant with a “Serenity Prayer” tattoo covering her entire right side.
Vail scoffed at breaking any kind of barrier.
“Maybe there was a time when tattoos made you think of bikers and thugs,” Vail said, “but that’s not the way of the world anymore.”
In fact, if you don’t already have a tattoo and you’re thinking about it, Fitzgerald has two pieces of advice.
“First, make sure it’s what you want,” he said, “because tats are pretty much there forever. And second, hurry up and book some time. There’s a long waiting list.”
All three Manhattan shops are busy almost non-stop.
Matt Goss, who owns Syndicate Tattoo on Poyntz Avenue downtown, said he’s had an almost constant stream of customers.
“I’m working 10 hours sometimes, with no time to talk because somebody’s waiting who’s paying $100 an hour.”
Tassin agreed. “We’re booked up most of the time, with people of all ages, all types. I’m working almost non-stop, to the point where it’s affected my fingers and hands.
“Actually, they’re OK while I’m working but they hurt when I open them because I’ve had them on the needle so long.”
There are so many customers now, the shops need more tattoo artists.
Tassin has another full-timer and she’s training her daughter, Jennifer.
Fitzgerald, who only handles piercing personally, leaves the tattoos to Robert Miller and Cody Bader — but he’d take in another artist if he could find a good one.
They’re tough to find, especially in Kansas.
“We’re regulated by the state’s Board of Cosmetology,” Tassin said, “and this might be the strictest state in America. You need 1,200 hours of apprenticeship and five hours of continued education each year to keep your license.”
“It’s not like you can just get someone moving in from another state, either,” Fitzgerald said. “With a Kansas license, you could move to California and go right to work – but it doesn’t work the other way around.”
So how did this huge sea change toward public acceptance of tattoos actually happen?
“I think social media has had a lot to do with it,” Fitzgerald said. “People see a tattoo on Twitter or Facebook, and all of a sudden they want the same one.
“Honestly, it was kind of surprising went everything went mainstream. We thought it was sort of a fad and we’d just ride the wave while it lasted. But it hasn’t ever stopped.
“Word of mouth is huge in this business. There might be a girl in the dorm (at K-State) who decides she wants a tattoo or a piercing. Then a couple of her friends come with her to see what it’s all about, and often we’ll get them as customers, too.”
Goss agrees about hooking clients — as long as you’re darn good.
“It’s logical,” he said. “If you like your friend’s tattoos, you ask where they got them. There are a lot of people who go back to the same artist, no matter where the artist goes.”
For newcomers who still haven’t got tats but find themselves thinking about it — doesn’t it hurt?
Yes, all the shop owners agree.
“It’s not terrible, though, and once it starts you kind of just go with it,” Tassin said. “It’s not like it gets worse as you go. We’re only putting ink on the very outer layer of skin.”
Afterward, they said, the pain’s not so bad.
“Oh, it feels uncomfortable for a few days, like a sunburn,” she said. “And that’s it.”
Fitzhugh said she loves her body art.
“I love them, the meaning of them, everything,” Fitzhugh said. “They’re a great way to express yourself — and they’re socially acceptable now, totally.
“But believe me, they’re not for everyone. You’d better be sure.”