Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

March 3, 2014

Inking Oskaloosa

Oskaloosa Herald

OSKALOOSA — Alan Munger is just getting going for the day. His first client is in the studio, and there’s work to get done.

His client, Amy, recognizes the building In Vivo Studios is in.

“I can remember standing in this room as a kid,” she said.

“A lot of people say that,” Munger replied. “Things like waiting to get their shots.”

There are needles in the room again, but this time it’s completely voluntary. What was a doctor’s examining room is now a tattoo studio.

It’s a cold, late February morning, but if it’s bothering Munger it doesn’t show. He lived in Montreal for a while, which probably explains it. Of course, that raises another question: how does a tattoo artist go from Montreal, a city of 1.6 million people, to Oskaloosa?

Munger’s wife wanted to go back to school, but the cost of going in Canada as a foreigner was going to be more than they could spend. So they started looking around at their options. They eventually found William Penn.

“William Penn took very good care of her. They looked out for us,” he said. Munger is talking fast, but his fondness for the school still comes through.

In Vivo is actually the third studio Munger has had. The first was in Cedar Rapids. Montreal was the second. It’s still open; Cedar Rapids isn’t. His wife works at the studio as, in his words, their “ridiculously overqualified” piercer.

Amy knows what to expect. This is her sixth tattoo, but it’s still a big step. It’s a larger piece and, when finished, it will take up much of her right forearm. It goes with another tattoo, a set of puzzle pieces on her wrist. Both honor her son, Jacob.

Puzzle pieces may seem random, but to some families they’re instantly recognizable. They’re symbols for autism. Autism covers a huge range of challenges, from Asperger’s to people who are unable to communicate. And it’s always a challenge. People with autism aren’t broken and don’t need fixed; their minds just work differently from the vast majority of people.

This tattoo is a quote: “I wouldn’t change you for the world, but I would change the world for you.” It will eventually become part of a larger set of tattoos covering much of her arm.

“For me, this is moving into the visible,” Amy said.

Whether to get tattoos everyone can see or things that can be covered up is a decision every client has to make. Visible tattoos aren’t frowned upon the way they were only a few years back, but not everyone is comfortable with them. It’s still part of the calculation you make when you get inked.

The idea that tattoos are becoming more mainstream is not new. In fact, it’s almost a cliche. The BBC news website ran an article in early February that cited a headline from the New York Times in 1908: “Tattooing is on increase: Habit not confined to seamen only.”

It’s certainly not new for Munger.

“I’ve always loved it, since I was a little kid. I’ve always been fascinated by it,” he said. When Munger was 18 he started tattooing. “Its been a long road. Over 20 years. It has flown by.”

Back when Munger was getting interested in tattoos there were limited options for finding out about them. The magazines tended to be cheap, black and white productions with bad typesetting and blurry pictures. Now they’re glossy publications with professional print values. And the internet has made images of tattoos even more accessible.

Now, tattooing is a common sight on television. “Ink Master” is a reality competition for tattoo artists. The last season included Jime Litwalk, whose work Munger has followed for years. Then there are shows about getting rid of a bad tattoo — with a new piece to cover it of course.

And, when anyone can go online and buy tattoo equipment and start marking up their friends, there are plenty of bad tattoos out there.

“There are two shows now where they fix bad tattoos. That’s going to be a booming industry,” Munger said, laughing.

The industry as a whole is getting bigger. A couple weeks ago Munger was at the Best in the Midwest convention. It featured Joey Hamilton, winner of the last season of Ink Master, among others.

“The show went awesome,” Munger said. “You get to the point when you think it can’t get any bigger than this. I’ve been thinking that since the mid-90s.”

Munger figures there might be a point where he gets bored, where there are no more techniques to master and he decides it’s time to move on. But that day doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon.

“I just love it,” he said. “I think it’s awesome. There’s always a new challenge.”