Ink: A Lifetime Relationship

A Bond With the Artist is Just as Important as the Tattoo


Tommy Hare lies on the bench while tattoo artist Jason McGrady shades dimension into an angel’s wings. The ink on his skin is a reminder of his source of strength during his son’s battle with cancer. His entire left forearm, covered in shades of black and grey, represent’s Saint Michael and the word “Believe.”

Hare’s son was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer mostly found in infants and young children, when he was just six-anda- half-years-old. Hare explained that prayer helped his family endure the difficulty of dealing with his son’s illness. “We always believed that he would make it,” he said. Now, his boy is a cancer-free nine-year-old.

Getting such a large tattoo is not a one-time sitting and it requires hours in the chair. The meaning of tattoos penetrates more than skin deep. People often get tattoos that represent or express something of significance in their life, but the ink is not the only thing that is meaningful. The tattoo artist behind the art can be just as important to the customer. Artists and their regular customers build a relationship in and out of the shop that keeps the tattooed coming back and the artists earning a living. Artists work hard to make their customers happy and take special care of the familiar faces.

Hare and McGrady’s relationship did not begin at Adrenaline in Brick where McGrady has worked for the last 10 years. They met on the golf course. “There’s not a lot of heavily tattooed people running around the golf course,” McGrady said with a smile. The two hit it off after spending hours together playing on the green. “He ended up coming in and getting a bunch of work.”

McGrady said his clients are happy with the art and the environment they’re tattooed in. He added that it’s all about being honest with his customers and making them feel as comfortable as possible while they get their designs permanently etched in their skin.

There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to create an original piece. McGrady spends long hours in the shop designing, drawing and planning custom artwork for his clients. Fourteen-hour days are not unheard of in the industry. In fact, they happen quite often.

The same artist has been tattooing Natale Amato, a barber in Point Pleasant, for the past 15 years. His favorite tattoo, a memorial to loved ones who passed away, is two swallows with a rose in the center covering the front of his throat. His grandfather, and namesake, was a fisherman and swallows were believed to be a symbol of good luck at sea. The swallows also remind him of his Uncle Lawrence who would take him bird watching when he was a boy. “Rather than be grim, it’s more about the memory while they were alive,” he said. He wears his ink in honor of their memory and considers it a “celebration of life.”

With painted arms and a collar of color, creativity and personality is what Amato looks for in an artist. “As I got older it really is a way for me to express things that mean a lot to me,” he said. James Costelle of Tattooville in Toms River has done most of his work and several pieces on his wife, Megan.

“[James] definitely tends to make sure I’m OK while he’s tattooing me,” Amato said. Their friendship has lasted many years and his loyalty shows on his heavily-tattooed skin. “We’re friends outside of just getting tattooed,” he added. Costelle’s artistic talent and ability to interpret Amato’s ideas keeps him going back for more. Artists can also get a deeper understanding of a client’s motivation and ideas the more they work with them.

One thing that both customer and artist agree on is showing interest in the tattoo. “I want somebody to want to do the piece on me,” Amato said. Customers do not want to feel as though someone is just trying to take their money.

“I drove to Connecticut once to meet Erik Merrill, who tattooed my left arm, just to talk to him face-to-face and see if the guy wanted to do the tattoo,” Mc- Grady said.

McGrady is honest with his customers right up front. “I’ve told plenty of people, ‘I don’t think I’m the artist for you,’” he said. If the piece the customer wants is not his forte, such as portraits, he will refer them to an artist that can meet their needs.

Professor Shannon Hokanson, from the communication department, said she looks for technical skills and style in an artist. The artist should also be a skilled communicator to make people feel comfortable, safe and agree on the final vision for the tattoo design, she said. Hokanson is a loyal customer of Tom Yak who works at Electric Tattoo in Bradley Beach. “He is a wonderful artist, and his nature scenes are particularly beautiful,” she added.

Hokanson’s most meaningful tattoo, and most recent, is a portrait of her beloved dog Milo who passed away last summer. The colorful piece is on the inside of her upperright arm. “When I rest my head on my arm, I am reminded what a gift it was to be able to snuggle close to him for so many years,” she said. “His memorial tattoo keeps me connected to that feeling, and I love it for that reason.”

Tattoos represent meaningful things and it is important that the artist applying them can make the clients ideas come to life. Customers never have to settle if they are not comfortable with an artist. “Do your homework, don’t get tattooed on a whim,” McGrady said. Get to know the artist and remember that you are in control. If you are not happy with the drawing or an artist’s portfolio you can always say no and take your business elsewhere.

Jey Collins, one of the shop owners of Adrenaline since 2008, said that making customers happy, having a nice friendly atmosphere for people, and offering a good product is priority. The shop’s clientele is approximately 30 to 40 percent return customers and referrals who come in for both piercing and tattoos. Collins said they take care of the regulars who are spending a lot of money at his store. “We want to pay them back a little bit,” he said.

Tattoos generally range in price from $100 to $120 per hour with a minimum charge of $60. Large pieces that require more than a few hours are usually done in several sittings. Tattoo sleeves can add up to over $600 and back pieces can easily go for more than $1,000. A tattoo covering an entire back can take up to 30 hours totaling close to $3,000. With regular clients spending such a large amount of money, artists often discount their rate to save the customer some cash and keep them coming in for ink.

PHOTO COURTESY of Michelle Callas