Tattooing was banned in Santa Cruz until 1986. The MAH exhibit features Santa Cruz body art history and local artists. Photo by Maria Cordova

Just 34 years ago, body art practices were illegal in Santa Cruz. Today, tattooing is a trend for a plethora of communities within Santa Cruz, from skaters to yoga moms and seemingly everyone in between. 

“Santa Cruz Tattoo’d,” the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History’s (MAH) latest exhibit, delves deeply into the history of the unique art form in Santa Cruz, shedding light on the subculture, its artists and personal stories of tattoos.

Everyone has their own reason to put art on their bodies. Moving experiences inspire many to get eye-catching or hidden designs to express their periods of growth. Tattoos connect their bearers through the different stories they carry with each special design, said Roman Yanish, an artist at Partnerships Catalyst at Santa Cruz MAH.

“You still have a story about how you got that tattoo,” Yanish said. “The stories are really what spark conversations, and having a subject like tattoos brought into conversations really creates opportunities for people to learn about people’s experiences that are different than their own.”

It’s comforting to share personal experiences with others who can relate to them. Discussing why someone chose a specific pattern or image brings the tattoo community closer together. 

Photo by Maria Cordova

Tattoo artist Ethan Jones, of Eights and Aces tattoo shop, is used to working with people that have all sorts of reasons for the tattoo that they desire. It’s this variety of motivations that keeps the artwork fresh and exciting. Even if Jones tattoos the same design over and over, each one will be distinct from one another since every individual is unlike the next.

Although stressed at times, Jones is willing to accept challenges and finds his work rewarding when customers come back asking for more body art. His mentor, Flip, showed him the ropes in becoming a tattoo artist. 

Another artist at Eights and Aces, Flip, tries to separate his work from emotions. He puts maximum effort into reflecting customers’ thoughts and feelings in the artwork that permanently stays on their bodies. He tries to make each tattoo better than his last, which requires listening to the stories customers provide along with their tattoo request.

Several interactive objects are featured in the exhibit including a space to design your own temporary tattoo. Photo by Maria Cordova

A common form of body art that Flip crafts is memorial tattoos. These tattoos provide unique ways to cope with loss. Grieving customers who deal with pain through symbols or pictures gain a token that will remind them of their lost loved ones. 

“It is weird thinking that something you put on somebody is now gone,” Flip said. “[The tattoo] is forever, but not everything else is forever. It’s kind of interesting in that way.”

The permanence of body art helps tattoo owners trace back moments of spiritual or emotional  development.

Tattoo artist Kelly McMurray of Good Luck Tattoo enjoys doing bright and colorful tattoos, marking customers with smiling Disney characters and flowery designs. 

However, not every tattoo she creates is lighthearted and happy.

“If someone’s getting something really meaningful, like if someone passed away, a child especially, I’ll feel so terrible the whole time,” McMurray said. “I feel bad for them, and I’ll feel their hurt. […] Most of the time I try to do happy, fun, bright, cute tattoos. […] But I do a bunch of different tattoos, they can’t all be happy and fun.”

Photo by Maria Cordova

Even people with Disney themed tattoos can be seen as deviant compared to people with unmarked skin. This perception was more common decades ago. Now, body art has permeated modern culture. 

It used to be more difficult to find a place to get inked, but shops will appear every couple miles today. From social media pages to art exhibits, tattoo artists are gaining recognition in new ways. 

Styles vary from artist to artist — from classic full color work to delicate black ink tattoos — each artist has a different specialty and each customer has a new  vision. 

“Even if you were doing a rose all day every day,” Flip said, “they’re still all going to be different because the people are different.”