Flanked by a vet clinic and a custom motorcycle shop on Savannah Highway, Iron Lotus Tattoo blends in with the stretch of mostly local businesses near Interstate 526.
Inside, the spacious studio has hardwood floors, modern decor and a new-looking pool table. Work stations line the walls like a neat row of cubicles in an office building. A high-pitched buzz of tattoo guns hums over the classic rock playing lightly through the speakers.
A group of younger women crowd into one booth, and an older man sits shirtless in another. He’s getting his first tattoo, a family symbol he found while tracing his lineage on a trip to Ireland.
Draped in a friendly ambience, Iron Lotus hardly seems like a pillar of Charleston’s counterculture. In other places, tattooing itself generally isn’t a fringe culture at all because it’s mostly become mainstream. But in a city that’s only beginning to accept tattoo parlors and the people who have tattoos — just existing here could be seen as an act of rebellion.
Dave Marcotte is the owner of Iron Lotus and the former Lucky 7’s Tattoo, one of the first tattoo shops to open in Charleston after the state lifted the ban on tattooing about a decade ago. He said while building acceptance for tattoos is still a challenge in Charleston, it’s worth it to be a pioneer of the local industry.
“We’re on the front-end, and we’re creating it right now,” he said. “We’ve got a great reputation and I’ve got guys that really care about what they’re doing.”
In the mid-1960s, South Carolina was one of many states to outlaw tattooing after a Hepatitis B outbreak in New York was traced to a tattoo operation on Coney Island.
Most states lifted the ban years later, but not South Carolina. The law remained in place here until 2004, making it the second-to-last state to allow tattooing before Oklahoma.
John Black, a lifelong tattooer in Charleston, was one of the people who fought for more than a decade to get the law passed in South Carolina.
“It was uphill all the way,” he said of the process. “I was told this in the Statehouse many times: ‘If Jesus wanted you to have a tattoo, you would have been born with it, son.’ And that is a very powerful statement in South Carolina.”
The argument that ultimately won over lawmakers was that underground tattoo operations needed to be legitimized so they could be monitored to prevent the spread of disease.
Even though tattooers can now set up shops, the laws don’t exactly make it easy.
For instance, state law says a tattoo parlor can’t be within 1,000 feet of a church, school or playground and local municipalities can tweak those restrictions with zoning laws, potentially complicating things further.
Marcotte is opening a new tattoo parlor called Upper Hand Tattoo in the next few months on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. It took him more than a year just to find a building in the Lowcountry that would allow a tattoo business.
“It has to be within zoning, and then the next thing is, the landlord has to be willing to let you in,” he said, adding that property owners often told him that his business wouldn’t be “the right fit” for the area.
“Places are so hard to find, that if you find one, it’s like a needle in a haystack and you better grab it before somebody else does.”
Black, who also works at Mystic Tiki Tattoo in Summerville, said he sees regulations on tattoo operations as ways to discourage the industry.
“It’s just the obstructive things they’ve done to let us know ‘yeah, you can do it, but we’re going to make it as difficult as we can,’” he said.
Social attitudes in Charleston toward tattoos are relaxing now that it’s legal here, according to several tattooers in town. But in general, they said most in the Lowcountry have “very conservative” opinions about tattoos.
“We’re still overcoming that stigma of what people have been taught for generations, because they knew no better of it,” Black said.
Ellen Pfeiffer, a downtown Charleston resident, has two sons. One is an artist and has several tattoos, and so does his wife. She said she’s still “not a fan” of them.
“I don’t believe in making your body a billboard,” she said. “I’m not judgmental by nature, (but) I think that over the years, young people who have decided to ‘go crazy’ with tattoo(s), will come to regret their earlier life decisions. Permanent is, well, permanent.”
David Winge, a tattooer at Iron Lotus, said he thinks people in Charleston often don’t like tattoos because they associate them with criminals.
“That’s why we try to ... battle that,” he said. “We’re family men. And we try to have these nice, clean shops and all that stuff to show that we are upstanding people in society.”
The shop hosts charity events and food drives for the homeless to demonstrate its commitment to the community.
Black, on the other hand, said he doesn’t necessarily mind that the local tattoo culture isn’t part of the mainstream.
“The only people I want to really embrace it are the people I tattoo. I’d say these people are kind of like a little subculture ... we have something in common that starts conversations, that starts friendships,” he said.
But even people within Charleston’s tattoo culture are reserved about what sorts of tattoos they get and where.
“I think doing big back pieces and those beautiful pieces of art on their sleeves, you’re not going to see all of that until people start being a little more accepting,” said Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, another tattooer at Iron Lotus.
A lot of the reservations are related to career opportunities, he added. Many employers still require workers to cover up visible tattoos, and a large number of the clients he sees say they want their tattoos to be concealable.
“Sometimes we have to be the judge of that. If you’re 18 years old and you come in and you want this tattoo right here,” he said, pointing to his forearm.
“Well, that’s not going to help you get a job, and if you’re 18 years old you’re probably not going to make the best decision. So sometimes, it’s put in our hands to be like, ‘OK, well look, let’s do this really cool tattoo on your arm up here, or your back, somewhere that it’s not going to stand out so much.’ ”
Jane Jilich is the owner of J. Jilich Design, an interior design firm, and she also teaches courses at the Art Institute. She said she “hates tattoos so much” personally, adding that tattoos can also be an obstacle for young professionals searching for jobs.
“I have seen so many students not get the jobs they want because of visible tattoos. It is sad,” she said.
Ayla Hyman, who was raised in Charleston, was the first person in her extended family to get tattoos. Her parents frowned upon it because they thought she would have difficulty finding a job. She said her father’s restaurant — the popular tourist spot Hyman’s on East Bay Street — has a policy that requires employees to hide any visible tattoos.
“I didn’t care what they thought because I like them and it isn’t about impressing other people. And if somebody didn’t want to hire me for a position because of them, then I would find a different place to make money,” she said.
Now, Hyman is living in Boulder, Colo., and working at a restaurant.
“I just don’t think it’s accepted much there as it is now where I am, in Colorado,” she said. “I’m more likely to see people with tattoos than without. It’s an art and people out here seem more accepting of the fact that it is an art.”
Hutchinson, one of the Iron Lotus tattooers, said he thinks hosting a tattoo convention in Charleston might help the overall community to understand the industry.
“If a convention got started and we had people show up to see ‘hey, there’s music here, people are having fun, and tattoos aren’t for scary people,’” he said. “I think a convention would be a great thing.”
The Rev. Gary Beson of St. Timothy’s Church in Moncks Corner took a different approach recently. About a week ago, the church held a photography exhibit showcasing tattoos on people they had met over a months-long project to record the stories behind locals’ tattoos. Beson said about 200 people showed up.
“Everybody there was talking about tattoos where typically, church folks are perceived as anti-tattoo ... and conversely, folks with tattoos are thought to never be caught dead in a church,” he said.
The success of the exhibit, he added, was that people understood that tattoos often carry deeply personal meanings.
“That’s the whole part — these things are about stories, they’re a lot more than beautiful images or vulgar images — they are stories that are permanently attached to them,” he said.
Despite the struggles Black has experienced to be able to practice his craft in South Carolina, he calls tattooing “a beautiful thing.”
“I enjoy the people. I enjoy the ideas that I’m challenged with to draw,” he said. “Tattooing is an exchange ... if you sit here and you work on somebody, and they let their guards down and you communicate, you learn about each other. When these people walk out the door, they’re walking out with a piece of you in the form of a tattoo, and they’ve also left a part of them with you. ... You grow, you learn about people. And it’s exciting.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.