Artist makes permanent personal expressions

Posted: Sunday, October 05, 2003

The scene looks and smells like a routine trip to the dentist office almost. Out in the lobby there's a room full of people of all ages, flipping through magazines while waiting their turn.

The strong smell of antiseptic lingers in the air and coming from somewhere in the back is a constant, almost insect-like, whining of what sounds like a dental drill.

That's where the similarities end, though, and it becomes immediately apparent upon entering the work area in the back where the sound is originating. The walls of the small "office" are covered with unusual images such as posters of sexy zombies, half naked she-devils, and an 8 by 10 of Alice Cooper.

In the center of the room hunched over a customer is Marcus Merritt a short, stocky, 29-year old who bares a slight resemblance to Michael J. Fox.

Merritt is the man all the customers are there to see, though he's no doctor or dentist. Instead he's the professional tattoo artist at Two Moons Piercing and Tattooing in Soldotna.

From the crowd in the lobby, it's apparent that Merritt gets a lot of work, but he doesn't seem to mind it a bit.

"Business is good," he said. "Especially when you're the only one in the area."

Merritt came to Alaska by way of Knoxville, Tenn., where he tattooed professionally for seven years. He got away from tattooing briefly, due to the stress and aggravation of the rock star-like attention that can come with his line of work.

"It can get ridiculous," Merritt said. "People would come up and talk business no matter where I was. I would be at a restaurant with my girlfriend and have three or four waiters coming up to me to talk about a tattoo they were thinking about getting."

However, after a brief hiatus, Merritt said he just "happened back into it." He said tattooing is a lot different here than in the South, but that he's really enjoying the work.

"I expected to have a lot more tourists," he said. "But I have a lot of regulars."

Merritt said there is a lot of diversity to his clientele


Marcus Merritt is the picture of concentration while working on a customer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It's a little bit of everybody really. I do a lot on younger kids right out of high school, but also recently gave a 73-year old her first tattoo. Line of work has nothing to do with it, either. Sure, I do my fair share of bikers, but I also do a lot of teachers, attorneys and doctors."

Which brings up an important point, tattoos may be moving from the counter-culture to a more mainstream standing, but by no means is the exotic art of skin decoration anything new.

The earliest known evidence of tattoos comes from a 5,300-year-old mummified body found in the Italian Alps. Tattoos have been found on Egyptian mummies dating back to 200 B.C.

Here in Alaska, prior to contact with Russian and European-Americans several Native groups, including the Inupiaq, Yup'ik and Gwich'in, all practiced tattooing. Some archaeological evidence even indicates that tattooing may have been practiced in the Arctic 3,500 years ago.

James Cook, for whom Cook Inlet is named, was the first known European person to encounter and describe tattoos. He recorded information about them in his records from his 1769 expedition to the South Pacific.

The word "tattoo" is derived from the Tahitian word "tattau," which translates "to mark."

Unlike early tattoos that were done by scratching, pricking or puncturing by primitive means, modern tattoos are done with an electrically powered machine, sometimes called a tattoo gun.

The gun is a small dentist-drill-looking device that is fitted with a needle that moves up and down. It punctures the skin at a rate of 50 to 3,000 times a minute, carrying ink to the skin's dermal layer in the process.

Merritt said over the years, he's tattooed just about everywhere on the human body.

"The location is different with each person," he said. Some people want to show it off, so they put it someplace where it can be easily seen. Other times I've had 30-year-olds trying to get it where they can hide it from their parents."

Merritt added some locations are more unusual than others. "I've tattooed a gentleman's face before, and I use the term gentleman loosely."


A fish appears to be swimming around the calf of one of Merritt's clients.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

But perhaps the most eccentric tattoo he's ever done was on a man's penis. "The guy had me write 'pork the other white meat,'" Merritt said.

Although that location may be the strangest place, it's not the strangest piece Merritt has done on someone.

"For that I would have to say it was one I did on a guy's leg of Sylvester the cat (fornicating) with Tweety bird, you know from the Bugs Bunny cartoons," he said.

Tattoo requests of this nature are by no means the majority of what he does. He said he does a lot of "flash" tattoos which are any one of numerous stock designs often on the walls of the tattoo shop or out of a book.

"I just adjust it to the size they want by using a copier. Then I make a carbon stencil that we stick to the body. Then I just trace it in ink," he said.

Merritt also does "custom work" which is when he either draws a tattoo freehand or works from someone's own design that they bring in.

"People forget that I can draw, too, it's not just all tracing stuff of the walls," he said.

Merritt said he really enjoys doing larger pieces that allow him to get creative.

Some of the larger pieces he has done are a big koi fish on a client's leg, a dragon sleeve down the entire length of a customer's arm, and he is currently working on a large religious piece for a young man that covers his entire back. Merritt said people get tattoos for a variety of reasons.

"For some it's a type of adornment, almost like permanent jewelry. For others it may signify change or an important event like a memorial. Some people do it just to look tough," he said.


An empty chair can be a rare sight at Two Moons, but there are plenty of tattoo magazines and "flash" on the walls to keep patrons occupied while they wait for their turn.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Merritt said there are many aspects to consider when thinking about getting a tattoo. As with real estate, location, location, location, is something that is important.

"I don't recommend a few locations such as the palms and feet because the ink doesn't stay in the skin very well," he said. "Also, people who work in the sun or tan a lot should avoid colors, unless they're going to put a lot of time into caring for them, (otherwise they'll fade)."

People also should consider natural changes in the human body when getting a tattoo. Women thinking of having children in the future may want to avoid tattoos on the stomachs that could stretch out. The same goes for women with big breasts, since the skin may sag with age, distorting a tattoo, as well.

"I get people in here all the time that say 'I want something, but I don't know what,' they're in because all their friends are doing it," Merritt said. "People have to realize not to rush into a tattoo. They should take time and think about what they're going to get."

His point is a valid one, since a bad tattoo isn't like a bad haircut. It won't grow out in six months it's there for life unless it is medically removed, which is both painful and expensive. Merritt also recommends making sure that whatever is picked for a tattoo, it's something that will continue to hold meaning, even years into the future.

"It's important to get something you're always going to like," he said. Band and beau names are two big ones to avoid.

"Kids come in for the names of their favorite bands, but that's a big no-no," he said. Merritt tries to get teens to understand that just because a band may be their favorite now, it might not be 20, 40 or 60 years down the road.


The tool of the trade - the tattoo gun.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Names are out, too, unless it's their kid or something," he said. "But wives and girlfriends may not always last."

Merritt said a lot of his work is doing cover-ups, which is putting one tattoo over another to cover or hide the one underneath. He said most of the cover-ups he does are names, homemade tattoos people did as kids, or the work of unprofessional tattoo artists, sometimes referred to as underground scratchers.

This last item is especially disconcerting to Merritt for a number of reasons. He explained that these ill-reputable artists often are not only lacking in experience, but also work illegally by not obtaining the proper permits and licenses, and by giving tattoos to minors. They often lack the essential knowledge of tattooing using sterile and hygienic methods as well.

"Hepatitis B or HIV are big concerns," he said in regard to people who get tattoos from these underground scratchers.

At Two Moons, Merritt ensures safe tattooing by a myriad of methods. Most tattoo materials like ink, ink cups, gloves and needles are used only once to eliminate any possibility of contamination or disease transmission.

"Everyone gets their own needle," he said. "I show it to customers and assemble it right there in front of them."

As to reusable materials such as the parts of the tattoo gun, including the needle bar and tube, Merritt uses an autoclave which is the same piece of equipment used in hospitals. Autoclaves sterilize tools by killing every living organism on them.

"I make it impossible to get any type of infection," Merritt said.

Although being safe and clean are major concerns, the one question that seems to get asked the most is, "How bad does it hurt?"

To which Merritt replies, "It depends on what you get and where, and your personal tolerance to pain."

However, a few of his repeat customers waiting in the lobby gave their input.

"It's about like getting scratched by a cat," said Steven Bon, there for his fifth tattoo.

Other customers compared it to having a sunburn, being snapped by a rubber band and being burned with a cigarette.

"The first one is tough because you don't know what to expect and the thought of someone sticking you with needles can be scary, but it's really not that bad," said Sherry Maestas, waiting for her eighth tattoo.

"Sometimes it hurts if it goes over bony areas," Maestas said. This would include the spine, collar bones, elbows, ankles and ribs. "But over meaty areas it's not bad." These fleshy areas include the chest, biceps, forearms, calves and thighs.

Cost, rather than pain, was much more of a complaint to the waiting customers. Tattoos are by no means cheap, but it's important to remember that they last for life. When it comes to tattoos, it may be worth it in the long run to save up enough money to get exactly what is desired\ rather than compromising on something that is just acceptable because it's cheaper.

Joe Schoolcraft, the shop owner of Two Moons, said Merritt is a welcome addition.

He does nice work and it speaks for itself," said Schoolcraft. "He's really starting to make a name for himself. He's got people coming from Homer, Seward and Valdez to get art from him."

Being so busy can be demanding, but Merritt said he doesn't mind.

He said the toughest part of his job is that some of the locations people choose for their art require him to work in unusual or uncomfortable positions for long periods of time some that would leave even a contortionist envious.

"Some locations are pretty challenging. It's not for everybody. Some days I'll spend 10 hours hunched over, which is pretty tough on my back," he said.

Tattooing is a lucrative business, though, so the money he makes can help ease the pain.

"Yeah, it's a fair trade off," Merritt said. "I'm not driving a Bentley or anything, but I make enough to get by."

He said the job even has a few extra perks. He's been shown tattooing on the MTV show "Jackass."

"I also met my girlfriend tattooing," he said.

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