Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Tattoos: Body Art for Life

Nov 01, 2016 06:59AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Carly and Marie Nolan

The first thing most people want to know about tattoos is whether they hurt. The honest answer is yes.

“It felt like a safety pin being dragged through my leg,” explained Carly Nolan, a senior chemical engineering major at the University of Pittsburgh who got her first tattoo when she turned 18. "The pain really depends on the location and also the size of the tattoo." In addition to her thigh tattoo, Nolan has artwork on her back, ribs and ankle.

“It is a feeling that is hard to describe,” said John Podolak, owner of After Hours Tattoo Studio in Mars, PA. “The level of pain depends on the person.” Because each person has a different pain tolerance, Podolak said, the experience is different for everyone.

So why would someone put themselves through such an experience?

“I’d always wanted one,” Nolan said. “Tattoos are a good way to express yourself.” 

Nolan is not alone. Podolak has owned his studio for nine years, and has seen both the culture and his clients change during that time. While the majority of his clients are between the ages of 18 and 25, Podolak often sees individuals who are getting their first tattoo after age 50. 

Tattoos have become more socially acceptable, Podolak explained. When older people come to his shop, they frequently tell him that they’d wanted to get a tattoo for years but did not want other people to judge them for it.

Nolan’s mother, Marie, described a similar experience. During spring break in college, Marie Nolan’s friend got a tattoo while she opted out. 

“I wanted one my whole life, but it used to be frowned upon,” Marie said. “When I turned 40, I did it for me.” She elected to get a small sun and moon tattoo, and later added two shooting stars in honor of her two daughters.

Podolak said in addition to the changing demographics of who is getting tattoos, the types and styles are evolving. He has seen an uptick in memorial tattoos, i.e., tattoos in honor of a loved one who has passed away. Podolak also tattoos more full-arm “sleeves,” especially on women.

Carly and Marie Nolan have matching memorial tattoos in honor of Marie’s father—Carly’s grandfather—who passed away in 2014. Marie said she left most of the planning to Carly, who is creative and had done significant research on different styles of tattoos. Carly chose the Italian phrase Sempre con voi, which means “Always with you,” to honor her grandfather’s cultural heritage. 

Marie loved the idea and asked an artist friend for help with the design. The mother-daughter duo selected their favorite style of lettering and artwork from four options. Carly has the tattoo across her back, while Marie has it on her forearm.

For those considering a tattoo, Podolak and the Nolans have wisdom to share.

“If you’re going to do it, get one that has meaning for you because you’ll live with it for the rest of your life,” Marie said. “Think through the design, where it is going and if you’re comfortable with it.”

Podolak said that it's important to make sure that the shop is clean and using only disposable needles. He encourages potential clients to check the reputation of the business and to look carefully at work samples of the tattoo artist on Facebook or Instagram. Clients should talk with the artist ahead of time about what they envision, and above all, Podolak said, “Make sure that it’s exactly what you want before you put it on your body.”

Carly suggested that people take a photo of the tattoo they want and put it on their mirror for three months. If the tattoo still seems desirable after looking at it every day for that length of time, it’s a good sign that the person has chosen wisely. 

In terms of managing the pain, Carly said that there are two camps—those who take lots of breaks and those who keep going. She has tried it both ways. While tattoo artists regularly tell clients to let them know if they need a break, her advice is simple. “If you want it over quicker, power through the pain,” Nolan said.

While the process may not be easy, the end result is worth it, according to Carly. 

“I love asking people the stories of their tattoos,” she said. “The best way to get to know someone is to learn the story behind something they love so much they got it permanently etched onto their body.”