By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald
Katherine Ellis got her first tattoo shortly after she turned 18.
A blend of American and Korean flags waving in the wind, the image represents her heritage and symbolizes everything she sees in herself. After the initial ink work, she wanted more.
"It just became addicting," joked the college student and aspiring doctor. She's added 12 more tattoos to her body.
Killeen and its surrounding communities are home to scores of tattoo shops, even as industry proliferation has become a spot of contention for some who remember decades ago when tattoos were associated with gangs and rebels.
Nowadays, many of those stigmas have faded as body art becomes increasingly popular with younger generations. Repeat customers, such as Ellis, have turned the ancient art form into a successful venture for many local entrepreneurs.
In 2003, a Harris Poll found the number of tattooed Americans had nearly tripled since World War II to more than 16 percent. A Pew Research Center study in 2007 found that 36 percent of Americans in the 18-25 age group have a tattoo. The study also found that 40 percent of those aged 26-40 have at least one tattoo.
Overcoming financing barriers
On a recent Wednesday, Chris Bailey hunched over a client as he traced a design with his needle at his Copperas Cove shop. Bailey, owner of Forever Tattoos, has been inking tattoo enthusiasts for almost 15 years.
In 2009, the business owner and artist opened his first shop but was surprised at the negative attitude of financial backers.
Even with a high credit rating, solid business plan, more than a decade of experience and a proven client base in place, lenders refused to sign off on Bailey's idea.
"It was because of the word tattoo," he said.
Financiers have difficulty seeing tattoos shops - which rely heavily on a commission-based income - as being able to turn a stable enough profit to realize returns on their investments.
"Banks didn't want to help out," said Bailey. "It may be an old profession, but it's still not old enough in mainstream business for them to understand how it works as a profitable business."
Bailey decided to gamble on himself. He saved for years until he had enough money to finance the shop on his own.
Typical start-up costs vary, depending on the shop owner's vision.
"It can cost you $100,000 or $20,000," said Bailey, who added that a strong clientele base and good locations are crucial for success. "It just depends on how you do it."
And Bailey said he has proved the financial doubters wrong, with a steady supply of customers and cash.
"I'm doing good," he said. "It's pretty much everything I expected."
His biggest costs are insurance, taxes and leasing shop space, with about 35 percent of gross profits going back to support the business.
Tattoo artists also have to insure the most important tool of their trade - themselves.
"If you hurt your hands, that could put you out of work for months," he said.
A business built on trust
William Tieke of Killeen began tattooing in 2002, apprenticing at several shops to learn his trade. He opened his first tattoo parlor, Texas Proud Tattoos, in February.
"It's truly grass-roots," he said. "It's totally person-to-person, customer-service based. You deal with people one-on-one, and they walk out with one-of-a-kind product that they take to their grave. It's just unique across the board."
The former art student at Central Texas College said he already has a growing clientele seeking his custom-designed tattoos, comparing his relationship with customers to dating.
"It's a trust issue, allowing someone to tattoo on your body," he said. "It's a much more intimate relationship."
Tieke said he works to build a strong connection with customers. "I want (the customer) to be comfortable," he said. "(A customer) and I are going to sit and talk. I'm going to get know you, get to know why you want that tattoo."
Like Bailey, Tieke had difficulty getting start-up business loans. He said the prospect of getting financial institutions to pony up cash to start a tattoo business was "laughable."
"They don't trust it as a business model," said Tieke, who also financed his shop.
And the hesitancy of local banks extends to the civic realm as well, with some shop owners saying city leaders don't see the industry as part of the overall business landscape.
Last year, Double Barrel Tattoo, now located just outside Lampasas, lost its attempt to open within the city limits when the zoning board refused to recommend a special-use permit. The controversy sparked much community debate.
LaJuan Najar, co-owner of Larudes Tattoos, said even with the strong popularity of body art, social mores still prevent the industry from moving into mainstream business arenas.
"The city does not look at tattoo shops and see what possibilities they hold," said Najar, who operates the business with her artist husband, Rudie. "It's sad, because we don't get utilized in terms of what we can contribute back to the community. We're just pushed under the carpet."
Since opening in 2004, Larudes Tattoos has become a popular spot for ink work. Rudie Najar, originally from Los Angeles, has been tattooing for more than 30 years.
Celebrities and television shows, such as "Miami Ink," a reality-show set inside a tattoo parlor, and "Ink Master," a tattoo artist competition, have moved the industry into the pop culture mainstream and helped alleviate much of the cultural stigma.
With TV popularity, some local shop owners said the publicity hasn't always been good for the industry.
"People watch shows like that and think that's the reality," said Najar. "But it's not."
Tattooing shouldn't be treated lightly, not by professionals in the business or by people who covet their designs, said Najar.
Television shows make the business look fun. "It's not as easy as it looks. It's hard to run a shop effectively," she said. "To monitor sterilization, to keep health code requirements, to get educated artists, it can be difficult work. Anytime you're dealing with people, altering their bodies, you have to take that seriously," said Najar.
One of the hardest tasks is trying to convey to clients what is possible with body art, she said. "Not all things are tattooable," said Najar. "Some things look good on paper but maybe not as good on skin."
And businesses that thrive on a centuries-old ritualistic tradition might even be recession-proof.
Local shop owners say the recession's effect was counterintuitive, as customers sought to invest in self-esteem boosts during periods of unemployment or post layoffs.
Bailey said the appeal is the instant gratification.
"If you want to lose weight, you have to work out for months before you even notice a change," said Bailey. "With a tattoo, you sit down for an hour and leave with something new."
Customers like Ellis back Bailey's sentiment up. "You can see your own end result, the art you created for yourself," she said. "For people to see my art, it tells a story that's a part of me."
And for her, leaving that creative mark is worth an investment. "I'm spending about $150 to $200 every time I get tattooed," said Ellis. "My most expensive was $450."
Artists and business owners
Covered in tattoos and casually dressed, tattoo artists like Tieke and Bailey might not fit the image of the typical small-business entrepreneur. But as their businesses prosper and become more entrenched in communities, it becomes harder to dismiss their economic muscle.
With young customers like Ellis eager to pay hundreds of dollars at a time for years, tattooing is an industry poised for continued growth. The well-inked shop owners know they still have to be savvy business professionals at heart.
"(I'm) watching the bottom line," said Bailey. "And I'm making sure my customers are happy."
"It's like every business," explained Najar. "You get out of it what you put into it."
Contact Rebecca Rose (254) 501-7548 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at KDHBusinessNews.