Once on the fringes, tattoo artists are now an integral part of downtown Maine

Thirty years ago there were a few types of businesses that one would expect to see in the average downtown area. A hardware store. A pharmacy. A shoe shop. Things like that.

But those staple businesses on the main streets have changed over the past few decades, to instead include coffee shops, craft breweries, and, like most towns in Maine with a downtown area, a tattoo studio.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine most major cities in Maine without one. Twenty years ago, you could count on one hand the number of tattoo studios in the Bangor area. Today there are 12, including six in downtown Bangor, three of which are on the same side of Main Street, within 200 feet of each other.

“I grew up in Bangor. When I got into tattooing 20 years ago, I didn’t think it would be a growing industry, where I would mingle with other business owners, ”said Corey Paradise, a Bangor native who has operated Paradise Tattoo in Blue Hill since 2007 “I thought that meant being on the fringes, dealing with a smaller population and still being that kind of niche. Now I tattoo everyone from grandmothers to kids fresh out of high school. “

Ink bottles at Birds & Bones Tattoo Studio and Art Gallery in downtown Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The tattoo industry in the United States is worth more than $ 1 billion, a number that has grown at least 10% year-on-year since 2016, according to IBISWorld. Everyone from elite athletes and high profile celebrities to politicians has it. In Maine, there are over 200 licensed tattoo studios, from Fox Den Tattoo in Caribou to On Point Tattoo Company in South Berwick.

But not so long ago, tattoo shops were pushed to the outskirts of town, and the public perception was that only bikers, sailors and criminals had them. Now tattoo artists are an integral part of revitalizing the country’s downtown areas.

“I think the developers and owners consider a tattoo shop to be a safe bet. It benefits them rather than harms. It’s a growing industry, and that’s cool, ”Paradise said. “Compare that to my first tattoo, illegally, in an apartment in Bangor. It’s a crazy change.

The tattoos people got for the past several decades were often more simple or classic, like the bold, retro designs of people like Sailor Jerry and Don Ed Hardy, or followed certain trends, like the craze for tattoos. tribal tattoos from the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, however, they reflect as much someone’s personal taste as the tattoo artist’s artistic sensibility. Some specialize in very realistic portraits, some are known for their shading and painting approaches, some excel at lettering and clean lines, and some cover up old tattoos. There is someone for every type of customer.

Siobhan Gildea, 29, who opened the Birds & Bones tattoo studio and art gallery in downtown Bangor in 2019 alongside fellow tattoo artist Hailee Winter, said there was a bit of separation between the first generation tattoo artists, who appeared at the time before the internet, and the second generation ones, of which she and many artists currently working in the Bangor area are.

The fact that there are three tattoo studios – Birds & Bones, Three Graces and the recently opened Timber Hearth Tattoo Co. – all within 200 feet of each other in downtown Bangor doesn’t bother Gildea at all. . In fact, she says it’s good for everyone.

Siobhan Gildea (left), who opened Birds & Bones tattoo studio and art gallery in downtown Bangor in 2019, works alongside fellow tattoo artist Hailee Winter. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“I think in the past people had to protect their craft and their territory because in many states it was still illegal, and they had to fight for clients,” said Gildea, who studied art. at the university and exhibits his paintings and drawings in his studio.

“Today, public perception has changed so much and the demand is so high that there is no real need for control or competition. We all do different things. And that’s what you want – it’s meant to be something unique. You want everyone to have a different sensitivity. If we were all the same it would get boring.

The fact that tattooing is such an individualized art form and business model means that the industry as a whole is almost entirely run by very small companies. The average tattoo company employs only one or two people, and very rarely more than 10. But the demand for their services – exacerbated by the fact that tattoo artists in Maine had to shut down during the early days of the pandemic and had several months in arrears to reprogram – has never been higher.

“I am booked until June 2022,” said Gildea. “It’s a crazy time for the tattoo industry. It’s pretty exciting.

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