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Making lasting memories; a day in the life of a professional tattoo artist

Posted on Thursday, September 29, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Over the steady buzz of her tattoo machine, Ginny McCormick talks with a client while inking a black outlined cross with on her forearm. The two discuss friends and family, anything, really, during the roughly 30-minute session.
The client, Leora Pitt, is stopping in to Graffiti’s Ink in Mechanicsville from out-of-state before continuing on her journey. Pitt came into the shop and spoke with McCormick about the logistics of getting her tattoo: size, price, time, location. After collaborating on potential designs and discussing details, McCormick went in the back and drew up what she envisioned the tattoo to look like. After the design received Pitt’s approval, the two went back into McCormick’s sea animal-decorated work space.
Graffiti’s Ink has three locations, in Richmond, Mechanicsville and Sandston. McCormick has tattooed at Graffiti’s Ink for about five years, and has done work at the Sandston and Mechanicsville shops. The shops are accustomed to seeing clients from all over Virginia, and the occasional out-of-stater has passed through their doors for a cover-up or new tattoo.
Before beginning anything at all tattoo-related, McCormick puts on latex gloves. To prepare the skin, she first cleans the area that will be tattooed. She gives Pitt’s forearm a good “scrub down” with a proper cleanser. A clean, single-use razor is used to shave any small hairs that may be present on Pitt’s forearm. McCormick applies a clear gel to the area and lays down the stencil that she had previously drawn and run through a thermal copier.
After the stencil’s image has been transferred onto the gelled area, McCormick peels the stencil back and prepares for the tattooing.
For each tattoo a new, single-use needle is opened from a sterile pack and installed in the tattoo machine. The “needle” is actually made up of a few small needles that push ink into the deeper dermis layer of skin. The hand held machine is made up of coils and bars powered by an electromagnetic current, which moves the needle into the client’s skin.
“It feels like someone scratching you really hard, you know, just like a needle is scratching you,” McCormick explained before Pitt arrived. “It really has its own feeling and you just need to get your own to know what it feels like. It feels like getting a tattoo.”
The tattooing process itself took relatively little time. McCormick outlined the cross, following her stencil and later shaded the image where needed. Pitt and McCormick talked and joked while the needles whirred.
After the process is complete, McCormick gives Pitt the rundown on how to care for her tattoo. Bandaging up the fresh ink, she covers the bases of ointment application and cleaning the tattoo for the immediate future.
McCormick grew up in New Kent and currently lives in Sandston. Her decision to pursue a tattooing career seemed a logical step, considering her interest in tattoos and art.
“As long as I can remember I’ve been drawing something,” McCormick said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pencil in my hand.”
The first tattoo that McCormick had done on herself was a shamrock on her arm when she 16. Since this first inking experience, McCormick has added several pieces of work to her body, including more than a few tattoos depicting her favorite sea animals.
According to McCormick, the process of becoming a certified tattoo artist in Virginia requires 1,500 hours of shop time. Artists begin as apprentices and learn the skills necessary to work on clients without supervision.
McCormick explained that artists first learn about the pieces of a tattoo machine and how it works before ever tattooing. Aspiring tattoo artists learn about human skin and how tattoos are applied, practicing lines on objects like melons before working on a person.
Piercing artists also complete apprenticeships to earn their certification, which is typically a shorter process than that of the tattoo certification. McCormick is certified to give both piercings and tattoos, but primarily tattoos at Graffiti’s Ink.
The road to becoming a tattoo artist in Virginia includes sometimes up to two years of practice and skill building.
“You’re constantly learning new things. You start small and then you start getting into the more complicated stuff,” McCormick said. “It’s a process.”
Tattoo and piercing artists are certified in CPR and first aid, and renew their specific certifications every two years. McCormick said that she has only had a few clients actually pass out during their tattooing session.
“People tend to feel more sick after getting a piercing,” McCormick said. “People get so excited or so scared about the piercing, and when they realize it isn’t really that much their adrenaline kind of drops.”
McCormick said that the longest session she had for a tattoo was six hours, with some much deserved breaks throughout the process.
“The most I’ve ever done in one day is about 15 [at the Sandston location],” McCormick said.
As Pitt was getting her tattoo, other clients came in for piercings or called to make appointments. The shop runs like a typical business, except that clients leave smiling and with slight body modifications. The artists agreed that one of the best parts of working in the tattoo and piercing industry was having the ability to make people happy.
Teenage girls left the shop with new piercings and Pitt exited the tattooing space smiling and ready to show off her fresh ink. “Happy” is an understatement, as these artists get an intimate peek into their clients lives while giving them a physical change that could last their lifetime. Wherever their clients go, a little memory of Mechanicsville comes along too.