KENNEWICK -- David W. Roberts of Blue Crown Dental Arts in Kennewick takes the concept of body art to a whole other level -- the micro level.
Roberts is in the business of making dental crowns -- caps that encircle a tooth or dental implant. He takes imprints provided by dentists, and with some high-tech machinery shapes ceramic, metal and porcelain into facsimiles of teeth.
He uses photos to match the crown to just the right shade to match the wearer's other teeth.
And for customers feeling a little more expressive or adventurous, Roberts will paint a favorite sports logo, a beloved pet or a meaningful symbol on the crown in painstaking and minuscule detail.
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"My only requirement is that they give me a picture of what they want," he said. "Don't make me guess."
Roberts calls what he does "tooth tattooing," although there are no needles or pain involved for the person requesting the image -- at least not from the artwork.
He started painting on dental crowns about 40 years ago as a young dental technician. His first creation was a daisy requested by a dental assistant in the office where he worked.
He'd always been interested in drawing and carving, and thought, "I can do this."
He's painted on about 250 crowns through the years.
Photos on the wall of his consultation room in his lab on North Grant Place show off some of his creations. Sports logos are popular -- the Washington State University Cougars and Seattle Seahawks logos are frequent requests.
Other people have asked for flowers or pets. One photo shows a crown embossed with the Egyptian sun symbol in gold foil.
Becoming a "tooth tattoo" artist was a learning process, such as figuring out how to use red stains without having them burn out and turn pink when the crown is put in the firing oven for finishing.
Roberts said the development of new kinds of stains with more vibrant, durable colors by a dental technician in Georgia helped him take his artwork to a new level.
The stains he uses are powdered pigments that he scoops up with a tiny, fine spoon and drops onto a palette. Then he mixes in propylene glycol to turn the stain into a paint.
And the artwork doesn't just sit on top of the crown -- it becomes part of it. Before painting the design onto the crown, he'll grind the shape onto the crown's surface then lay the painted design into the depression.
The designs are so small and intricate that Roberts works with brushes that have just one or two hairs.
Sitting in his consultation room, he held up a crown with an American flag design and talked about how he layered the paint on one color at a time and then fired it in an oven at searing temperatures in excess of 1,500 degrees.
"Something like this would take five or six firings," he said. "If I attach the red and white at the same time, they will bleed into each other."
He said something like an American flag typically would take him about an hour and a half of direct work, not including time spent waiting while the crown is fired.
When the design is done, the tooth gets a clear coating to seal and smooth out the surface, and one last firing to finish it before going back to the dentist to be implanted in someone's mouth.
Roberts said he primarily works with crowns that go in the back of someone's mouth rather than teeth that are front-and-center.
"They have to pull their lip aside to show it," he said.
He said most people don't know that a tooth tattoo is something they can request for an extra fee. Some are skeptical about the idea of permanent artwork on their teeth. He tells them they can always swap it for a clean crown.
"I tell them, 'Would you rather have a tooth tattoo or have it in your skin?' " he said.
But when people do opt for a bit of dental art, Roberts finds a sense of pride in making someone happy with their smile.
"There's so many patients (who) you build them a new smile and they're beside themselves," he said.
For information, call Blue Crown Dental Arts at 735-9336.