Tattoos: the art of Tri-City 'inkonomics'

When Lonn Howard opened Hoops Body Arts about a decade ago, he never would've dreamed the Tri-Cities could sustain all the studios that are open today.

But as tattoos gain popularity largely thanks to TV and shows such as Miami Ink, he's not complaining.

"If there's a McDonald's on one corner, you can be sure there's an A&W on the next and a Taco Bell nearby," said the owner of downtown Kennewick's oldest tattoo studio, which also does piercings.

"All it does is increase foot traffic in the area where your business is located."

Within a handful of blocks of downtown Kennewick, about half of the Tri-Cities' nine tattoo studios - not including those dedicated solely to permanent makeup - ink clients with art ranging in cost from $50 to several thousand dollars, depending on the size and intricacy of the piece.

The "inkonomics" of the four downtown studios are a financial asset to the area and an illustration of society's acceptance of tattoos.

"They bring a diverse population with them," said Tim Dalton, executive director of the Historic Downtown Kennewick Partnership. "The income they're generating is huge."

Victor Hernandez, tattoo artist at Ink Monkey Tattoo on Cascade Street downtown, said the shop's location piggy-backed on downtown's reputation.

"That's where everybody comes for tattoos," said Hernandez, who's been tattooing in the Tri-Cities for six years.

Shop owner Doug Leeth agreed.

"It's easier to be where everybody else already knows," he said. "Generally everybody comes to downtown Kennewick for a tattoo."

Ink Monkey has been open downtown for about a year, Hernandez said.

The established tattoo clientele also was a selling point for Iron Needle Tattoo on Kennewick Avenue, said artist Cory Botts.

"It helped getting started, for sure," he said.

Other shops around the Tri-Cities have opted to establish separate identities for themselves.

Dede Covington recently took her home-based body art business to a storefront on Clearwater Avenue in Kennewick to differentiate herself from the downtown cluster.

And though Covington considered the number of shops in the area before opening, business at Self Expressions Body Art Studio has been strong. Many of her clients are 40-something women looking to commemorate a birthday or other special occasion, she said.

"I don't think the market is overwhelmed with good artists," she said. "People are looking for quality."

At Asylum Tattoo, believed to be Pasco's only tattoo shop, piercer Mike Suihkonen said the two-year-old shop wanted to set itself apart.

"Downtown Kennewick is saturated and there was none in Pasco, so it was a no-brainer," he said.

Many of the shop's first clients came from Pasco, but word has spread and the customer base now extends to Hermiston, he said.

So how does a person looking for some body art pick a shop?

Look at artists' portfolios and find tattoos you like and who did them, artists said.

"As far as tattoo shops, it's all word-of-mouth," Suihkonen said.

And don't forget to ask about safety measures, said Heather Hill, communicable disease supervisor for the Benton-Franklin Health District.

The tattoo industry isn't regulated, which means studios are on their own to establish levels of sterilization and cleanliness.

"Really spend some time with the person who's going to do your tattoo," Hill said, and don't be afraid to ask questions.

Many artists said they think regulating the tattoo industry would be a boost.

"People shouldn't be afraid of rules if they're doing the right things," said Jerrett Spaeth, owner of Monarch Tattoo.

Monarch, on Kennewick Avenue, is the second-oldest downtown shop.

Spaeth said he chose the downtown location more out of necessity because he had a hard time finding a space that would lease to a tattoo shop.

While competition between downtown shops is mostly friendly, artists say, Spaeth said he tends to see competition on a bigger scale.

"One of my mentors always told me not to compete locally, compete globally," Spaeth said. "If you're running a race you can concentrate on the goal or you can concentrate on the other racers."

Since opening the shop, Spaeth said he's seen the quality of art improve industry-wide.

Is there enough business to support all the studios?

"In my experience, we keep busy. It pays the bills," Hernandez said.

And Monarch's three artists are booked into the winter, Spaeth said.

But a fifth shop is planning to open downtown, which could affect business at the other studios, Dalton said.

"You put too much of anything in and all of a sudden, at some point people stop doing well," he said.

And since word-of-mouth is so important, Dalton's worried that a bad tattoo or two will damage business for everyone else.

"My concern is over the whole industry downtown," he said.

But for now, local tattoo artists will continue making livings on the art they love - and bringing business downtown.

"Body art shops bring people downtown that otherwise wouldn't have any reason to come down here," Howard said.

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