Customer is a canvas for tattoo artist

Her art is in public and private collections: Valerie Caldwell is a full-time tattoo artist at Electric Art Tattoo & Piercing on East Reynolds Road in Lexington. She's been working there for 2½ years, and her loyalty to the studio is beyond dispute: The letters EA, for Electric Art, are writ large on her inner forearm in Japanese brush font.

Your dermis is her canvas: Caldwell, 29, has a small studio, but her real workspace is the human body. "The customer is the job," she says.

At the end of each day, she finds satisfaction both in having pleased her customers and having used her creativity.

On a recent afternoon, she discussed her work while tattooing a large magnolia blossom design on the back of a friend, Alicia Stokes. "Valerie's really gentle," Stokes vouched.

A niche in time: Caldwell, a native of Nicholasville, graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in visual arts. She worked for several years as a welder but, as much as she loved it, was eventually motivated to seek out work that would use other artistic skills. By then she'd acquired a number of tattoos from Matt Williamson, Electric Art's owner. A yearlong apprenticeship with Williamson soon followed, which covered sterilization, design work and building the tools of the trade, such as shaders and liners.

Higher yield, lower risk: Williamson has been in the business since the early 1990s, and has seen it undergo huge changes in terms of popularity and social acceptance in the United States. Outlaw bikers now have to wait their turn behind college students and, sometimes, their grandmothers. A tattoo even made a surprise appearance at the Republican convention recently, on the hand of the father of Sarah Palin's unborn grandchild.

Williamson says that health issues served to clean up the business while the TV show Miami Ink sealed in the coolness. As body art became wildly popular, more creative types got involved. These days, if you don't see what you want on the wall, they'll make it for you.

100 percent coverage: Some of Caldwell's customers just want one tattoo, but many come for another, and then another, until some run out of "open real estate" altogether. What do they do then?

Caldwell's not a therapist, but she can see how people can get hooked on collecting body art just as a Mellon can get hooked on collecting Monets.

Wearing their hearts on their sleeves: For the most part, Caldwell indulges design requests without a trace of "Are you sure?"

One customer is in the process of getting his whole chest, as well as shoulders to elbows — called a half-sleeve in the business — covered in Darth Vader, Boba Fett and other characters from Star Wars' Dark Side. Another has a thing for Mario Brothers.

But when one man came in recently and wanted Aqua Teen Hunger Force's "Freakin' Ladies Man" tattooed on his calf in words and picture, Caldwell felt compelled to remind him of the art's permanence. "Dude, do you really want to be explaining this to your grandkids?" she politely asked.

It seems he did, and the deed was done.

Skin and tone: The law says you have to be 18 to get a tattoo, or 16 with parental consent. This means some would-be customers get friends or relations to pose as parents. Electric Art insists on proper ID and has several notaries on staff.

But there's no limit on how old you can be. Caldwell had one 76-year-old woman come in not long ago asking for a dolphin on her ankle. The woman's divorce papers were hot off the press and "my husband never wanted me to get one," she told Caldwell.

Billy Bob who? Just as Angelina Jolie tried to obliterate all mention of her former husband, 90 percent of cover jobs are names, Caldwell estimates. She advises customers to think long and hard before committing, since getting divorced can be easier than getting rid of a tattoo.

"The skin never looks the same," says Caldwell.

There's buzz about a new ink that fades in a few years, but Caldwell remains skeptical, for now.

Ever-popular Mom: Caldwell's own mother has gotten a tattoo at the studio; she requested a Native American design. Owner Williamson's mother has had work done there, too. And mothers everywhere will be happy to know that Electric Art gets several requests a month for the letters MOM.

One young woman brought in a cross-stitch piece of birds and flowers made by her grandmother that she wanted inked into her back. But crosses, names, stars and butterflies are still the most popular designs. Faithful pet faces and names are never out of fashion.

Back to nature: How's that magnolia design coming on the customer patiently being worked on throughout this interview? It hurts more the closer you get to the backbone, says Stokes, who has barely grimaced the whole time.

"I thought getting my ribs tattooed was worse than childbirth," adds Caldwell, who has a photo of her baby girl on her studio wall, and koi fish and a dragon tattooed on her sides.

As Caldwell carefully fills in the floral design on her friend's back, Stokes says, "I told my boyfriend this is the last one." Then she reflects a moment: "But I said that about the bird, too."