ONE ON ONE | Debbie Lenz She's been needled about her job, but she loves it

Q. How long have you been tattooing?
A. I'm starting my 21st year this month. I learned from my husband, John.
Q.. What sparked your interest?
A. I met John in '77. I never thought of tattooing until I met him. I think my childhood came back because my uncle had tattoos. He was in the Navy, and he had one on each arm. One was a hula girl and one was a sailor girl. He'd move his arms, and it would look like they were dancing. My grandmother used to get really upset, it was "Donald, hide those tattoos from the children!" We thought they were pretty cool. I never thought about tattooing again until I met John. I started helping in the studio. John had his studio on Parkview Avenue. He'd started tattooing in '74 and tattooed there until 1981; then we moved to Uptown.
Q. Tattoos have really become mainstream. How did that transition unfold?
A. When John started in 1974, there were 200 tattoo studios in the country. Then in 1977 or '76 they had the first tattoo convention in Houston. The media was there -- newspaper, TV -- and it took tattooing from something that only certain people did, like bikers, to being more accepted. People said, "Wow, it is an art. It's not only weirdos or freaks that get tattoos."
Q. Did you start tattooing when Lenz's Tattoo Studio moved to Uptown?
A. Yeah. It was a big shop and John was like, "I'm gonna have to hire somebody." I'd done one or two tattoos the year before. I tried one on my brother. It was a nightmare. Then, John was going to hire somebody. I was like, "Why can't I tattoo?"
Hesitantly, he said, "OK, but you're going to have to find somebody to do a tattoo on."
There's really no way to learn, other than doing it on skin. So, I was telling my mom about it -- she was not too fond that I had tattoos -- and to my surprise she said, "You can do a tattoo on me." So, I drew a bumble bee and a flower, and I tattooed it, and it was like wow, I can actually do this.
Q. Do you do a lot of freehand?
A. Most of the tattoos that we do are from patterns. That was just something that worked for me at the beginning.
Q. Why did you move from Uptown?
A. We'd frequently take the children to work with us, and the Uptown area got to be a little dangerous. And, we had moved from Parkview Avenue to North LimA.
Q. Where did you move your studio?
A. To Continental Square on Market Street in Boardman.
Q. Is that when you changed names?
A. Yeah. Our landlord didn't want any problems with Boardman Township -- they were very conservative. So my husband said "I'll call it Artistic Dermagraphics." We've had that name since 1988.
Q. When did you move to this studio at 8254 Market St.?
A: My husband got sick in 1996. He had a brain aneurysm. We'd talked about moving before that, but when he had a life-threatening situation, we didn't know if we should move. He, thankfully, got better, but he retired from tattooing. Then we moved to this spot. We just started our fourth year here.
Q. In addition to yourself, how many artists do you employ?
A. Jeremy's been with us for 10 years. Our two sons also work here. Then we have a body piercer.
Q. What requirements must clients meet before getting tattooed?
A. As far as age, the state minimum is 16 with a parent who signs. We like everybody to be 18. If a customer is diabetic or has health problems, I tell them to check with their doctor before they get a tattoo. The main thing is that they are sober.
Q. Does it hurt?
A. It's somewhat painful. Some people say it gets numb after awhile. Some find it pleasurable because they've thought about getting a tattoo a long time and don't notice the pain because they're excited.
Q. Do you discourage anyone?
A. If I think somebody's not sure. Sometimes you get somebody that's like, "I don't really know if I want a tattoo, but my husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend wants me to get it, or all my friends are getting them." Then I go, "You better really think about it -- it's something that's going to last. You're going to live with it."
Q. Have you ever turned anyone away?
A. We've turned people away if they've been intoxicated or just totally rude.
Q. How long does it take?
A. Depending on the size, anywhere from 20 minutes to hours. Large tattoos -- anything that takes over a few hours -- we do in sittings.
Q. How long does it take to heal?
A. About two weeks.
Q. How much does it cost?
A. We start at $40, and it goes up according to the size and detail and color.
Q. What's the most unusual tattoo you've done?
A. A guy was going to have open-heart surgery and, as a joke to his doctor, he had a zipper tattooed on his chest.
Q. Do all of your children have tattoos?
A. No. I have a daughter that's 25 and a son that's 28, and they have tattoos. And then Drake and Jack, who work here, and then my daughter, Roxy, who's 18. We have two younger ones who don't have tattoos.
Q. Is anyone else in the family planning to go into the business?
A. I'm not sure. Roxy just graduated. I think she'd like to tattoo, but she's a little like her mom, like I was in the beginning, a little hesitant. I don't want her to tattoo unless she really wants to.
Q. What did you do before becoming a tattoo artist?
A. I was a secretary. Then I was a full-time mom, and then I was a cocktail waitress. I met John shortly after that.
Q. Is this a nontraditional profession for a woman?
A. When I started, there weren't many female tattoo artists. Even now, men outnumber women by a lot. When I first started, people would come in -- John was tattooing a lot of bikers -- and he would go, "I'm going to have my wife do this," and they were, "Oh man, I'm not going to have no woman tattoo me." After I tattooed them, they'd end up asking for me.
Q. Who gets tattooed?
A. Bikers still get tattoos, but there's also nurses, doctors, attorneys -- I even tattooed a Catholic priest. This guy came and he had on a T-shirt that said "Fly high with Jesus." I just thought he was into the Lord, which is great. As he sat in the chair I asked him what he does. He chuckled and said, "I marry them and bury them." Then he said, "I'm a Catholic priest." I was like, am I gonna go to hell for this? He said, "If I don't, you won't."
Q. How has the business of tattooing changed?
A. More artists are getting into it now that it's become more legitimate. Before, you'd see a tattoo shop, a bar and a massage parlor. It was always in the shady areas. Now, tattoo shops are cropping up in different areas. The lady next door might have a tattoo. But there's still a stereotype. I used to be guilty of this myself. You'd meet somebody with a lot of tattoos and you'd think, "Oh my gosh, this must be a really hard person," and they turn out to out to be the nicest person. Our society judges too quickly.
Q. You've been featured in a lot of publications. What are the most notable?
A. We've been in International Tattoo Art and Skin & amp; Ink. John and I are in a hard cover book, "The Illustrated Woman." People that we tattooed were in an exhibit at the Butler [Institute of American Art] by Mark Perrott, a photographer from Pittsburgh.
Q. Is there one tattoo you've done that you're most proud of?
A. I can't pinpoint one. I have things I'm working on, people whose goal is to be totally tattooed. I have a guy from Florida -- he has work from people all over the country. I did his first tattoo and he wants to get a back piece from me. I also have a guy from Oklahoma that comes every year, and a guy from Philadelphia that comes a couple times a year.
Q. What is the farthest any of your customers have come?
A. I tattooed a guy from Switzerland. When my husband was in the Cleveland Clinic, we had a doctor that was fascinated with John's tattoo work. I did a lot of the stuff that he liked. He had a patient from Switzerland, and he liked to get airplanes tattooed on him. He had work from Italian and Swiss artists, and he'd seen pictures of my work. When he'd come to the states he'd get work from me.
Q. Who are some of your most untraditional clients?
A. I have a client who's in her 70s. I think she was 72 when she got her first tattoo and now she has three. Her husband was a doctor and he never liked tattoos. Within months of his death, she said, "I know he hates them, but I've always wanted one, and I hope he sees me getting this tattoo."
Q. How has the public's attitude about tattoos changed?
A. It's really weird. When I used to go to the mall I'd wear long sleeves because people would stare. Now, people are attracted. They come up and talk. Five or six years ago people were, "Look at her. What a freak."
Q. How many tattoos do you have?
A. I maybe have a third of my body tattooed.
Q. Are you going to get any more?
A. I don't know. I may, I may not. My son recently did a tattoo on me, but Jeremy never has and he does really nice work.

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