Custom Designs a Speciality at Hightstown Tattoo Shop
K&B Tattoos and Piercing owner focuses on cleanliness and sanitation.
Part of the reason 49-year-old Hightstown resident and father of two decided to enter the tattoo business is because he loves to meet new people.
“In the end, I love to talk,” Thomi Hawk, owner of K&B Tattoos and Piercing in Hightstown, said Monday.
Reclining in a swivel chair in the back of his clean, one room shop he recalled his decision to purchase K&B Tattoos from its original owner, Kenny Pullman.
“When you do something like tattoo people for a living, nine out of 10 clients have a fantastic story,” he said. “Some of my very, very long-term friends have been people who’ve walked off the street into my store.”
Though Hawk bought the business from Pullman 14 years ago, he’s been in the ink business for 25 years.
“Back then it was different world,” he said. “Nowadays tattoo artists in New Jersey are required to be licensed and have to follow major protocols.”
Hawk sits on the New Jersey Steering Committee, a group of individuals ranging from state Department of Health and Senior Services officials, to doctors and pathologists.
“Society tends to attach some sort of stigma to both tattoo artists and people with ink,” he said. “Usually there first question is, were you in jail or the navy?”
On the contrary, Hawk noted that like doctors and patients, tattoo artists and their clients are at constant risk of cross-contamination and blood and airborne pathogens.
“I recently trained a group of New Jersey health inspectors to get a better idea of what to look for,” he said. “Hospitals and doctor’s offices are under their own jurisdiction so while I’m not decrying what health inspectors do, most of their work isn’t around environments that need to be as sterile as an operating room.”
Hawk rummaged around a set of cabinets and produced several tubes, a box of latex-free gloves and needles before explaining how the tattoo process works.
“Basically a needle is used to puncture the skin and go below the epidermis [outer layer of the skin], to the dermis [second layer of skin],” he said. “Then ink is trapped in the layer of fatty cells that sit between the epidermis and dermis and since the epidermis is so thin, the tattoo becomes visible through the skin.”
To become a tattooist, Hawk said prospect artists must apprentice for a year.
“Currently I have two,” he said. His apprentices, Skylar and Ronda, will have to put in 40 hours per week for one year before they can become licensed professionals.
Hawk said that by the time actual artists get through the pipeline, they are so adept at their craft that clients rarely suffer under the needle.
“The problem with tattoo-related infections these days is that the industry has started seeing what we call kitchen magicians,” he said. “These are untrained people with no knowledge of proper sanitation who buy tattoo equipment online or from the back of a magazine and set up shop in their basement or garage.”
While Hawk can’t vouch for all professional tattooists, he believes such activity by non-professionals results in most tattoo-related injuries.
Though it varies by size, the average tattoo at K&B costs roughly $150. And while “flash” (posters, prints and books of suggested designs) lines the walls of his shop, Hawk noted that roughly 70 percent of the tattoos he gives are by custom design.
“When someone comes into the shop wanting a custom tattoo they’ll usually have a design with them,” he said. “If I’m not sure they’ll like what they want down the road, I’ll try to work with them and add a few ideas of my own.”
While Hawk is hesitant to refuse work, there are some stipulations.
“Kenny taught me to be an artist not an art critic,” he said.
Hawk refuses to do tattoos on persons under the age of 18 unless their parents sign a consent form, review the proposed design and sit in the shop while he applies the ink. And there are some designs he is simply averse to reproducing.
“For one, I won’t do things like Swastikas because I don’t want a symbol associated with such hatred tied to my reputation,” he said.
Most of K&B’s clients are walk-ins who stumble randomly upon the shop, although word of mouth also plays a role. The shop is also listed in the phone book and has a Facebook page.
“It’s just me, the apprentices and my long-time partner Mac who’s been with me since I bought the place, and that’s just the way I like it,” he said.