by Marie Gullard
Melissa Ritmiller throws her head back, her lovely red hair falling from her shoulders. A wide smile illuminates the pretty face before a burst of spontaneous laughter breaks the silence. This non-verbal response follows the remark that tattoo artists have been traditionally perceived as burly men with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, wielding a needle under the light of a dangling overhead bulb.
When she speaks, the soft voice carries a mixture of serious contemplation and tongue-in-cheek observation.
“There are so many stereotypes,” she says. “My boyfriend’s father doesn’t quite know how to take me. I don’t fit into any of his boxes.”
Indeed, the whole business of body art has changed dramatically over the years, as have the artists who administer them.
Melissa’s workroom at Body FX Tattoo and Piercing Studio in Elkridge is as bright as a doctor’s examining room. Neatly placed plastic bottles sit in graduated rows on a counter, each bottle containing a different color pigment. The effect is reminiscent of a box of 64 Crayola crayons. The tattoo gun rests by a sink along with several other tools of her trade, such as antiseptic, swabs, and a box of latex gloves. A comfortable vinyl upholstered chair, along with a chaise lounge of the same material, insures customer comfort while being worked on. Deep lilac colored walls are decorated with Asian and Tibetan artwork, offering a striking contrast to the white cabinetry. Atop a high shelf, Melissa’s college diploma is perched next to a photograph of her and a friend on graduation day.
“People think that because I’m a tattoo artist, I’m less educated, less intelligent than I really am,” says this PHI BETA KAPA graduate of Goucher College in Northern Baltimore County. “I have fun with it! People just don’t realize.”
More than merely leaving her artistic stamp on customers, Melissa herself sports no less than six tattoos on her body. The obsession began at age 19 in her freshman year on academic scholarship at Goucher. She was studying Biology, and with a passion for art and the human anatomy, her hope was to one day become a medical illustrator.
“My brother agreed to buy me a tattoo for my birthday,” she remembers. “It was a very big deal for us to go up to Westminster, to a little place I knew of there. I was very shy and so intimidated. It never crossed my mind that it would hurt!”
Melissa knew that she wanted a dragon emblazoned on her chest, something original and not a flash, which is a pre-designed piece. She was talked out of being tattooed on the chest area, instead having her dragon placed between the shoulder blades and extending halfway down her back.
“I was hooked,” she says matter-of-factly, “and began saving my money so that I could get one every year.”
“Kids today think it’s so trendy,” she continues, “but that was not the case when I got mine. My tattoos are a part of me, something I do for myself, NOT for what people will think. It’s silly to get a tattoo because you think it’s cool.”
In addition to the dragon, Melissa currently sports a “sleeve” on her left arm, a wrist to shoulder floral piece, a two-dragon band around her left thigh, and a left hip to kneecap Japanese carp known as a Koi.
“My dad, who was so mad at first, is starting to come around,” laughs the 29 year-old, “especially when I got one for him.”
Melissa raises her pantleg to reveal a colorful “Flying Eyeball” on her right shin. A banner around the eyeball’s wings features the words, For You Dad, while a little flying Dustbuster represents her father’s fondness for the appliance.
Upon graduation in 1996 with a degree in Fine Arts, Melissa, who had four tattoos by that time, went to work as a technical writer for a Biotech company. Curiously enough, she had no body art that couldn’t be covered with clothing. The same holds true today.
“Kids now don’t think of the ramifications of body piercing and tattoos,” she interjects. “They think it’s fine because it’s okay with their peers, [but] with society in general, it’s not really accepted, and the kids don’t see that.”
Melissa concedes that having a tattoo involves mental adjustment. One that cannot be readily hidden especially requires a great deal of commitment. To that end - and because she believes they do not wear well - she will never do a person’s face, and certainly not her own.
Early into her Biotech days, Melissa confided to a co-worker that she really wanted to be a tattoo artist. The co-worker just happened to have a friend....
“I asked Gordon Penenburgh of Body FX if he would like to see a portfolio of my work,” Melissa continues. “I had line drawings, a lot of human figures, bones, skulls, and some portraiture.”
Penenburgh agreed to take her on as an apprentice, and she never looked back. Her parents had promised her a few thousand dollars to help with graduate school in photography and painting.
“I talked them into giving me the money to apprentice,” she says. “It took that and every cent I had, but I wanted it so badly.”
Melissa spent every spare moment she had at Body FX and learned her craft quickly. She can readily recall her first assignment: a little red cross, and the nervous feeling she had before beginning. As soon as the needle hit the skin, however, she was fine. Over the years, as a self-employed independent contractor with Penenburgh, she estimates that she has done thousands of tattoos.
And what of her clientele? Some may find it surprising to see who is being tattooed these days and Melissa is only too happy to oblige:
“I do a lot of doctors and health care professionals. [They] want portraits from pictures, and half-sleeves from the elbow to the shoulder. I do lawyers...and there is an insurance adjuster who has two full sleeves”.
Then, there is her long-standing customer, Randy, a 41-year-old welder. She is creating for him a whole body suit in a Japanese Style Back Piece. The work, naturally, is done in stages. Melissa’s water color template hangs on the wall like an intricate piece of tapestry. It is, like its recipient, a work in progress.
Ironically, Melissa’s boyfriend, Luke, is not tattooed at all. Together in what she calls a serious relationship for over a year now, she maintains that Luke, a marketing manager for an engineering company, is pretty neutral about her profession and her own body art.
“He thinks it’s fascinating, and [believes] that what you have on your body is not a measure of who you are,” she says, adding, “I tell people up front that I have a lot of tattoos. I can hide everything I have.” And, as an afterthought, she interjects, “I get different reactions based on whether I’m covered or not.”
She’s had people stare, and walk away from her gaze. She confides that some look at her as if to say, “How could you do that to your body?”, while others will comment on how pretty the artwork is. She will not use her needle in any application that is racist, gang related, or serves to degrade women, men and children.
“There is enough negativity in the world,” she muses, “Why add to it?”
Making beautiful art, even what many consider “low brow,” such as tattoos, is Melissa’s lifeblood. One of the bedrooms in her house is set up as a studio for drawing and painting. She would also like to work on more art projects with her brother, a government graphic artist, employed by Booz Allen Hamilton Company.
Still, it’s all about body art, a bug that bit her over 10 years ago with her first tattoo, and continues biting to this day. There is no better homage to her talent, she says, than when people want to wear her original art on their body for life.
And so, with the deftness of a skilled surgeon, Melissa puts on latex gloves and prepares her needle and pigment for a walk-in customer who has requested a small Celtic knot on her back. She works quietly, her eyes, hands, and mind focused on the job at hand. An earlier comment of hers seems now to be foremost in her mind:
“It’s a great compliment that people trust you, that people are happy with what you’ve given them.”