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Picture This, August 2012 — Needle work

 Needle work

Bill Claydon’s customers believe beauty is skin deep.

In the late 1940s, Bill Claydon’s father opened a tattoo parlor in Oceanside, Calif. A 6- by 12-foot room inside an arcade, it was the only one between San Diego and Los Angeles, catering almost ex- clusively to Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton. When Claydon bought this one in Fayetteville in 1986 — he thinks it opened in the ’70s, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the state still in business — it was a lot like his dad’s, with mostly military clientele and little competition. Now rivals surround Bill Claydon’s Tattoo World Inc.

Eight percent — 145 — of the 1,841 ink slingers licensed by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services are in Cumberland County. But Fort Bragg’s soldiers don’t make it unique. Tattooing’s mark on the state as a whole has spread, with the number of licensed artists increasing 232% between 2000 and 2011. “Everybody and their brother is in the trade now,” Claydon says. Now 64, he got his first tattoo — “Billy,” on his shoulder — from his father and inked his first customer at 13. “My dad didn’t have too many scruples about that.” In 1972, he moved to Alaska to work on the pipeline, later landing in Florida, where he opened a few tattoo shops. By 1986, he’d had enough of the heat. When an acquaintance offered to sell his shop, Claydon agreed to pay $5,000 and moved north.

With nine booths in about 2,500 square feet, Tattoo World has been at its current site 20 years this month. Because of competition, his artists, who essentially rent space, aren’t as busy as they used to be, most inking maybe two tattoos a night. On a good weekend night, the shop will do 20 to 30. Customers have become more demanding. “They bring in stuff off the Internet. They have a whole story about what they want. You spend a lot more time drawing.” A typical job runs $100 to $150 for a few hours work, enabling the parlor to generate about $200,000 in annual revenue. Clientele is still mostly military.

Claydon worries that the growth of the industry will lead to lower standards. “The public has to be aware. I’m not concerned with how much revenue goes through the shop but the quality of the tattoos and the customer satisfaction. I don’t ever want to hear [my artist] is having a bad day.” Considering the permanence of his product, neither do his patrons

— Spencer Campbell