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The art of tattooing on ‘an ever-changing canvas’

Enjoying a post-lockdown boom in demand, tattooists who double as fine artists carry a unique perspective on the most permanent of art forms

Alexis Rosasco, a tattoo artist and the owner of AR Designs Fine Art & Tattoo, is seen tattooing Brittany Hamilton of Dalton, in North Adams on Feb. 6, 2022.Matthew Cavanaugh/For The Boston Globe

Needle whirring, Devin Coley was three-and-a-half hours into his latest work of art on a February afternoon.

Coley, a tattoo artist at Stingray Body Art in Allston, was in the middle of inking a custom piece, a skull with tentacles erupting from the eyes and mouth. Coley transferred a stencil of his design, which he’d digitally composed the night before, onto the skin of his client, Spencer Antholz, before etching it in permanently. A printout of the design rested next to Antholz’s thigh — Coley’s canvas.

“You can put something out there and tons of people are going to see it, and it’s going to be walking around,” said Coley, who has been tattooing for nearly a decade. Coley is also a painter, but with tattooing, “this stuff is going to be great now,” he said. “It doesn’t have to wait till I die.”


According to the Boston Public Health Commission, there are 86 active licensed tattoo artists in Boston alone, with more in neighboring cities — and for many of them, tattooing is just where their art begins. Some double as painters or illustrators, and a growing number of tattoo artists have formal artistic training. At Massachusetts College of Art and Design, for instance, around 5-10 percent of illustration majors are considering tattoo-related art careers, an uptick from a decade ago, said Margot Zurakowska, chair of MassArt’s illustration department.

“It’s a really good thing to have this art background if you’re ever going to go into tattooing,” said Chris Spuglio, who briefly attended MassArt and is now a tattoo artist specializing in watercolor at Juli Moon Studio in Lynn. “You know things about light sources and contrasting and form and lines and design.”

A tattoo by Chris Spuglio, which he inked based on a photo. Spuglio, who is also a painter, is a tattoo artist at Juli Moon Studio in Lynn.Courtesy of Chris Spuglio

Spuglio, who is also a painter, saw tattooing not only as a way to find financial stability in an artistic career, but also as an entirely new way to hone his craft. “I can practice my art every single day,” he said.


Tattooing, a billion-dollar-a-year industry, is at a critical moment of cultural acceptance: According to industry market research company IBISWorld, nearly half of Americans have at least one tattoo. Tattoo studios also enjoyed a post-quarantine boom, with clients eager to get inked after shops reopened.

Several tattoo artists the Globe interviewed confirmed they’ve experienced an increase in business, but noted that the art of tattooing is as unpredictable as ever.

“It’s an ever-changing canvas, when you’re working on a person,” said Spuglio. “I don’t think I paint as abstractly anymore because tattooing, you have to be very precise.”

It’s the nature of skin that keeps tattooing interesting, said Adam LoRusso, owner of Last Light Tattoo Studio in Medford, where he inks detailed black-and-gray tattoos. “You have this opportunity to put something that’s two dimensional on a three-dimensional form,” he said.

A photo of a snake tattoo done by Adam LoRusso, owner of Last Light Tattoo Studio in Medford.Adam LoRusso

The variability of skin also means a steep learning curve for those trained in fine art, said Alexis Rosasco, owner of AR Designs Fine Art & Tattoo in North Adams, who studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. “Skin texture can change from millimeter to millimeter,” said Rosasco. “I like things to run with the lines of the body and to complement the body.”

Unlike other forms of art, Spuglio said, tattooing is “more about feel.” It depends heavily on knowing your way around the needles, which are often organized in tight bunches, with different tapers, diameters, and arrangements depending on what kind of line, shading, or blending work the artist wants to do.


Aspiring tattoo artists often gain these specialized skills through an unpaid apprenticeship. To secure a license in Boston, apprentices must complete at least 1,800 hours of work on a minimum of 100 clients under the supervision of a licensed artist. During this time, tattoo artists learn to “wire your head and your hand together so that they work as one,” Spuglio said.

Tattooing, with its prolonged periods of intense focus and little to no room for error, can be mentally draining, said Irina Shapiro, a tattoo artist at Boston Tattoo Company and an alumna of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Irina Shapiro, a tattoo artist at Boston Tattoo Company in Somerville, preparing ink for a floral tattoo.Dana Gerber

In February, Shapiro was preparing for a multi-session sleeve project — a 3D array of flora and fauna mixed with dice from Dungeons and Dragons. Shapiro and her client chatted as she pulled multicolored bottles of ink from her shelves and squeezed some into tiny hexagonal caps.

“It’s definitely the most demanding art form that I’ve ever done,” said Shapiro. “I don’t think I thought of myself as an artist until I started tattooing.”

After the high-intensity, meticulous work of inking somebody for life, other forms of art can offer a sort of respite. “You get one shot to do everything,” LoRusso said about tattooing, whereas painting offers him the chance to “be really loose and gestural.”


Adam LoRusso, a tattoo artist who doubles as a painter, at his painting studio in the Porter Mill Studios in Beverly.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Several artists said that tattooing requires a unique discipline, since it involves another person. “You do this every day, but they don’t,” said Shapiro. Coley, who can take years to complete paintings, said his work ethic is stronger with tattoos. “You have to finish it,” he said.

The relationship with clients adds to the appeal of the job for some tattoo artists, like Dia Moeller, who works at Brilliance Tattoo in Jamaica Plain. “When you paint on a piece of paper, you don’t really have that human connection that I think is really beautiful in tattooing,” Moeller said. And, on the client end, “you get to curate your own collection,” Moeller said.

But this collaborative aspect can be frustrating for artists who want more control over their expression. “It’s a shared medium,” said Moeller, who has a penchant for tattooing botanicals. Painting and drawing allow her to “go as weird as I want to go without having to check with someone else.”

Some clients go to an artist because they specialize in a particular type of tattoo, such as American traditional, watercolor, or Japanese-style. Coley, for instance, is in the neo-traditional camp, focusing on bold lines and rich colors. Tacked onto one wall of his tattoo cubicle are a handful of his designs: a blue cat with glowing red eyes and a wolverine claw; a toothy alligator emerging from a cluster of pink petals.


”The hardest part is finding your style, and making it look like a Devin tattoo and not a tattoo that was applied by Devin,” said Coley. “I think that’s just being an artist.”

Some tattoo artists do only bespoke pieces, while others do “flash,” or pre-designed tattoos. The former is typically more expensive — Coley, for instance, charges $200 an hour, and does only one tattoo a day. “I think there’s tattoo artists,” he said, “and there’s tattooists.”

LoRusso said he has noticed that some of his techniques blur the line between tattooing and painting, but he tries “to keep them rather separate.”

“They require a different type of attention,” LoRusso said of painting and tattooing. “While the two things are different, they do feed each other.”

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.