Thirty years ago, there were a few types of businesses you could expect the average downtown to have. A hardware store. A pharmacy. A shoe store. Things like that.
But those staple businesses on Main streets have shifted in more recent decades, to instead include things like coffee shops, craft breweries, and, as in most Maine towns with a downtown, a tattoo studio.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine most major towns and cities in Maine without one. Twenty years ago, you could count on one hand the number of tattoo studios in the Bangor area. Today, there are 12, six of which are in downtown Bangor, three of which are on the same side of Main Street, within 200 feet of one another.
“I grew up in Bangor. When I got into tattooing 20 years ago, I didn’t think it would be a growth industry, where I’d be mingling with other business owners,” said Corey Paradise, a Bangor native who has operated Paradise Tattoo in Blue Hill since 2007. “I thought it meant being out on the fringe, and dealing with a smaller demographic, and always being this kind of niche thing. Now I’m tattooing everyone from grandmas to kids fresh out of high school.”
The tattooing industry in the U.S. is worth more than $1 billion, a number that has grown by at least 10 percent year over year since 2016, according to IBISWorld. Everyone from elite athletes to A-list celebrities to politicians have them. In Maine, there are more than 200 licensed tattoo studios, from Fox Den Tattoo in Caribou to On Point Tattoo Company in South Berwick.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that tattoo shops were pushed out to the edge of town, and the public perception was that only bikers, sailors and criminals got them. Now tattoo artists are an integral part of revitalizing downtowns nationwide.
“I think developers and landlords see a tattoo shop as a safe bet. It benefits them, rather than detracts. It’s a growing industry, and it’s cool,” Paradise said. “Compare that to when I got my first tattoo, illegally, in an apartment in Bangor. That’s a crazy shift.”
The tattoos people got in past decades were often more simple or classic, like the bold, retro designs of people like Sailor Jerry and Don Ed Hardy, or followed certain trends, like the tribal tattoo craze of the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, though, they are as much a reflection of someone’s personal taste as they are the artistic sensibility of the tattoo artist. Some specialize in highly realistic portraits, some are known for shading and painterly approaches, some excel at lettering and clean lines, and some do cover-ups of old tattoos. There’s someone for every type of client out there.
Siobhan Gildea, 29, who opened Birds & Bones Tattoo Studio and Art Gallery in downtown Bangor in 2019 alongside fellow tattoo artist Hailee Winter, said that there’s a bit of a split between first-generation tattoo artists, who came up in the era before the internet, and second-generation ones, of which she and many of the artists currently working in the Bangor area are.
The fact that there are three tattoo studios — Birds & Bones, Three Graces and newly opened Timber Hearth Tattoo Co. — all within 200 feet of each other in downtown Bangor doesn’t bother Gildea a bit. In fact, she says it’s good for everyone.
“I think in the past people had to protect their craft and their territory because in a lot of states it was still illegal, and they had to fight for clients,” said Gildea, who studied art in college and displays her paintings and drawings at her studio.
“Today the public perception has shifted so much, and the demand is so high, that there’s no real need for gatekeeping or for competition. We all do different things. And that’s what you want — it’s supposed to be something unique. You want everyone to have a different sensibility. If we were all the same it would get boring.”
The fact that tattooing is such an individualized art form and business model means that the industry on a whole is driven almost entirely by very small businesses. The average tattoo business employs just one or two people, and very rarely more than 10. But the demand for their services — exacerbated by the fact that tattooists in Maine had to close during the early days of the pandemic and had several months of backlog to reschedule — has never been higher.
“I’m booked through June 2022,” Gildea said. “It’s kind of a wild time for the tattoo business. It’s pretty exciting.”