Americans spend an estimated $1.65 billion annually on tattoos. Here’s how $60 was spent.
It’s not super rare in these days of pandemic-induced isolation to work with someone for 11 months without meeting her in person. But it is super rare to see her face-to-face for the first time when she’s on her way to receive a “get-what-you-get” tattoo.
Yet, that’s how I had my first offline encounter with Luckbox’s very brave associate editor and resident music critic Kendall Polidori, aka The Rockhound (click here for more). Kendall found a tattoo shop in Chicago called Dwelling Tattoo that offers a unique service: Roll the die and whatever number turns up corresponds to a tattoo in the artist’s sketchbook.
For $60, the tattooer will etch this literally random image into the appendage of your choice. What better way to live the fever dream fantasy that bewitches Gen Z? Instagram? Check. Random variables? Check. Being able to start a story with “you’ll never believe how I got this tattoo…” Check.
Kendall asked me to accompany her on this adventure that combines a penchant for probability, a taste for tattoo art and a feel for P.T. Barnum showmanship.
We begin by sitting down for coffee at the Moonwalker Cafe in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood. Kendall, who’s 23 and has rosy cheeks and octagon glasses, enters wrapped in the accouterments of a Chicago winter.
She seems normal, but she’s ensconced in winter clothes, so I have no idea if her entire body is covered with tats. She removes her hat and coat, and I’m disappointed to find she’s wearing a normal sweater and doesn’t even have any neck tattoos. Bor-ing.
I’ve read her work in Luckbox’s Rockhound column and I ask how she got into it. “Music is part of my personality. I’ve studied and always admired music criticism, so The Rockhound is my version of that. [I’m] trying to get our readers to expand their interests and listen to new music because I find that once people get to a certain age they kind of stop listening to new music.”
I take a sip of my snickerdoodle oat milk chai latte and admit that most of my Spotify Wrapped songs from 2021 were ’90s R&B and hip-hop bands from my youth. I don’t know anything about Wheezy Baby or Japanese Brunch or whatever today’s hip bands are called.
But Kendall’s face lights up when she talks about the bands she’s gotten to cover for the magazine. Her big brother declares that her awesome job is “totally unfair.” And now she’s assigned to tat one for the team by getting a tattoo that will be random and forever.
Because I’ve been unable to discern any visible tattoos, I ask her about them. “Yes, I have three,” she replies. “I’ve always been interested in tattoos, and my mom has a whole bunch of them. I want to say she has like 13. So, when I was growing up, I always saw her with tattoos and our family used to have little tattoo parties and stuff.”
I almost spit out my latte as she explains that a family friend often set up shop in their garage to tattoo their party guests. And you thought the coolest kid on your block was the one with the trampoline.
Asked about her very first tattoo, Kendall laughs. “My mom actually surprised me. We were out shopping before I went away to college, and on our way home, she pulled into the parking lot of a tattoo shop. I was like, ‘What are we doing here?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to get matching tattoos!’”
The delicate grayscale tattoo of the moon and a star has special meaning to her and her mom, and it’s located on her inner left wrist. Her second and third tattoos both reflect her love of music. One was made from a line drawing she drew and then gave to the tattoo artist to “make it his own.” She based it on the cover of an album she loves by a band called LANY, and it’s on her other wrist. Her third and most recent tattoo looks like an antique picture frame surrounding a butterfly. It’s an ode to another of her favorite bands, Paramore. It’s on the inside of her upper left arm, and she says that one hurt the most and required more than one session.
I ask about the get-what-you-get tattoos. “I think what’s nice about tattoo art today,” she says, “is a lot of shops let their tattoo artist kind of promote themselves. So, when you’re really looking to get a tattoo, you’re like seeking out a specific artist for it.”
Kendall mentions that a friend of hers had gotten some art from Sara, the artist she’s seeing today for the random design. That’s how she became a huge fan of Sara’s style. “Sara posts most of the pages for the get-what-you-get. So I know what I’m getting into to a certain extent.” I ask if there’s a frontrunner, and she describes a drawing of a gramophone because she digs the vintage style and likes the way it ties into her job as a music critic.
But this is a game of probabilities. Sara uses a 100-sided polyhedral die with each number corresponding to a page in her sketchbook. One hundred drawings, 100 sides of the die; 1% chance of Kendall landing her fave. But never say never.
We finish our drinks, bundle up for the frigid weather and shuffle the three blocks to the tattoo shop. I ask what her tattoo-loving mom thinks about this experiment.
“Funny enough, my mom was not super into it,” Kendall says. “She has a lot of tattoos, but all the ones she has are, like, very important to her. She took the time to think of them, and they have a very strong meaning to her. So, I think this was a little bit different for her. Like, I’m not necessarily choosing what I’m getting on my body.”
I joke that her mom has Michelin tats and we’re getting the Chipotle version of body art.
We arrive at the tattoo shop, which is set on a quiet block. The shop is light and airy with one wall painted a cheery bright yellow. Plants of all shapes and sizes decorate the front windows, and mid-century modern furniture in soothing sage green upholstery lines the waiting area.
Flash art representing each of the shop’s tattoo artists is framed on the walls. The shop smells like patchouli, which I’m pretty sure is mandated in all tattoo shops. Are you burning patchouli? No? We’re pulling your permit.
Sara greets us at the door, and she’s a stunning dark-haired beauty with sleeves of vibrant tattoos in classic “Sailor Jerry” style running down both arms. The work is bold, bright and captivating.
Sara and her tattoo partner slash bestie, Natalie, opened their shop in August 2020 at one of the heights of the pandemic. I ask how she got into the tattoo scene.
“I’ve been drawing since I was a kid,” Sara said. “I went to college for the fashion business, but I realized school wasn’t for me. I devoted time to finding my art style, finding what spoke to me and, in the meantime, I got tattooed quite a bit. I kind of just put the two together.”
She says get-what-you-get has been attracting attention on social media and bringing in customers. “A solid percentage of my work is people who have initially found me through Instagram,” Sara says. “I have clients who come in for the die but then they see all of my flash on the wall, and they’ll end up booking with me later for a bigger piece—either flash or custom.”
Kendall finishes filling out her new customer form. I imagine it’s just questions like, “Are you a screamer?” Sara gathers us around the front desk and pulls out a tray lined in red velvet. Then she produces a giant 100-sided die fit for the fanciest of Dungeons & Dragons game nights and gives Kendall instructions.
It’s $60 to roll the die. If you don’t like the tattoo that goes with that number, you can throw down $20 and roll again. Kendall nods as solemnly as if she’s about to elect the pope and gives the die a roll. It lands on a sketch of a bull’s skull that’s done in a bold, black outline that brings to mind the work of Georgia O’Keefe.
Sara gets busy prepping her materials and I’m fascinated by the whole process. She prints the design on skin-safe paper, lightly dampens it and then transfers the outline to the client’s skin. Kendall has chosen the back of her upper arm, the triceps area.
Once Kendall’s satisfied with the placement, she lies face down on a portable table. Sara gets to work preparing her tattoo gun and black ink. To her credit, Kendall remains remarkably calm throughout the procedure. I’m sitting next to the table and I can see her taking deep breaths. But other than that she’s quiet as a church mouse as the whine of the tattoo gun echoes through the shop.
Sara chats away as she works, confirming Kendall’s comment that it’s not about the shop. It’s about finding an artist who jives with your vision of body art. In the blink of an eye, less than 30 minutes, she finishes Kendall’s steer head.
Kendall beams when she gets a look at the back of her arm. Sara sets up her iPad and ring light to get an optimal shot for her Instagram account. The new tattoo looks great. It’s all clean lines and bold design. Sara puts it best: “If you have a look that you’re going for, chances are there’s a tattoo artist out there that does work in that style. You just have to find them.”
The tattoo scene in Chicago seems more cooperative than competitive, she maintains. Instead of protecting turf, artists recommend colleagues who work in the styles customers are seeking. “We just want to get the client the best tattoo that they can get,” she says.
And just like that, with the swipe of an Instagram page, a roll of the die and the flick of a tattoo gun, you, too, can enter the bold brash world of get-what-you-get tattoo art.
Vonetta Logan, a writer and comedian, appears daily on the tastytrade network and hosts the Connect the Dots podcast. @vonettalogan