Photo by Shane Harms
Jerad Shealey tattooing Sara Purr at Rabid Hands Studio.

Rabid Hands Studios inks a mark on the belly Ballard

“It feels like angel kisses. It feels like cat whispers (laughs). No, I don’t know, it just kind of vibrates and feels like a nasty sun burn,” said Sara Purr, a tattoo artist at Rabid Hands Studios (4775 Ballard Ave. N.W).

Sara sits under a bright light on what looks like a comfy dentist chair, while Jerad Shealey, owner of Rabid Hands, tattoos an illustration of Sara’s dog, Franklin, on her leg.

Purr's skin reddens and goose bumps rise and fall under the rhythmic vibration of Shealey’s iron (ink gun) and steady hand.

“It feels like a razor burn when you shave your legs or on your face, and then you put something on it that really stings. … It feels like a tattoo.“

Shealey tattooing a grim reaper themed rendition of Purr's dog, Franklin, on her leg. Photo by Shane Harms

Rabid Hands is the newest tattoo studio to open in Ballard and has been embedding ink in the epidermis of Ballardites for about a year.

About the sensation of getting a tattoo, Shealey said,“You just need to channel your warrior spirit."

"Personally for me the most sensitive spot I had tattooed was the top of my foot. It’s pretty tender. … The outline feels more like a cat scratch to me and the shading is more of a dull sensation. Afterward it feels more like a sunburn,” said Shealey.

Shealey is from South Carolina and was pricked by the needle at just 14. Now most of his body is covered in ink.

“When I was 14 I found out you could get a certain type of ink from the art store and had my grandmother go pick it up for me. She had no idea what I was doing with it. All of a sudden I had a couple little tattoos.”

Dot by dot Shealey “Monet’ed” several small tattoos on his body. One of them is a little skull on his wrist that has surprisingly clean edges. Later at age 17 he got his first tattoo from an ink gun.

“I didn’t know that they were bad tattooers. I assumed that since they had an ink gun they were good, but I was young.”

Now Shealey is getting that tattoo removed, but the rest he said are like his children.

In 1995, Shealey moved to Columbus, Ohio and began apprenticing at tattoo studios. He also went to school for illustration and design.

In  2001, Shealey’s uncle, who lived in Ballard, invited him to live in Seattle and learn the art of tattooing from him. 

Since then Shealey has apprenticed in Seattle and started a small studio in Ballard. Through all his training Shealey has carefully honed his skill.

“I like to think that I have developed a bit of my own style. It’s largely based in American and traditional Japanese design, but I think I take more of an illustrative approach to classical ideas.”

Shealey revealed some of the steps he takes.

“You have all these little tricks that you think of when applying the tattoo and I try to think of them while I’m drawing it. ... Usually I take a trace of the area and draw something to specifically fit the flow of that area like the “S” of the arm.”

The design is an intricate step and it can be an arduous process.

“Most tattooers are very self critical. If I draw something a week before by the time I’m going to tattoo it I hate the drawing and second guess myself and end up redrawing it … but most of the time the first instinct is the best,” said Purr.

Moreover, a strong knowledge of human anatomy is mandatory for tattooing. For instance, a tattooer needs to know the rate skin cells cycling in different locations of the body because it affects the way a tattoo is applied.

“The pigment on your heel doesn’t hold the same as in your arm. In your arm, your skin cells are moving in a more predictable direction and hold pigment in a more predictable way. With a place like the palm of your hand or the heel of your foot the skin is exfoliating constantly so you have to apply the tattoo differently. You have to go a little deeper than you would on the arm.”

Of course, even tattoos have trends. Shealey said currently, fancy script writing on the ribs is very popular right now.

“You used to see a lot of stuff on the ankle or the bands on the arms but those are mostly going away. I typically try to talk people out of getting a band because it cuts off the natural flow of the anatomy. It works against it in my opinion. There are nice shapes that you body makes. Your arm makes an “S” shape so if you put something right in the middle of it, it’s going to cut-off that nice flow.”

Planning for future tattoos is key for tattooers when they are designing, so artists need to talk about the future with clients in order to make a tat with the best future fit.

“An arm band is typically a starter tattoo. People are like ‘I want a tattoo. I don’t know what to get. I’ll get this one that’s smallish and be conservative with it if I need to and kind of hide it,’ and that’s cool and understandable, but usually I try to talk to people about thinking a little more long term. I ask if they think they are going to add on to it or if it will be their only one."

A trend Shealey is noticing is that people have become bolder with tattoos. Instead of starting at the top the arm or at the shoulder, people start with tattoos near the hand or forearm because tattoos have become more culturally accepted, especially in Seattle.

Part of the trend could be more and more expos, and the glorification of tattoos on TV.

“There have been conventions going on in the 80’s but they were still pretty sparse. Now there is one or two a month, which is a sign of the popularity, and then of course all the crazy TV shows. “

The Seattle Tattoo Expo is set to celebrate its 13th annual event August 15 to 17 at the Fisher Pavilion at the Seattle Center.

Rabid Hands is one of the participating studios and will be featuring at least three of their artists for the expo: Sara Purr, Bryan Kachel and Krysten Dae.

While the three are slinging ink and pounding skin at the expo, Shealey will be at the shop serving the ink enthusiast of Ballard and prepping for the Rabid Hands 1st year anniversary as a full shop party on August 16th at 7p.m. Plus 21 welcome.

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