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A tattoo artist's take on summertime body art

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Tue May 29, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tattoo artist recommends keeping freshly inked skin out of the sun
  • How a tattoo looks should be more important than what it means, custom artist says
  • "Tattoos are about having fun. You can't be too uptight if you're getting a tattoo," he says

(CNN) -- Summer can be high season for tattoo artists, a time when people bare more skin than usual and the parade of body art tends to spark inspiration.

But it's not necessarily the best time of the year to get inked.

"The skin is very sensitive when the tattoo is still fresh," Atlanta-based tattoo artist Kurt Fagerland said. "You need to keep a new tattoo out of the sun and the pool. The healing process needs it to be covered, and that's not the easiest thing to do in the summer."

Fagerland and artists like him care about their clients because tattoos are living samples of their work. Whether it's a tribal design or a skull emblazoned with your sweetheart's name, tattoos say a thing or two about the person wearing them.

But to Fagerland, a visual artist who draws, paints and sculpts, how the tattoo looks is more important than what it means. He blames reality television for emphasizing the notion that body art needs to carry deep personal significance over pure artistry.

"Tattoos are about having fun. You can't be too uptight if you're getting a tattoo," he said.

A tattoo by custom artist Kurt Fagerland. He says how a tattoo looks is more important than what it means.
A tattoo by custom artist Kurt Fagerland. He says how a tattoo looks is more important than what it means.

"When you're walking down the street and somebody looks at you, I want them to think it's a beautiful and interesting addition to your body. I'm not completely against doing something that's meaningful, but my main concern is what the tattoo looks like."

With his colorful arms and a rose creeping up the side of his neck, he looks the part. Fagerland is most content when someone gives him artistic license. It starts with a conversation that leads to sketches or drawings, which often take hours to complete, before the client sits for a session or two.

He recently completed a "vegetable sleeve" on the arm of a yoga instructor who told him which vegetables she liked. She left the shop with her arm covered in radishes, heirloom corn, eggplant and artichoke.

"It's definitely one of my nicest tattoos in a while," he said. "Most people can't understand why you'd put vegetables on your arm, but, really, why would you put anything on your arm?

The 34-year-old transplant from Long Island, New York, has been in the business for seven years, but his interest in drawing and using the body as a canvas goes to his childhood. He did his first tattoo on himself when he was 16 and earned a degree in fine arts with a minor in education from New York Institute of Technology. He spent a few years as a teacher before deciding to pursue a career as a tattoo artist with an apprenticeship at Cort's Royal Ink Tattoo Studio in Patchogue, New York. He did a few guest artist stints in New York before moving to Atlanta, where he now works at Memorial Tattoo in Cabbagetown.

Fagerland's approach to getting his own tattoos is based largely on the specialty of the artist doing the work. His last tattoo was done by internationally renowned artist Valerie Vargas, who's known for drawing women. She drew a naked woman with a skull comprising half of her face and "Elvira-style hair" on Fagerland's left thigh.

For such an elaborate tattoo to last, a simple and bold design in black outline goes a long way, he said. Black shading adds depth and allows the artist to fit the design within the body's contours.

"When you're putting a picture on the body, it's three-dimensional, like a sculpture. You need to accentuate certain lines and curves that are on the body instead of going against them. Follow the contours of the body."

Not all of his work is devoid of meaning. For his next tattoo, he's thinking of getting a clipper ship in honor of Long Island, where he was born and raised.

"I grew up on the water, and now I'm kind of landlocked so it's something to remind me of home," he said.

For others looking to get a reminder of home permanently inked on their skin, Fagerland's advice is keep your skin cool and dry, and let a talented artist be your guide.

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