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I had a new and very illuminating experience recently; I made a visit to Stephen Russell’s ‘Cosmic Wave Tattooing and Body Piercing Studio’ to learn more about this highly skilled art form. Many people still think of tattoos as being crude crosses or anchors or names tattooed on the bodies of sailors but this art form has gained in popularity recently and now adorns the bodies of people from all walks of life, many of whom one may be surprised to find have a tattoo.

Local tattoo artist relies on experience and skill

Stephen Russell tattooing a client.
Stephen Russell tattooing a client.

I had a new and very illuminating experience recently; I made a visit to Stephen Russell’s ‘Cosmic Wave Tattooing and Body Piercing Studio’ to learn more about this highly skilled art form.  Many people still think of tattoos as being crude crosses or anchors or names tattooed on the bodies of sailors but this art form has gained in popularity recently and now adorns the bodies of people from all walks of life, many of whom one may be surprised to find have a tattoo.

Tattooing has been around from Neolithic times, the first recorded tattoo dating back from 3,300 B.C. In ancient times tattoos were sported more among the criminal classes but during the 19th century their popularity spread among the upper classes in Europe. During the later decades of the 20th century, body painting and decoration became a popular social practice worldwide with even some members of royalty and Sir Winston Churchill having tattoos.

The traditional, popular designs of heavy metal and motorbike gang culture were replaced by more modern designs based on Celtic, Indian and Asian themes plus floral and other natural images. “Whereas tattooing was somewhat taboo in The Bahamas 50 years ago it is a much more accepted art form today and a form of self-expression,” stated Mr. Russell.

Mr. Russell got his first official tattoo at the age of 16 but since the legal age for receiving a tattoo was 18, his mother had to sign for him to get one. He had been intrigued with tattooing since the age of 10 years when he and his friends would buy a bottle of Indian ink and ‘tattoo’ each other with pinpricks. From an early age he had loved drawing, with charcoal and graphite being his favourite medium, and this is what led him into the pursuit of tattooing as an art form.

“When I first went to a tattoo shop in Florida and saw what they had to offer I went crazy. A place called ‘The Tattoo Parlour opened up my world,” stated Mr. Russell. “They saw my talent and interest and showed me how to tattoo. I came back to The Bahamas and applied for a license just as one would for a medical practice license. A tattoo parlour must be meticulously run and health inspectors visit often and scrutinize the place thoroughly.”

Mr. Russell opened his first shop in Marsh Harbour’s Dove Plaza in 1998 and it was very popular. “A lot of people are interested in this medium and even now the numbers are often overwhelming,” he states.

He opened his present shop in the Simmons Plaza behind the Snack Shack in September 2012. Mr. Russell was the Bahamas’ first tattoo artist and has 26 years’ experience in the art. He is reputed to be the best tattoo artist in The Bahamas and Abaco’s only licensed tattoo artist. All organic pigments are used so that nothing is hazardous to the body. His office is immaculate and he is meticulous about the cleanliness and safety of his operation.

He states that clients need have no worries as to infection as tattooing is perfectly safe if done professionally. The HIV virus is very uncommon in tattooing and the most common virus to be concerned about is the hepatitis A virus but all of his equipment is thoroughly sterilized in an autoclave and every needle is disposed of after each use.

“As long as people are scrupulous in their aftercare there will be no concerns. The aftercare is very important so that the healing process can take place,” stresses Mr. Russell. Following the tattooing process, the colour-work is covered with a bandage for three hours after which the client cleans the area with water and soap and covers it with antibiotic cream for one week.

The dermis (top layer of skin) will peel off and good healing will take place within two weeks with complete healing within three to four months. “Body piercing takes longer to heal and can take up to a year,” he says.

Having never observed any tattoo work up close I was absolutely amazed at the intricacy of Mr. Russell’s art work. The detail and colouring is exquisite and he is very serious about his work as a true art form.

“In the 50s colour was limited and subjects were much darker but today every colour is available and tattoos are far more detailed. Anything that can be drawn on canvas can be done by needle and tattooing has now been brought out of taboo and into the mainstream,” he stated.

“There is a big difference between a tattooer and a tattoo artist,” declares Mr. Russell. A tattoo artist must be really artistically inclined. In order to create his masterpieces Mr. Russell uses one of two methods; either with a stenciled outline or freehand. His tattooing guns work at a rate of between 2,500 and 10,000 stitches a minute.

When asked about the pain involved Mr. Russell replied that; “Pain varies according to the location of the tattoo. The stomach and back of calf muscle are normally the most sensitive but this varies on individuals. Women have a much greater threshold for pain and can withstand being worked on for 7 to 8 hours at a time whereas men can normally only withstand 2 to 3 hours,” stated Mr. Russell.

Mike Lightbourn, a long-time friend of Mr. Russell, has several large tattoos on his body of which he is very proud. He said that his artistic side got him attracted to having tattoos in the first place. His tattoos are of a Japanese theme and portray a traditional Hanya mask, tiger, coi fish and lotus flower. His entire left arm is covered in a Japanese traditional sleeve and is indeed a magnificent work of art.

“You quickly forget the pain and your reward is the beautiful piece of artwork which will be with you forever,” he says proudly.

“My main goal is to open up the eyes of local people and to get them to accept tattooing for the art form it is,” stated Mr. Russell. “I would like clients not to be so limited in the art form subject matter they request.”

“I give 110% in everything I do and the happiness of the client is my first priority.”

Mr. Russell’s clients are normally between the ages of 18 to 50 years but there is no upper age limit at which one can receive a tattoo. The oldest clients Mr. Russell has had are 84 year old twins who were staying on Man-O-War Cay and wanted a man-of-war bird tattooed onto their arm as a souvenir of their visit. “They were so happy and told me that getting a tattoo had been on their bucket list,” he said.

Mr. Russell is trying to get people to take tattooing more seriously and also to step outside the box regarding subject matter. The one thing he will not do, however is repair an amateur tattoo which has been done poorly or gone wrong at someone else’s hands.

Mr. Russell’s Cosmic Wave Tattooing and Body Piercing Studio is open Mondays to Fridays from 9:30am to 6pm; appointments are requested. On Saturdays he accepts walk-ins and does mainly body piercings. He can be contacted at 367 0082.

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