By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Visit the downtown and you can find several places to get a bite to eat.
You can sip a drink and take in the view on decks overlooking the Merrimack River.
If you’re looking for art work or other Christmas gifts, there are plenty of shops to choose from.
But can you get a tattoo? You bet.
As the city center reinvents itself with a mix of restaurants, salons, antique stores and other businesses, it has also become home to a tattoo parlor, the city’s only such establishment.
It’s a stylish place that on the outside tips its hat to old-time tattoo artists whose images are displayed in the front window and throughout the shop.
Inside, the old wood and brick walls are covered in framed “flash” intended to get customers thinking about the image they might want to wear on their skin.
The days of tattoo parlors catering to a rough clientele have given way to trendy studios such as these, where young artists work diligently on men and women looking to make a visual statement with their bodies. From school teachers to accountants to nurses and lawyers to every kind of person and occupation, it seems as though everyone is getting a tattoo.
“Tattoos are in,” said Frankie Piessens, owner of the new Washington Square Tattoo shop. “Turn on the television and you’ll find programs about tattoos and tattoo shops. It’s not like it was years ago. It’s definitely come out of the sketchy back allies and into the mainstream.”
Piessens, 30, a 2001 graduate of Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, opened his shop three months ago and since then his business has been growing.
“Every day someone turns 18 so there’s a new crop of customers every day,” he said. “A lot of kids who turn 18 are psyched about getting their first real tattoo.
“To me, tattoos look cool,” he said.
The last tattoo studio in Haverhill opened in 2010 on River Street, but closed after several months in operation.
Prior to that, Haverhill Tattooing on Locke Street closed after a fire in March 2007. At that time, Mayor James Fiorentini argued that a tattoo parlor would not intermingle well with his downtown restoration plans. Haverhill Tattooing was in the shadow of the 300-unit Hamel Mill Lofts apartment complex, touted by Fiorentini as a centerpiece for the renaissance of downtown.
Piessens’ studio is located in the Coombs Building at 10 Emerson St., just around the corner from Washington Square. It’s located among a string of small businesses, including a women’s clothing and accessories store, a wellness center and a restaurant called Sparky’s Wings and Things.
Previously, Piessens worked at a tattoo shop in Derry, N.H., run by Mark Hesse. Piessens went through an apprenticeship to learn how to tattoo and also how to run a business.
“I’d spent about 12 years screen printing, which involved art, and since I was already heavily tattooed, I figured why not try to get into a shop and learn the trade,” he said.
Earlier in the year, he was looking for a place to open his own shop. He found the perfect spot on Emerson Street, he said. It was close to downtown, just off the beaten path, and it offered on-street parking.
“From location to size, everything seemed to work,” he said.
Piessens assembled a team of tattoo artists from New Hampshire, including Tony Sellers of Newmarket, who has eight years of experience, and Greg McDonald of Manchester, N.H., who has 11 years in the business.
“People want to make sure they are in good hands when they have something put on them that will be there forever,” Piessens said. “Having guys who have been in the trade for so long definitely puts people’s minds at ease.”
The past 10 years have seen explosive growth in people getting tattoos.
“Now you even see grandmothers getting tattooed,” Piessens said. “The oldest person I’ve tattooed was a woman who was 73. She got a little rabbit on her wrist that her husband had drawn in Vietnam and which she’d kept over the years. She did it in memory of him.”
Tattooing is an ancient form of expression reaching back thousands of years. One of the most startling examples was the discovery in 1991 of a 5,300-year-old mummy on the mountain border of Austria and Italy. Scientists named him Otzi the iceman. When they inspected his well-preserved corpse, they found it was covered in tattoos.
Piessens said customers who don’t know what they want can choose from hundreds of designs of tattoo “flash” displayed on the front walls of his studio’s lobby.
“About 70 percent of our customers have an idea of what they want when they come through our doors,” he said. “The rest usually have fun picking a piece of flash from the walls.”
Depending on the complexity of the design, a customer could be sitting for 10 minutes or as long as an entire day.
“The average is from 10 minutes to two hours for walk-ins,” Piessens said.
Some customers ask to have their existing tattoos covered with another design.
“It might have been executed badly to begin with, or they want to cover up the name of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend,” he said. “We can usually cover them up with another design so you can’t really see the name any more.”
Having worked in New Hampshire, his shop has a steady flow of old customers as long as new ones living in Haverhill and nearby communities.
“Usually when they’re done getting tattoos they end up at Sparky’s,” Piessens said of the next-door restaurant known for its chicken wings. “After their ink therapy, they get wing therapy.”