January 2008

The Island Tattoo Company: A New State of an Old Art

Author: Craig Hysell

Vaulted ceilings, various pieces of Eastern art and large windows that let in plenty of sunlight… This place feels more like the cozy living room of a luxurious home than a tattoo parlor. Which is exactly what the Island Tattoo Company intended.

Tattoo shops have a notorious nature of pretentiousness. The artists are usually covered in a bunch of scary or misunderstood tattoos and aren’t very friendly with their chatter or helpful with your ideas. They seem to hold something back, unwilling or too apathetic to care about potential customer’s questions or desires… unless, of course, you too are already covered in tattoos. Then it’s like you’ve been pals since the old days.

Roger Dunbar treats you like a good friend as soon as he shakes your hand hello, whether you’re covered in ink or not. Dunbar grew up on Hilton Head Island and, as manager of Hilton Head’s only tattoo studio, he is adamant about extending the goodwill and small town friendliness he remembers being surrounded with as a child.

“People like to be acknowledged,” said Dunbar, shrugging off the basics of customer service as if it were nothing more than common sense. “This is a fun shop. It’s bright. It’s open. It’s clean. We want to talk to you. You’re not just a customer to us. We want to be as much a part of your tattoo as you are.” And the conviction with which Dunbar relays his beliefs makes it impossible not to believe him.

Amir Bitton, owner of the Island Tattoo Company, and his partners have worked earnestly to create an atmosphere in which anybody curious about getting a tattoo can feel comfortable. Murals created by local artists sweep across the walls and ceiling, giving them vibrancy, life and an appreciation not usually doled out to the ceilings and walls of any business, much less a tattoo studio. Wood floors, Thai, Hindu and Indian sculptures extend their serenity. The chairs are comfortable; everything is pristine.

Bitton’s studio has absolutely no affiliation with the island’s former tattoo parlor. At the Island Tattoo Company, Dunbar and his team of friendly, capable artists have over forty years of combined experience. Three state-of-the-art computers in a pleasant corner of the studio allow customers to cruise each Island Tattoo artist’s online portfolio or scour the Internet for flash art and other tattoo ideas. Cleanliness and customer safety is of paramount importance—all Island Tattoo employees are trained in and uphold the tattoo industry’s health codes.

Dunbar himself is covered in tattoos. When asked how many tattoos he has Dunbar just smiles—a question he has undoubtedly been asked hundreds of times—and says, “I’m working on one.” When asked if he has any favorite aspects of his “one” tattoo he doesn’t hesitate and points out the tattoos of tiny footprints on both of his shoulders—shadows of his children’s newborn feet. Indeed, Dunbar fields all his questions with politeness and professionalism—a soothing tone and turn of passionate phrase which suggests that here is a person who really enjoys what he does.

Craig gets inked.

Does it hurt? “It feels like a sunburn or a jellyfish sting. Shaving your legs and jumping into the ocean is worse,” he said. But pain threshold is different for everybody, and there really are no hard and fast rules. How long will it take to heal? “It depends on where it is on the body. Usually a week. Keep it clean and keep it out of direct sunlight.” How much does it cost? Again there’s no hard and fast rule. “It all depends on size, coloring, detail…”

With the emerging resurgence of tattoos as a form of self-expression in mainstream culture, it’s nice to see the same virtues Hilton Head Island residents hold dear—quality, community, commitment, pleasantness, politeness, plenty of sunshine—exist in the Island’s only tattoo studio. It’s always inspiring to see art and venue combine to create what Dunbar aptly describes as “magical.”

Roger, who has tattooed doctors, ministers, even federal judges, takes up his electric tattoo machine with the deftness of a practiced painter grabbing his brush. The whirring needles oscillating at 80 to 150 times per second sound like a thousand bees buzzing around a tin coffee can. “Every body is a different canvas,” he says. “And everybody’s got their own reason to get what they’re going to get.” He smiles, then his eyes change and he goes into a different zone—one of complete concentration.

The artist goes to work, painting individuality in permanence, as those before him have done since the Japanese Paleolithic period nearly 37,000 years ago. Of course, they were never in a place like the Island Tattoo Company.

The Island Tattoo Company (115 Arrow Rd.) is open 7 days a week from 12 p.m.-10 p.m. Call 843.785.3344 for more details.

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