Transformations: Body Art

by Bryon Houlgrave

The sound of small talk fills the studio at Black Magic Tattoo in Des Moines on a chilly midafternoon in January. The conversations are happy and light; talk of the recent holidays, upcoming weekend plans, favorite snack foods, the resurgence of tribal art tattoos. 

If there’s any nervous energy in the room it doesn’t really show. Not at least by Amanda McCurley, who’s about to sit down for her fourth tattoo in less than a year. She chats with her artist, Luna Barton, even extends an invitation to her birthday party to be held later on at Rooted, a yoga studio in Beaverdale. 

Barton, 21, primes her tattoo iron (the term “tattoo gun” is not a term used by most tattoo artists) and fills the tubes with bright pigments. She asks McCurley if she’s ready. Mm-hmm.

“I trust you,” McCurley adds. Then the iron buzzes to life and Barton gets started on the outline. 

Slowly the tattoo begins to take shape and McCurley, 40, pulls up her iPhone. Careful not to wiggle too much, she snaps a photo. She likes to document the progression during the tattooing process.

Self Expression

McCurley feels the freedom to express oneself is important, whether it’s through fashion or piercings or tattoos. She grew up during a time when a pierced nose was frowned upon. 

Tattooing is her means of self expression.

“You’re taking parts of you – pieces of your life – and putting it on the outside, letting other people see those pieces of you and bringing another piece of yourself to the world in a different way. Sometimes it’s deeply personal.”

The music playing throughout the female-owned and operated studio is 1990s-era hip-hop. Eve, Notorious B.I.G., Missy Elliott and other sounds that have served as the soundtrack to McCurley’s formative years. McCurley’s fourth tattoo of the year, like the three before it, represents an indelible keepsake from her youth: a cherished TY Beanie Baby – a purple platypus named Patti.

Patti will occupy a significant part of McCurley’s right upper arm, just below a tattoo of the three Powerpuff Girls leaping to action over the series’ baddie, Mojo Jojo – a tattoo also inked by Barton. In the tattoo, Mojo Jojo, a mischievous monkey in the Nickelodeon cartoon, has been replaced by one of the McCurley family cats.

It was an idea she and her daughters came up with shortly after McCurley’s first tattoo.

“My girls were like, ‘you need (a tattoo) of us,'” McCurley said. She’s not a fan of portrait tattoos or names, but what McCurley did like was coming up with a design that represented something unique to her and her daughters.

“You’re taking parts of you – pieces of your life – and putting it on the outside, letting other people see those pieces of you and bringing another piece of yourself to the world in a different way. Sometimes it’s deeply personal.”

She suggested the Powerpuff Girls and the idea was a hit. Her daughters suggested they make Coconut, one of their cats, into Mojo Jojo. 

“I said ‘okay’ and sent that idea to Luna and she made it amazing.”

McCurley enjoys that her tattoos are conversation starters. She appreciates Luna’s vision and talent but regrets the artist isn’t around to hear the fabulous testimony.

“It’s her work - I’m just wearing it.”


It's Like a Cat Scratching a Sunburn

Years ago tattoos were reserved mostly for the roughest and toughest of society. They represented a tolerance to pain and were found mostly on the arms and shoulders of those who possessed true grit. Today that taboo no longer exists and tattoos are found on the bodies of people in all walks of life. 

“I’m more weirded out by people who don’t have tattoos,” McCurley says. 

There is still some pain involved with getting a tattoo. Some places are a little more sensitive than others, but McCurley says it’s more a minor irritation than actual pain.

“It’s like a cat scratching on a sunburn,” she says.

McCurley got her first tattoo a year ago, fulfilling a goal she’d had in mind since college. She always wanted a tattoo, something that captured her essence. She just wasn’t sure of the design. 

“It was always just something I thought about – what would I get, what would I like. In college I really thought I’d get one but I never really liked anything.” 

Like many, she put a lot of time and thought into what she wanted. She was going to live with her decision forever, so she wanted something that was unique and significant to her and something a little different than the Taz and barbed wire tattoos that were popular at the time. There were bands she admired, but a band’s logo on her arm also didn’t have lasting appeal.

“People will have really emotional reasons why they’re getting tattooed,” said Anna Sica, tattoo artist and owner of Arrowhead Tattoo in Fairfield, 100 miles southeast of Des Moines. “It’s a pivotal moment for them in their life to get (a tattoo) … and it can feel really life-changing.”

From a young age Sica has been into art and illustration. She traveled to Thailand specifically to attend a school for tattooing. She said that there was also a lot of learning on her own, which at the time was a bit unconventional and frowned upon in the industry. Now, many artists have learned on their own.


Reciprocal Transformation

After working at a couple tattoo studios in New York City, Sica returned to Fairfield and started Arrowhead. Her work is recognized throughout the Midwest, and often her wait list is several months long. 

Sica understands how significant a simple tattoo can be for her clients. And while the physical transformation is outwardly, the impact a tattoo has on a client’s mental health can offer healing powers.

“It can be emotionally transformative. I know how meaningful these things are for people and they look at it forever and are reminded of the things that really matter to them,” Sica said.

Sica might be the artist, but she gets just as much from her clients’ satisfaction as they do the art. Each client offers Sica some reciprocal transformation, from a professional artist’s perspective.

“It makes me feel happy that I can give them the thing that they want and it’s really helped me build confidence,” Sica said. 

“It’s probably taken me ten years to say I do this and I’m good at it … and that’s a really amazing feeling.”