Blending Art and Ink Adds to Laguna’s Local Color

Tattoo artist Evie Yapelli at work in Laguna Ink Spot & Gallery.
Tattoo artist Evie Yapelli at work in Laguna Ink Spot & Gallery.

Where young adults congregate, from Main Beach to the corner coffee house, the observant will likely see evidence of a tattoo artist’s effort.

The morphing of tats from outer fringe to mainstream was not lost on Renée Bangerter, who opened the Laguna Inkspot and Gallery in Laguna Beach in 2012. Keen on merging her artistic and tattooing skills and passion for both, she rented a space at the Jasmine building even before she obtained a business license.

“I really enjoyed tattooing and also wanted to paint and sculpt and show my work,” said Bangerter, who explored other tattoo studios extensively. “Most of the ones I saw conveyed a sense of angst and fit prevailing stereotypes that I was intent on avoiding,” she said.

None focused on the sort of client experience she envisioned; a salon-like space where people could congregate, enjoy art and get a tattoo.

To than end, she hired artists who shared her vision. “I wanted to collaborate with other tattoo artists who were also creative in fine arts. It took me two years to assemble the right crew,” said Bangerter, who also joined the First Thursday Art Walk and now serves as its treasurer.

“It’s a business that, regardless of recession and shrinking discretionary income, is growing,” said local resident Frances Heussenstamm, a retired art and education professor that last week described the phenomenon in a talk and showing of “Tattoo Nation,” at Laguna’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Unafraid to express themselves through appearance and tattoos, 36 percent of adults aged 18-25 have at least one tat acquired in the nation’s 21,000 tattoo parlors, says a study by the Pew Research Center that Heussenstamm cited. “I am also a psychologist who is interested in people’s motivation for getting tattoos,” she said.

Bangerter’s interest was less academic. A self-taught, part-time tattoo artist, she worked as a mortgage banker for JP Morgan Chase, but was laid off during the recession. Art classes at Saddleback College opened a new career direction for her. “Being around artistic people was an awakening,” she recalled. “It reduced my stress and all I wanted to do is create.”

As for the self-taught part, she says plenty of volunteers allowed her to practice on them. “It’s not something you learn on a pig’s ear,” she quipped.

At the Inkspot studio-gallery, artists range in age from mid-20s to 50-something.

Among them is Charity Oetgen, a recent Laguna College of Art and Design grad, who began drawing seriously after joining the US Army in 2003. Once discharged, she got her first tattoo and was hooked on the art form, she said.

Bangerter not only hires vets, she is one. She served four years in the US Marine Corps until 2005. Her experience led her to sponsor the Veterans Art Project at Saddleback College, which stages art shows focused on veterans and scholarship drives. The gallery offers discounts to military personnel.

Gallery exhibitor Will Koffman shares his artistic talents with the mentally ill. He teaches drawing and painting at the Orange County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Art helps people to communicate, to integrate their lives into the rest of society,” he said.

Currently he is showing intriguing paintings achieved by brushing bleach onto colored fabric. His convictions are further represented in the form of a cat tattoo surrounded by abstract forms, the hallmark of Victorian-era artist Louis Wain, who is said to have been schizophrenic.

Tattoos are art meant to last a lifetime and don’t come cheap. A tiny one can be had for $45, something more elaborate starts at $150 and can go into the thousands.

So why do people want them? The Pew study finds that 29 percent say a tat makes them feel rebellious, 31 percent think they’re sexier with one, and 5 percent believe they are perceived as more intelligent. “It’s about celebrating one’s body and a form of collecting art,” said Inkspot artist Evie Yapelli.

“Fifty-five percent of NBA players sport tattoos and they are national heroes, especially to little boys,” said Heussenstamm, whose grandson Carl is a tattoo artist in Australia.

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