Body artist

Each tattoo is a 'work of art' to designer Pam Wilson-Orth

Michelangelo had the Sistine Chapel. Monet had canvas. Pam Wilson-Orth's medium is the human body.

And, unlike many other artists, Wilson-Orth sells every piece of work she creates.

Wilson-Orth transitioned from what many consider traditional artwork -- oils and graphic arts -- to doing tattoos 12 years ago when she opened Pam's Body Art in Craig.

She did it because it was a form of art should could let go of.

"When you do artwork, it becomes such a part of you," she said. "When you paint, it's hard to sell the painting."

With tattoos, Wilson-Orth feels like she creates individual masterpieces, but because they're so personal to the people who have them, it's easy to let them go.

"It is artwork," she said. "I was never satisfied by canvas alone -- art comes in many forms. I'm still painting even though it's not canvas."

An open and social person, Wilson-Orth likes body art because it brings her closer to a wide variety of people -- from doctors and lawyers to grocery store clerks and writers. She sees all kinds of people and forms some type of relationship with each of them.

"I may not remember a person's name, but once I see their tattoo, I remember all about them," she said.

That knowledge has caused people to turn away when they see Wilson-Orth in public, afraid she'll talk about some piece of body art they want to keep a secret.

But they have nothing to fear. Wilson-Orth knows that confidentiality is part of building -- in a small town -- what can be considered an intimate business.

"It's really a personal and private thing," she said. "I'm very private about your world."

On the flip side, Wilson-Orth said she's seen people pull their pants down in public areas to show off their tattoos.

"Normally we wouldn't show people our panties in public, but if you have a tattoo, you can," she said.

Wilson-Orth studied body art for about two years before actually applying her first tattoo.

"I read everything I could get my hands on," she said. "When I started, there wasn't any such thing as a school for this."

She studied the art, the medical aspects and the skin.

With her love of art, the transition from canvas to skin was an easy one and gave her an advantage over other body artists.

"It's not about following the lines, it's about being an artist and knowing how to bring out a painting," she said.

Wilson-Orth doesn't hide the fact that the process is painful, but many people overlook that fact in their enthusiasm for the end result.

Once she puts the needles to skin, some people want to back out, but none ever have.

"Once you sit down, I don't let you up," she said. "If you say you can't take it, I'll talk you through it."

She describes the feeling as a shock or a sting -- "like pulling a hair out of your arm." Only, depending on the detail of the design, it's more than one hair.

"You know who my whiners are? It's the biggest men," Wilson-Orth said with a laugh.

With hands and jaw clenched and her head buried in her arm, client Cathy Frazier said she wasn't backing out of her half-finished tattoo. "We're gonna do this thing," she said. "By the time she gets done, it'll be numb."

It wasn't, but Frazier held up stoically through the process.

"It wasn't too bad," Frazier bragged, after the tattoo was finished.

An avid gardener, Frazier spent days choosing the deep red iris and surrounding black swirls of the tattoo that now graces the small of her back.

Wilson-Orth encouraged Frazier to choose something with meaning.

"I hate it when people walk in here, look around, point and say I want that one," she said. "I like tattoos to have a meaning."

A tattoo will be with a person for the rest of their lives, Wilson-Orth said, and so will she.

"I know it sounds silly, but I'm with you for the rest of your life," she said. "I love the bonding of it. When you do artwork, it becomes such a part of you. I almost become part of who's in here."

Wilson-Orth remembers the sad tattoos best -- the memorials.

"I remember them most because we cry over them," she said.

Many people choose memorial tattoos that are portraits of their loved ones with wings.

Wilson-Orth only has two small tattoos herself, something that's been questioned by some of her customers.

"My focus is art. I'm an artist. I didn't get into this to put them all over me," she said.

Besides, it's difficult to tattoo on yourself, she said.

Wilson-Orth puts a high priority on having a clean environment and making the process of getting a tattoo as safe as it can be. All of her needles are sterile and she throws them away after each use.

Sterilization is so important to her that she's taught classes about not giving self-tattoos, telling students they can get or give diseases.

She also added piercings to her list of services as a safer alternative to a person -- particularly teens -- doing it themselves.

Wilson-Orth also removes tattoos, by tattooing a flesh color over another design.

Before the war in Iraq, a lot of people went to Wilson-Orth to have tattoos removed. They'd drive from across the state to have it done because military personnel can't have tattoos showing.

She'll remove a gang symbol for free.

"If you're willing to let it go, I'll do it for free," she said.

Wilson-Orth still paints on occasion, but focuses most of her energy on body art.

She's booked nearly every day of the week -- many times with repeat customers.

"I've never tired of it," she said. "I wasn't as enthusiastic about canvas as I am about this."

Each tattoo she does is a billboard for more, especially in a small town where word -- good or bad -- gets around.

"If you mess up, word gets around, and you don't have a business," she said. "I've proven myself here."

Wilson-Orth's work can be seen on people across the nation and around the world.

"I've got my work internationally," she said.

She's lost count, but Wilson-Orth estimates she's done hundreds of thousands of tattoos.

And looks forward to doing thousands more.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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