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Line Work: Levi Pearson

In various cultures, ancient forms of tattooing have served diverse purposes, such as displaying class status, protecting health, preserving cultural heritage, and documenting personal and communal histories. In 1991, a 5000-year-old frozen body embellished with tattoos was discovered, along with several other tattooed mummies, highlighting the long history of tattoo artistry. Despite this rich heritage, Western society took considerably longer to embrace tattooing as an art form.

The turning point came during World War II when millions of young American men were drafted, facing the reality of risking their lives in battle. In light of this, societal attitudes towards tattoos shifted dramatically, with individuals no longer adhering to traditional values or societal perceptions regarding tattoos. This change significantly increased the popularity of tattoos in the Western world. Additionally, Hawaii, due to its status as the largest shore-leave destination for American sailors after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, became a focal point for tattoo culture. It was in Hawaii that former Navy man, Norman Collins, best known as “Sailor Jerry,” operated a popular tattoo shop. Collins’ shop attracted numerous American sailors seeking tattoos as symbols of rebellion and resistance, irrevocably changing the perception of tattoos in the west.

Norman Collins, who enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of nineteen, traveled extensively through Southeast and East Asia, drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese tattooing styles. He became the first Westerner to apprentice under highly respected tattoo masters, blending their techniques with his own American twist to create what is now known as the traditional American tattoo style. 

Levi Pearson, a second-year Neuroscience major at Indiana University, has a deep passion for American traditional tattoos. While it is uncommon to see younger tattoo enthusiasts opting for this style, it is a timeless classic that transcends trends. The thick, bold lines and simplistic shading characteristics of American traditional style tattoos not only age exceptionally well, but also make them instantly recognizable. This style is an excellent choice for enthusiasts who appreciate permanence and rich historical significance for tattoos.

The popularity of American traditional tattoos surged in the 1980’s among bikers and the punk scene, signaling a rejection to societal norms and a celebration of individuality. Today, enthusiasts of this style span a wide demographic, from patriotic elders to unconventional college students like Levi, who find themselves drawn to its enduring appeal and cultural heritage.

Levi’s tattoo journey began a few months before his 18th birthday, initially without a specific vision for his future tattoos. His first tattoo was a black linework piece inspired by the Mac Miller song, “Come Back to Earth”. For Levi, this song encapsulates the feeling of getting caught up in his own thoughts and stresses, serving as a gentle reminder to take a minute to calm down. He had harbored a desire to get tattoos since the age of 15 and always envisioned this song-inspired piece as his inaugural tattoo. Over time, Levi observed a shift in his preferred style, transitioning from black and white linework to embracing American traditional tattoos.

At the beginning of his tattoo journey, Levi, like many novices, scoured online platforms for tattoo inspiration. However, he later transitioned to a more personalized approach by sharing his ideas with a friend who would then sketch them out, adding a deeply personal and sentimental touch to his tattoos. As Levi accumulated more tattoos, he began exploring his tattoo artist's flash books to find fillers for the blank space on his right arm, eventually creating a cohesive patchwork sleeve.

"There was a 2-month stretch where I was going to the tattoo shop every week,” Levi recalled. “I would go in there for one or two tattoos and end up filling all the space on my arm."

Sentimentality became a significant aspect of Levi's tattoos. He holds certain tattoos very close to his heart, such as his mother's birthday inked on his arm, his siblings’ birthdays near his collarbone, and the numbers "143" symbolizing "I love you" for his mom. Levi even offered to let a close friend choose a tattoo for the bottom of his foot, emphasizing the cherished memories attached to his ink.

One of Levi's favorite tattoos serves as an important reminder of a challenging time in his life. It's an American traditional style tattoo depicting a blueberry plant, symbolizing his reliance on blueberries as a "comfort food" during mental struggles. Today, Levi still finds himself going to the store to pick up blueberries as a source of calm and positivity during stressful moments, making this his most cherished piece.

Levi fondly recalls admiring his mother’s first tattoo on her ankle when he was a young child, which sparked his desire to adorn his body with art. Growing up with a tattooed parent meant he faced minimal familial resistance from his family regarding his choice of self expression. However, while working at a restaurant, Levi encountered harsh judgments from some customers regarding his tattoos. Rather than taking offense, he found humor in these encounters, understanding that the older generation holds different perspectives on life, and that their lack of respect didn’t reflect on his character.

One tattoo that holds significance for Levi is a mushroom tattoo he obtained after a profound experience at a fungi festival. He acknowledges that such tattoos can be associated with specific cultural contexts that may face judgment. Despite the evolving acceptance of this culture, Levi remains mindful of potential perceptions.

Given his professional field is science, Levi is often faced with surprised reactions from peers upon revealing his tattoos. While these reactions are harmless, Levi prefers to limit otherwise visible tattoos to areas easily covered by clothing, minimizing distractions in the workplace.

Unlike many tattoo enthusiasts, Levi views his tattoos less as outlets for expression or empowerment and more as an appreciation of artistry. He finds getting tattoos in styles he admires as something cool, acting as a canvas for his favorite artists' work. For Levi, an artist's specialty and style are crucial when choosing a tattoo artist, as he seeks to collect art that resonates with him aesthetically.

Levi reflects on his extensive collection of tattoos and acknowledges that there are moments when he questions why he chose certain designs. However, he emphasizes that he doesn't regret any of his tattoos. Instead, he views each tattoo as a reflection of a specific moment in his life and is grateful for the memories associated with them.

“My tattoos mainly serve as sentiments,” Levi explains. “They represent my family, reminding me of my roots and where I stand mentally. They also serve as personal reminders to myself.”


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