In Brussels, tattoo parlors are springing up like mushrooms: in ten years the number increased fivefold from 26 to 127. And those are only the registered cases. Many Brussels residents also have tattoos done at home by friends. “A tattoo used to be marginal, now it is generally accepted.”
Halloween promotion: second tattoo and piercing for free.” A sign for Cleopatra Ink, a tattoo parlor in Dansaertstraat that opened its doors in April, tries to attract customers. The store is located on the corner of the Nieuwe Graanmarkt. A large banner with photos of colorful tattoos hangs on the windows.
When you enter, you will see ‘All you need is tattoo’ in large pink and blue neon lights on the wall, and seats where customers can drink a coffee while they wait. A little further: ‘You think it, we ink it.’ The numerous black lanterns with smiling pumpkins, black fabric spiders and plastic skeletons stir up the Halloween atmosphere. Pop music resounds through the speakers.
Matisse and his girlfriend Kaitlyn are getting a ‘matching’ tattoo today. “Last week we had the design developed. We went to other studios, but couldn’t find anyone who could translate our idea correctly,” says Matisse.
The design is based on the couple’s personal tarot cards. These are spiritual cards that show someone’s talents, but also challenges in life. “I’m not very spiritual, but Kaitlyn is,” Matisse says. “I think it’s mainly aesthetic, especially with the sword.” Matisse is allowed to take a seat in the chair, strategically placed by the window. Curious passersby can see the tattoo artist at work and perhaps be inspired to get one themselves.
Displeased? New tattoo
“I haven’t sat still for a minute,” says 53-year-old Ingrid Spinnoy, who works as a piercer at Cleopatra Ink. The Halloween promotion seems to be working well. Nose and helix piercings, in the cartilage of the ear, are particularly popular. “In the past, you were labeled as marginal if you got tattoos or piercings,” says Spinnoy. “Now it has become very normal. People are even less and less surprised by my facial tattoos.” She has about thirty ink drawings on her body, the first one she had done when she was sixteen. “And it is certainly not done,” she emphasizes.
Cleopatra Ink is a chain of studios founded in Turkey in 2014. The chain now has more than a hundred stores, also in the US, Spain, Finland and Germany. Another branch opened in Antwerp in March.
The promise on the shop window that this is the best tattoo parlor. The various trophies on display should provide proof of this at a glance. “When customers come with complaints, I am immediately reprimanded by the head office,” says 35-year-old Turkish manager Harun Tan. “Great control leads to better quality. Displeased? The customer then receives a new tattoo for free.” Seven months after opening, Cleopatra Ink already has almost seven hundred reviews on Google, all but a few of which are five stars.
Before joining Cleopatra Ink, Tan had no experience in the tattoo world. What’s more: he didn’t have any tattoos himself. Now he has a full sleeve on his left arm. “I had a few clothing stores in Turkey, so it was a completely different industry.” He plans to close his stores in Turkey and live full-time in Belgium. “If everything continues to run well, I am considering opening a store in Ghent or Bruges. The tattoo industry is just beginning to emerge.”
Competition is increasing
Cleopatra Ink is just one of the many tattoo parlors that opened their doors in Brussels in ten years. In 2013 the counter was still at 26, but today that number has risen to 127, almost five times as many, according to figures from the FPS Economy. hub.brussels, the regional service that supports starting self-employed people, also recorded a similar increase.
The many tattoo fairs and events also demonstrate its popularity. Next weekend – from November 10 to 12 – the International Brussels Tattoo Convention will take place in Thurn & Taxis. The organization expects thousands of visitors and more than four hundred artists from all over the world. In addition to tattoo sessions and specialty shop stands, there are also concerts, exhibitions and other activities.
“Tattoo shops are springing up like mushrooms,” notes David Sabbe (48). Five years ago he became the owner of Mystical Bodies, a well-known piercing and tattoo shop in the heart of Brussels since 1999. Until recently the store was located on the Kiekenmarkt, in March it moved to a new location in Auguste Ortsstraat.
“When I started, there was a shop here and there, now you see one almost on every street corner.” Yet according to Sabbe it remains profitable. “Yes, competition is increasing, but demand also continues to grow strongly, not everyone can always make it happen. And also, more shops means a wider range of styles. Geometric, dotworktribal, black and white, color: you name it, something for everyone.”
Twenty-year-old Mélanie Vande Perre enters the shop. “Come along,” says Ana Pluviaud (24) – stage name Saturne – a colleague of Sabbe, who started at Mystical Bodies a few months ago. Ana shows the design she has already completed. A smile appears on the young woman’s face. “Completely what I had in mind.”
Ana places the stencil on her client’s arm: the print of the design, over which the artist draws. “What do you think about it?” Mélanie seems to have doubts. Isn’t a little more to the right or a little more up better? The design will be moved around until everyone is satisfied. An hour later, a cat drawn in fine lines appears on Mélanie’s upper arm.
“I always ask the customer a lot of questions to make sure they don’t regret the design, size or location afterwards,” says Ana. This is agreed by colleague Sara (28), who has been working at Mystical Bodies for nine years. “Our customers are often between 18 and 20 years old, a period in which tastes can change drastically. Then they come back later, asking them to tattoo a new drawing over an earlier design.”
The perception surrounding tattoos has improved, they both note, but they still emphasize that interested parties should think carefully first. “Customers sometimes go to tattoo parlors like they would go to a hairdresser or buy a new pair of shoes, but that is something completely different,” says Ana.
Sara notices that many young people are still too frivolous with their choices. “They often ask for tattoos on their neck, face and hands. It seems that they do not fully understand the impact of a drawing in such a prominent place, especially on their professional lives. That’s why I sometimes dare to advise against it. Then I suggest considering another part of the body.”
And then there is another trend: young people who put the drawings on their bodies at home or with friends. This can be done with, among other things, affordable sets available online. A quick search on the internet shows that bol.com sells about seventy tattoo kits, the cheapest for just under 50 euros. There are also numerous websites specialized in the sale of tattoo sets, with all kinds of accessories, such as rubber body parts, to practice on.
However, a royal decree from 2005 prohibits tattoos if you do not have a recognition number. Yet it happens: 24-year-old Jill started with a so-called three years ago stick and poke to put drawings on friends. With this method, a tattoo artist inserts a needle filled with ink into the skin several times. “My sister gave me a set and I have already gotten eight tattoos.”
Professional shops are sometimes seen as too big a step, she notes. That stick and poke is then easier for those who want to try a tattoo. “I mainly get the question from friends who don’t have tattoos yet, but are curious. They often find it too scary and too expensive to go to a tattoo parlor.”
Prices for tattoos can vary greatly. At Cleopatra Ink the starting price is 75 euros, but a full sleeve can cost around 4,000 euros.
Linde (24) also gets tattoos on herself and friends, about forty now. “I started it when I was sixteen. I have been using one for four months now tattoo gun – an electrical device that professional tattoo artists use – because I would like to make larger tattoos. Immediately stick and poke it takes a very long time.”
Linde bought her tattoo gun online and, she says, learned a lot through instructional videos on YouTube. The sector itself points out the dangers of this trend. “A recognized artist must first pass an exam to receive a certificate, which is especially important in the areas of hygiene and sterilization,” says David Sabbe of Mystical Bodies. “If treatment is not done correctly, there is a risk of infections and even contracting certain viruses, such as HIV.”
In addition, there are rules about the ink that can be used. The European standards are very strict. Anyone who buys ink online does not always know the origin of the manufacturers used and their composition.
Jill and Linde realize this. “It is therefore very important to use clean and sterile equipment, such as needles and razor blades, during each session,” says Linde. Jill asks her friends for 2 euros, which she uses to buy new needles every time. “I try to guarantee a sterile space as much as possible, although I know that things can still go wrong, and I emphasize that every time.”
The tattoo artist from Cleopatra Ink is gradually finishing the new drawing on Matisse’s inner arm. “I already have a vague idea for my next one,” he says. “A larger design on my back. I’m just looking for a suitable artist. And the necessary money.”