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Downtown attracts tattoo parlors instead of brides
tattoo pic1
Nathan Bartolome, owner of Main Street Tattoo, works on Turlocker Jennifer Pease's first tattoo.

In 2008, a grand plan for Turlock's downtown was unveiled: scenic storefronts packed with boutique dress shops, cakeries, and florists would one day serve as a shopping destination for all the Valley's blushing brides.

With the economic collapse, rampant downtown vacancies, and shifts in spending patterns, that vision of a bridal shopping mecca has yet to materialize.

Yet one very different sort of business has seen a meteoric rise in downtown Turlock – the tattoo parlor.

Just 11 years ago, Main Street Turlock was home to only one tattoo shop, the eponymous Main Street Tattoo. Today, Main Street alone plays home to four shops, with two more within minutes of downtown's central avenue.

According to tattoo artists, those tattoo parlors were drawn to downtown Turlock for the same reasons planners had hoped to attract bridal shoppers: foot traffic, higher-class clientele, and the nice “feel” of the area.

Those factors give artists the opportunity to take tattooing away from their sometimes-seedy historical base of bikers, gang members, and sailors, moving the art form into the mainstream.

“We're trying to take tattooing to a higher-class level,” said Matthew Davis, co-owner of Royal Dagger Tattoo Parlor.


Demand strong, despite growth

The emergence of the tattoo parlor has been swift. In the past year alone, two new shops have opened on Main Street – Black Sea Tattoo Co. and Royal Dagger Tattoo Parlor – with at least eight tattoo parlors now serving the city's population of 68,549 people.

The surge in tattoo artists worries some long-standing business owners like Nathan Bartolome, owner of Main Street Tattoo, winners of Turlock Journal Readers' Choice Best Tattoo Parlor in 2010.

“Downtown Turlock is good for tattoo shops, but not for this many,” Bartolome said. “It's getting too diluted.”

The increased competition has led to a hit in business, Bartolome said. In hopes of attracting new customers – and sprucing up his business – Bartolome remodeled his shop six months ago.

But despite that increased competition, tattoo shops in Turlock's downtown are thriving, according to the owners of Main Street's newest tattoo parlor – and the Turlock Journal's 2011 Reader's Choice Best Tattoo Parlor – Black Sea Tattoo Co. In five months since opening, owner Eric “Oly” Olson said business has been “incredible” despite winter being a traditionally slow time for tattoo sales.

“We were pretty impressed with how we did,” Olson said.

Olson previously worked at Blasting Zone Inc., a Main Street tattoo parlor only a mile east of Black Sea's location. When he decided it was time to strike out on his own, Olson thought Turlock just made sense.

For one, Turlock represents a lucrative market compared to Merced or Modesto, according to Mike Sin, owner of Royal Dagger Tattoo Parlor. For Sin, that was a lesson learned early – his father first opened Main Street Tattoo in 2000.

“We just wanted to come back to where we started,” Sin said.

Where tattooists see Modesto as overcrowded, with more than 20 tattoo shops, Turlock represents a growth area – and a step up in quality.

“It is nicer over here,” said the tattoo artist known as “Drain,” a long time Modesto artist who now works at Black Sea Tattoo Co. “There's more foot traffic and less bums.”

The foot traffic and general demand mean there's room for everyone in Turlock, according to Eric DeOliveira, owner of Turlock's Blasting Zone Inc. tattoo parlor, which moved from Center Street to Main Street in 2010 to harness the power of foot traffic.

Where some shops and artists specialize in “flash” art – the sort of pieces hanging from tattoo shop walls – others focus on unique custom art, drawn specifically for each client. The variety of offerings and diverse clientele mean there's enough business for everyone – and the right artist for each client, DeOliveira said.


Turlock tattooists spreading art

While Turlock's tattooists run the gamut in terms of style, Turlock artists have always been dedicated to their craft, according to Wayne Allen, owner of Modesto's Red Dragon tattoo and tattoo show coordinator.

“The tattoo artists from Turlock have always brought it to the table,” Allen said. “And they always come out guns blazing.”

The talents of local artists led Allen to bring his long-running Modesto-based Inkmasters Tattoo Show to the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds for last year's iteration. That show starred hand-selected artists from across the West Coast, and drew 6,300 attendees in two days – a testament to demand in the area.

Despite the renowned competition, Turlock tattoo artists earned the show's first-place awards.

According to DeOliviera, that's because the Turlock tattoo community is focused on spreading the art of tattooing. Even when tattooists aren't inking, they're painting and drawing, refining and sharing their art form with the Turlock community through art shows, he said.

“We're nerds about tattooing,” DeOliveira said.


Future of downtown

The future of downtown Turlock remains uncertain.

The new head of Turlock's Downtown Property Owners’ Association, Dana McGarry, declined to comment on status of the bridal plan, or the influx of tattoo shops. After three months on the job, McGarry is still “getting her office organized,” and is working on a revised marketing plan with the Downtown Board of Directors.

But DeOliveira sees potential in the rise of tattoo parlors, and a new smoke shop opening next door to Blasting Zone Inc. The new businesses could revitalize downtown, he said, by making downtown a place younger people have a reason to spend time in.

And that could represent a new way forward for Turlock's troubled downtown.

“There's a newer generation coming in,” DeOliveira said. “We could have a cool little vibe if we could have that younger generation step in and open some more businesses.”

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.