Even the Illustrated Man would be floored if he saw what Philadelphians have up their sleeves in 2010 - M.C. Escher, Alphonse Mucha, Michelangelo, Derek Hess, the British street artist Banksy.
You like an illustration from Amazing Spider-Man No. 634? That Renoir at the Barnes? A sculpture in Venice? Engrave it on your biceps and visit it whenever you want.
Art lovers are covering their arms, legs, backs, and backsides with comic-book art, classic art, and vintage illustrations (think the heart from Gray's Anatomy) - a result of better technology and an influx of art-schoolers into tattoo shops.
The proliferation of famed-artwork tattoos evolved over the last 10 years with four major shifts in the inking industry. First, the advent of tattoo stencils gave artists a blueprint to follow. It was the more elaborate stencil designs, said Joe Shipley, known as "Professor Ouch" at Eddie's Tattoo, that inspired younger artists to attempt freehand design. At the same time, more art-school grads were entering the tattoo business, infusing the industry with new talent. Premixed inks made hundreds of additional colors available, and new tat machines made it possible to ink skin without the heavy black borders that used to be de rigueur.
Now customers walk into shops with art captured on their cell phones - and want it copied exactly.
"Once upon a time, it was just names, knives, and naked ladies," Shipley said.
While needles and ink quality are much improved, skin is still a volatile medium. You haven't lived until you've tattooed The Last Supper, say, on a man's back. If the skin is flabby, you stretch it like a canvas. Lest hair grow from the tabletop, you shave the area before touching needle to skin. Birthmarks? Incorporate them into the design. A person, unlike a canvas, starts squirming after two or three hours, so for a 20-hour basic dark outline of the Last Supper, you must break the job into sessions. (In between, it will presumably look like Bartholomew, Thaddeus, and James Major just showed up early.)
Artists charge by the job, but one said it usually works out to about $100 to $150 an hour.
Tattoos already get more attention than the curl on the top of a Dairy Queen sign, so why spend $200 to $3,000-plus to put a masterpiece on your arm?
"Art stirs your emotional state," said Moo Tattoo's Shawn Dubin, 36, whose work is featured in the August issue of Inked. "If they see something in a museum or a book, they say, 'I want to feel that again.' "
Rebecca Fiduccia, 29, a tattoo artist at No Ka Oi Tiki Tattoo on South Fourth Street, says art tattoos allow young people - a demographic not known for its discretionary income - the ability to enjoy fine art on a regular basis.
"We're not going to buy a $10,000 piece of art, but that doesn't mean we don't appreciate it and want a part of it," she said. "Tattoos make fine art accessible for people in my income bracket and age group - people who don't have the money to collect art, who are too transient, who are afraid it would be wrecked at a party, who live in shared spaces."
Ben Harris of Sink the Ink in Doylestown says one client hired him to ink her grandfather's abstract art onto her arm. Sometimes proud parents ask him to copy the masterpieces of their preschoolers.
"You know, something you'd ordinarily put on the refrigerator with a magnet," said Harris, 27.
Tattoo shops in Philadelphia and its suburbs have starkly different personas - from female-run studios to shops where Popeye the Sailor Man wouldn't stand out. You pick: A tropical-themed studio with a ceiling painted like a cloudy sky. A man cave with a sign avowing, "Ted Kennedy's car killed more people than my gun."
Even in a down economy, most of them are busy, as Philadelphia establishes itself as "a really big tattoo town," Fiduccia says. "I've lived a lot of places, and people get tattooed here more than anywhere," she said.
No city-centric figures are available, but a nationwide survey published by the Pew Research Center in February found that 38 percent of twentysomethings and 32 percent of GenXers wear a tattoo, while only 15 percent of baby boomers do.
Brangelina, Beyoncé, and Shia La Beouf have skin in the game. Even Samantha Cameron, wife of the British prime minister, has a dolphin ankle piece. And paparazzi have snapped the colorful tat on German first lady Bettina Wulff's right shoulder (peeking through sheer sleeves), but mostly she keeps it under wraps.
So do most people. According to Pew, 72 percent of the tattooed say their tats are not usually visible.
A 2003 Harris poll may explain why: Americans with an affinity for ink said their tats make them feel sexier (34 percent), more attractive (26 percent), and sometimes more intelligent (five percent), but Americans sans tattoos say they think people with them are less sexy (36 percent), less attractive (42 percent), and less intelligent (31 percent.)
Paul Miraglia says he believes strangers often judge him the second they spot any of his dozen tats, including "Mother" and "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger" on his chest. "They should realize that we're people too, and we have a passion for certain artwork."
To Miraglia, 21, the two-toned Pieta on his biceps is merely a profession of his Christian faith. He paid artist Bird Reynolds, 34, of Eddie's Tattoos on South Fourth Street $550 to ink the seven-inch copy of Michelangelo's sculpture of Mary holding Christ after his crucifixion.
But the tat also is a tribute to his mother. "I grew up in a single home. My mother raised us. I just think it's a powerful image of a single parent," he said. "It reminds me of a mother's love."
His mother, Janice, loves it: "No matter where he goes, he gets compliments," she said.
For a growing number of young tat aficionados, ink on the outside communicates what's inside.
"Tattoos give a lot of information about someone without ever saying a word," said Andrew Reppert of South Philadelphia, who believes body art serves some of the same purposes as social networks like Facebook and MySpace, giving others a snapshot of your interests.
"It's just kind of a way of putting up a flag, letting people know what you're about. You telegraph what you're interested in."
Reppert, 25, a bike mechanic, has "posted" three of his interests - a homage to Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, an artsy three-green-mice logo of a classic bicycle company, and a map of Berks County topped with the area code for his hometown of Reading.
The art tats on Alice White's petite body give some clues about the No Ka Oi tattoo artist. They include the intricate, repeating $700 M.C. Escher design that runs up her arm and the last patch of grass from Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.
"That's my political statement," she said, "on the back of my neck."