June 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Autos a driving trend in tattoos

Motor City's themed body art growing in quality, popularity

John Motyka owns Elite Ink, a chain of four tattoo shops scattered around Metro Detroit. (Phil Berg)

I see another trend on Detroit’s automotive horizon: car tattoos.

There’s some history for this. The largest tattoo shop in 1925 America was run by Professor Percy Waters on Randolph Street in Detroit. Today, Flint — birthplace of General Motors — has the most tattoo shops per capita in the country, according to a recent MSNBC Today show story. But what I’m thinking will happen is that Motor Skin City may become a national destination.

Why? Other places are not very hospitable for body art. It was against the law to get a tattoo in Oklahoma as late as 2006, and similar laws prohibited tattoos in Massachusetts until 2000. Today, it remains illegal to get tatted above the neckline in South Carolina.

What I found searching southern Michigan for folks with cool car tattoos over the past year is that the technology is improving.

“When I wanted a tattoo nine years ago, I was a fan of the Ford T-bucket, so I told the tattoo artist that I want to have some kind of symbolic meaning, and I left it up to the tattooist to draw it on me,” says local car tattoo artist John Motyka. He owns Elite Ink, a chain of four tattoo shops scattered around Detroit’s suburbs.

Car buffs want a vehicle that is symbolic and recalls a time in their lives that was more carefree, he says. Some customers want a tattoo of a vehicle that they may have worked on at a car company. “Some want partial vehicles, like just the front end, or rear end, which ever was their favorite.”

“The riverfront here was a Mecca for tattooists in the 1930s; the tattoos told a story of where a sailor’s been,” adds Motyka.

“Today, we have high-end tattoos, and we educate the customers first. That takes the impulsive nature out of getting a tattoo. Now customers are at the point they are saying ‘Let’s look for the wow factor.’ ”

I found that local folks use tattoos as a kind of storyboard of life. Brandon Wolverton, 32, is from Flint, has been a mechanic all his adult life, and got a ’54 Chevy pickup tattooed on his left forearm. His family owns a transmission and differential shop, and he was 17 when he got his first tattoo. Trains, motorcycles and verbal proverbs cover his body. It tells the story of important things in his life that he wants to show his five-year-old son, he says.

The tattoo industry estimates four in 10 American adults under 30 have at least one tattoo; a Harris Poll survey in 2012 reported that 21 percent of adults has a tattoo, an increase from 14 percent in 2003.

Car tattoos seem to be on the increase, according to leading tattoo artists Nemo Nearman of Detroit’s 5150 Ink, Joe Scapini of Jade Dragon Tattoo in Chicago, and Motyka. Nearman says the most memorable car tattoos he’s done are a ’56 Oldsmobile, a ’56 Chevrolet Bel Air Skyline, and a ’55 Bel Air with flames.

“Men get more car tattoos than women, definitely,” he adds.

Jade Dragon has 10 tattooists, and four body piercers. “Once every six months people want cars,” says Scapini, whose father, the late “Fat Joe,” has done tattoos on musicians Vince Neil of Motley Crue, and Detroit’s Uncle Kracker and Kid Rock.

The best evidence I found for a local rise in car tattoos is the skilled knowledge of cars and how to put their likenesses on skin.

“I studied drafting for several years,” says Elite Ink’s Motyka. “The same thing goes into tattooing. You have to know how the skin is going to curve, and how the design is going to fit the curve of the body.”

Motyka’s grandfather worked for Ford assembling cars, “and I found a photo of my grandfather at a machine press. He looked just like me tattooing. We are both sitting in the same position.

“Being in Motor City, there’s something to be said for, over the years, the combination of artists and cars here.”

Car buffs often go for a vehicle that is symbolic of their carefree days. (Phil Berg)
Motyka got this tattoo nine years ago and it convinced him to become a ... (Phil Berg)