The ink Folks

Published 9:19 pm Friday, September 19, 2014

Mike Cann gets close to his work as he inks the outline of a fennec fox on the right calf of the coincidentally named Michael McCann of Gloucester Point during a recent session at Folk City Tattoo in North Suffolk.

Mike Cann gets close to his work as he inks the outline of a fennec fox on the right calf of the coincidentally named Michael McCann of Gloucester Point during a recent session at Folk City Tattoo in North Suffolk.

Art transforms the skin you’re in

Suffolk tattoo artist Mike Cann isn’t a man to shy away from a challenge — or a little pain.

The 25-year-old co-owner of Folk City Tattoo on Bridge Road first got “inked” at 16.

After getting his apprenticeship at 18 and becoming an artist of renown in the industry, he has become intimate with the experience from the other side of the needle.

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Tattoo artists must be licensed a minimum of seven years to take on apprentices, and they can be reluctant to do so, because it eats into their earning capacity, so an apprenticeship at such a young age was an achievement in itself.

“I already had one lined up,” Cann said. “I had been going into shops talking to people.”

But he has hardly rested on the accomplishment.

In 2011, Cann set a new world record for the longest tattoo session, inking a dozen people in 35 hours, eight minutes and 48 seconds.

“It was hard to get someone to come in at 4 a.m., but other than that it was pretty easy,” he said.

Those tattoos added to an ever-growing body of knowledge that’s more than skin deep.

 Art with a history

Tattoos mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but everyone shares with modern practitioners of the ancient art a debt of gratitude to America’s greatest inventor.

Perhaps better know for giving us the light bulb, Thomas Edison also invented the first known device in America to use an electric-coil motor, the electric pen. That pen was the predecessor of the modern tattoo machine, and Edison is considered by many today to be the father of modern tattooing.

Nate Hudson, 36, Cann’s business partner, provided this illuminating history while showing Suffolk Living around Folk City.

The pair worked together at a studio in Virginia Beach before deciding to strike out on their own. Folk City opened in 2010.

Hudson confirmed something often pondered: The shop was named for the last four letters of Suffolk.

Because it’s located in Hampton Roads’ most countrified city, Folk City’s owners went for a country theme — or something akin to country.

Moonshine jugs, stuffed wildlife, shotguns and other assorted firearms, hillbilly paraphernalia of all descriptions — it would be hard to accurately classify the interior decorating.

 A growing business

Cann and Hudson soon opened another Folk City, in Hampton, and they started the Hampton Roads Tattoo Festival with Cann’s father John Cann and his magazine, Twisted Ink.

Like many tattoo artists, they’re travelling men.

“Me and Mike travel and do tattoo conventions all over the country,” Hudson said. “We came back from Florida one weekend and were like, man, we could do this here.”

The first festival, in March 2011, had nearly 10,000 visitors and more than 200 artists from across the country, he said.

They subsequently started two more annual festivals in Virginia Beach, and a third one kicks off in Raleigh, N.C. in September.

 A social component

One of the biggest changes in the business in recent years has been the influence of social media.

When Cann started, Myspace and Facebook were how artists disseminated their work. “Once every three weeks, you would upload 30 photos,” Cann said.

But nowadays with Instagram it’s … instant. “As soon as we finish a tattoo, we post it immediately,” Cann said.

Because the world can see that work straightaway, artists today are pushing themselves that much harder to expand the boundaries.

“It’s getting out of control with how good the work is getting,” Cann said.

But he also lamented that clients sometimes don’t appreciate the artistic potential. “Ideas aren’t the best they could be, and a lot of that’s because they can’t understand how crazy they could get,” he said.

Cann and Hudson both cite reality TV, shows like A&E’s “Epic Ink,” as having grown the industry. Getting inked is now more socially acceptable, with soccer moms even coming in for tattoos.

“You’ve got people that (had) never seen that culture, and it’s right in front of their face,” Cann said.

“We tattoo somebody who’s in their 70s or 80s on a weekly basis,” Hudson said. “They see the quality of the art nowadays — there’ a great tattoo artist in every city in America. Everywhere you go you see a tattoo.”

In this area, of course, the high concentration of military members and veterans factors into the art form’s popularity.

Though different types have proliferated, Cann and Hudson both use tattoo machines based on Edison’s original design. As a musician will stick with a sweet-toned old guitar even though it’s falling to bits, tattoo artists will remain faithful to their instruments, Cann said.

But they find their taste in tattoo art to be ever-evolving.

Hudson likes to do “goofy takes on animals. Anything with googley eyes and crazy teeth I’m happy with.” He shows a photograph of “a geisha with a snake face and an octopus tongue,” for which the client sat for nine hours.

Cann said he prefers “new-school tattooing, which is basically realistic animations.” But then he scratches that, saying, “Anything goes — I can do whatever you want.”

“I learn something with every tattoo,” Cann said. “What I like today won’t be what I like tomorrow or the next day.”