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First Person

Think before you ink

West Boylston tattoo artist Joe 'Zaza' Peterson, 36, steers clients toward body art they won't later regret.

(Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Shira Springer
March 20, 2011

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You founded the Massachusetts Tattoo & Art Festival, which wraps up this weekend. Why?

Festivals educate the public about what is a good tattoo and what is not. It’s also a good opportunity for artists to exchange ideas and techniques. It’s fun – not the scary, biker, back-alley thing it used to be.

How did you get started?

Playing around on myself. Of course, I was really, really bad at it. The downfall of being self-taught is that it took me years to get good. Nowadays, you do apprenticeships and learn from a skilled master instead of screwing up on all your friends and family.

It’s been 10 years since Massachusetts legalized tattooing. How did that change the business?

At first, it was rough going. There were a lot of people getting into the business. Over the years, the industry tended to police itself. The shops run properly are still around. For me, personally, it changed my life, so that I could turn my hobby into my full-time job.

What does it take to be a tattoo artist?

There’s an assumption that tattooing is easy – you just have to be able to draw. That’s not the case. We work with skin depth, different pigments, needle placements. Not every artist should be picking up a tattoo machine.

How do you find a good shop?

Research and go in with your eyes wide open. Only get tattooed by somebody you trust. If the person is not responsive to your ideas, walk away. The tattoo is for the customer, not the artist’s ego.

Have tattoos become too trendy?

I enjoy that I make an income off it. Tattoo artists can now be taken seriously and be part of the business community.

Most commonly requested tattoo?

It comes in spurts. Right now, it’s favorite quotes. I’ve probably handwritten a novel within the last year.

Do clients ever have regrets?

People with naked women will come in and get bathing suits put on them later. I always try to talk people out of getting a boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name. I’ve had people get somebody’s name and come back within a month and a half and get it covered.

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