When eye-popping body art adorns celebrities like David Beckham, Angelina Jolie and even female finalists for American Idol, it's a sign that tattoos have gone mainstream.
Perhaps the surest sign: They've come to an upscale shopping district and even a mall near you.
FAT Ink — the acronym stands for fashion, art, tattoo — opened last week in an 1,100-square-foot space near Macy's in Westfield Citrus Park, with plans to open another in Westfield Brandon in four to six months.
The company first hit South Tampa's trendy SoHo area, where owner Brad Grandorff opened a shop May 2 at 500 S Howard Ave. It's a one-stop shop for tattoos and related fashion and accessories in the heart of South Tampa's popular nightlife district.
The SoHo crowd has "typically gone to other places like Ybor to get tattoos," Grandorff said. Now, he said, "they'd rather do it in their own back yard."
The tattoo shop already has created a buzz in SoHo, said Andrew Turek, co-owner of the Pita Pit restaurant two doors down. Much has been made of the store's computer system, a tabletop with a built-in touchscreen where customers can view and edit a design before committing to it.
"It's a nice tattoo parlor," Turek said. "It's almost like an art studio."
Grandorff avoids "parlor" altogether.
"It's a tattoo studio," he said with a chuckle.
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Moving tattoo shops away from retail's fringes would not have been possible in this market even a year ago, Grandorff said. He couldn't afford the lease rates back then for mainstream frontage. But the recession has made it easy to get a good deal on rent in vacant upscale spaces.
Yet the economy hasn't deterred people from getting tattoos. FAT Ink's rate is $150 an hour.
"It's just a good, solid business in so many ways," said Grandorff, who also owns a tattoo shop in his native Washington state.
"We're going into one of the key areas that are underserved. We believe in the mall there will be a tremendous amount of impulse" buys.
Grandorff said he was shocked by the number of people who filtered through his Citrus Park store last weekend, about 150 a day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Chairs filled quickly, he said.
"I'm afraid to advertise," he said. "We've been that busy."
Traditional tattoo shops are owned and run by artists. Grandorff, 39, is a businessman first who says he still "makes a living" in software sales. His only body art until recently was a tattooed ring on his left hand worn in lieu of a wedding ring, though he has started work on a "full sleeve" on one of his arms.
"No turning back now," he said.
Grandorff won't be the first to bring tattoos to the mall, but there are few such stores nationwide. A shop opened last year at a mall in Tulsa, Okla. Tattoo Nation LLC opened the nation's first mall parlor in 2006 in Wayne, N.J., and had plans last fall to expand to other malls, according to a 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal.
Grandorff hopes to expand sooner than later. He said he has a letter of intent to lease a space at Westfield Brandon. A mall spokeswoman said she could not release the names of potential tenants until leases are signed.
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The prototype evolved in SoHo, where Grandorff transformed a 1,500-square-foot former Washington Mutual loan office into a shop with charcoal-colored interior and urban decor. Private tattoo and piercing areas are closed off with cut-up industrial garage doors that roll up and out of the way.
A Microsoft Surface touch screen computer table allows the artist and client to create, view and modify a tattoo design before an artist breaks out the ink. Onlookers often chime in with their opinions during the process. The technology has a starting price of $12,500, according to Microsoft's Web site, and is in limited use. Chairs surround the glass top computer screen, allowing people to sit and interact with the technology. Its various functions have been used by casinos, MSNBC, Disneyland and hotel chains.
FAT Ink artist Tassili Ledezma, 29, said the technology allows the artist and client to "talk more and plan better."
Grandorff wants to cater to both body art enthusiasts and the wary but curious. He said he hires only artists with at least three years' experience and uses quality sanitizing equipment.
Tattoo businesses have at times carried a stigma, however, and getting landlords to buy into his idea required some smooth talking.
Mall officials were the hardest sell, Grandorff said. Last month, he said that he thought "they still have some anxiety" about it.
Westfield spokeswoman Tara Martin said in an e-mail that FAT Ink is "a new opportunity/option for consumers — and we're all about that."
Ledezma said the store uses sterile bandages to wrap fresh tattoos as the skin heals, protecting customers and giving them the ease to go about their day — especially important in malls, where clients may want to continue shopping.
Back in SoHo, Grandorff said, he hasn't heard any complaints from residents.
Jane Levin of Levin Investment Realty, the leasing agent for the Howard Avenue building, said she initially expected that the fashion and accessories displayed in the front of the store were going to be the focus of the business.
Still, "Hyde Park — SoHo — is supposed to be our most cutting-edge area," Levin said. "I have no problems whatsoever putting anybody in there that is forward-thinking, has good ideas and is going to attract the young professionals that still have disposable income that are looking for something new."