LEWISTON — Angela Whiteley tried college and dropped out. She tried working in a day care, an office and in a mall.

“I hated every moment of it,” she said. “I hated the fluorescent lighting. I hated everything. I thought, ‘If I have to wake up every day and go to a job I hate, I’m not going to make it to 30.'”

However, the wife and mom just celebrated her 30th birthday. And she has a job.

She’s a tattoo artist.

“It’s what I was meant to do,” Whiteley said.

In her right hand, she held a tattoo machine like a pencil, scratching at a woman’s forearm until flower petals and swirls took shape and filled with color. With her left, Whiteley swabbed excess ink from the fresh creation.

The motions seemed utterly natural.

“I’m a one-trick pony and this is my trick,” she said as she tattooed and swabbed. “I don’t know how to do anything other than art.”

She has been fascinated with tattoos since she was a little girl. She’d stare at her father’s and uncle’s arms. And she’d practice on her sister.

“I would actually sit my sister down and draw on her with crayon,” she said. And she’d press as hard as necessary to make sure the colors stuck. “I don’t know if you have ever drawn on somebody with crayon, but you have to push those suckers in there.”

Soon, her own skin became her media of choice, playing with temporary tattoos and stickers.

“I always wanted to walk around with pretty stuff on my skin,” she said. “When I reached high school, I would sit in detention and I would draw all over my hand with a pen.”

At 17, even before she was old enough for a tattoo of her own, she began hanging out at tattoo parlors.

A few years later — after trying the more conventional jobs — she wound up apprenticing.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way,” she said. “The right way is to get an apprenticeship, get a mentor, learn under your mentor for six months to a year, and then work in a shop with your mentor.”

Her mentor, Brian Lemay, taught her the details of tattooing, encouraged her to learn anatomy and enforced unwritten rules such as never speak ill of another artist’s work.

“The wrong way is to buy a machine, tattoo your friends and give them hepatitis,” she said.

For a year, she learned with Lemay. Then she and her business partner, who recently retired, bought the Lisbon Street tattoo shop five years ago.

The work remains fresh even after all this time, she said.

Folks who want to change their appearance can spend months dieting, hours dying their hair or hundreds of dollars on new clothes.

Or they can sit in her chair.

“With a tattoo, you’ve just got to sit down for a couple of hours and you look different,” she said. “There’s an addictive quality to it.”

As an artist, the process of tattooing is an alternative to working on the same canvas. Each person has a different shade and color to their skin, changing the color and brightness of every creation.

“It changes on everybody you do it on,” Whiteley said. “Everybody’s skin is different.”

The permanence of it can be a little daunting, she said, still tattooing as she talked.

“It’s harder and more stress when you know that what I’m doing on her is never going to leave her skin,” she said.

The continuing challenge is to find her outlet as an artist, knowing that she’ll never have one work that’s her ultimate artistic expression.

It’s the customer’s body.

“When you’re a tattoo artist, you’re not an artist for yourself,” she said. “You’re an artist for other people. You’re using your gift and your ability to make them happy.

“So as far as me sitting back and going, ‘Oh, this is my masterpiece,’ I guess I would have to have someone that just came in and said, ‘Do what you will,’ which is hard to freaking come by.”

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.