Reviving Old-School Americana Tattoos in Houlton


HOULTON, Maine – An Aroostook County tattoo artist’s new studio offers a hip, nostalgic bent. And it’s the bold outlines of old-school Americana tattoos that artist Richard Bettenc brings to Houlton’s already buzzing body art scene.

“There’s a resurgence of a lot of sailor-style tattoos that have come back into popularity, although a bit modernized,” the Massachusetts native said.

Just this week, Bettencourt’s new studio, Ritual Ink, in downtown Houlton, got the state health inspector’s approval, and he is open for business after several months of getting ready. There’s the licensing, the equipment, the forms, and the state-required blood-borne pathogen training, not to mention the vivid black and lime walls and subtle symbols Bettencourt created on the shop walls.

He said this is his first go at running a business, and he was surprised by all that goes on behind the scenes.

Naming his studio was through gut instinct, he said.

Art has always been a refuge and personal ritual for him, and he believes it is the same for people getting tattoos.

Bettencourt said that their choice process and reasoning behind it are also rituals.

“Some might be just a silly tattoo,  but I have seen women turn mastectomy scars into a beautiful tattoo,” he said. “That’s a permanent change to your physical appearance, and the ritual is different for everybody.”

Tattoos and body art, once considered taboo in America, have gained significant acceptance in the past two decades. It is not surprising, they have become popular because they are about social connections, according to Illinois State University socialist  David Lane, whose life work focuses on tattooing. History shows tattoos have long marked famous and infamous bodies like Winston Churchill’s. And Otzi the Iceman was covered in 57 tattoos, according to the Smithsonian.

Even in rural Houlton, body art is a hot item. Ritual Ink is the fourth studio in one downtown block. Studios like Sammi’s Tattoo Studio, Crowe’s Tat oos and Shirewood Tattoos are within walking distance of each other. Still, according to their Facebook pages, all are busy, with some booked several months ahead.

At first, Bettencourt was hesitant about opening a shop knowing this, but he said they all have a steady clientele, and there is still such a great demand.

“I’ve only been open a few days, but there have been walk-ins and messages left and right,” Bettencourt said.

Art has been his refuge for most of his life, and he started tattooing about 21 years ago as an apprentice in a Gulf-side Florida shop. But since moving to downtown Houlton five years ago with his wife, Kim Bettencourt and their four children, he has been working at Smith & Wesson.

Still, it kept bugging him that he wasn’t doing something art-related, and he finally leapt, he said.

When a client comes into his shop, the scent of incense is calming, and he said he wants his studio to be a comfortable space where everybody is welcome, even if it’s their first tattoo and they are scared to death.

“I want them to be able to come here and talk about it,” he said. “I like to have a lot of communication with the client. Sometimes, they come in with exactly what they want or have a vague idea. It’s the ones with vague ideas that are a lot more fun, and there is a lot of back and forth of drawings and ideas.”

Bettencourt also does henna tattoos for those unsure if they want a permanent tattoo, giving them a couple of weeks to look at something on their skin. Henna tattoos, also known in Indian cultures as mehndi, are made from the dried leaves of the henna plant.

He said that Bettencourt makes his henna from the ground-up plant, then adds sugar, lemon juice, and essential oils, like lavender, to bring out the natural dyes.

“I mix it into a paste, let it sit for 12 hours and then roll it out into cones to make a fine point and squeeze it out on top of the skin,” he said.

In his 20-plus years of tattooing, he said things have improved.

“When I started, we were using traditional coil machines, a loud buzzing machine. Now I am using a wireless pen style, and the needles are membrane needle cartridges, all one piece,” he said. “They have a membrane that prevents ink or blood from flowing back into the machines. It is all self-encapsulated, so everything is cleaner and safer.”

Bettencourt prefers to take his time with the tattoos, so he generally charges by the project, not hourly. A shop minimum of $100 can be tiny to a couple of square inches. He said a detailed palm-sized piece could be about $200 to $250.

“Moving to Maine has been a great decision. We love it here,” he said. The town of Houlton and all these small businesses are working together.”

Studio hours are Noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with notable appointments on other days. For more information, 207-742-8 49.

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