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West River Tattoo

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Photo of owner Matt VerVeer

More than one in five Americans say they have a tattoo, and their reasons for getting tattoos are as varied as the tattoos themselves. So what is the number one reason that more than ten percent of those people get their tattoos removed? “Names,” says Matt VerVeer, owner of West River Tattoo, 3871 West River Drive in downtown Comstock Park. “As far as erasing, it’s almost always names.”

VerVeer, a 1994 Rockford High School graduate, got interested in tattooing when he met some tattoo artists while playing drums in rock bands after graduating. VerVeer, who lived in northeast Grand Rapids at the time, apprenticed in a Grand Rapids tattoo shop and worked in other tattoo shops before coming to West River Tattoo as a contractor in 2000 shortly after the shop opened. He took over for the owner in 2010. VerVeer remodeled a little and changed staff. There is one full-time contractor and one part-time contractor. He said advantage to his location is free parking nearby for customers. There are three private tattoo stations in the 1200 square foot shop he rents and a large entry room where people can look through notebooks of tattoo art. However, he said these days people generally bring in art they’ve found online.

VerVeer enjoyed his apprenticeship and said it was a good way to learn not only technique, but also about the health and cleanliness aspects of tattooing. State laws require tattoo shops to be licensed, which includes regular inspections. Individual tattoo practitioners do not have to have a license but do have to have a Bloodbourne Pathogen Certification.

VerVeer noted that many of his clients are returning customers because they like his original art. One of the things VerVeer likes about his work is the opportunity to practice his artistry and discuss designs with customers, but he said that since he started tattooing almost 20 years ago there are fewer people requesting original art. People will bring in what we call sticker tattoos they find online…with common lettering,” he said. “We still push for original art.”

The oldest person he’s done a tattoo on was an 83 year old World War II veteran who had tattoos from his military time and wanted more. Tattoos date back at least to the ancient Egyptians. Mummies have been found with symbols and patterns tattooed onto their skin. Around 1000 BC in China, and in 16th century Japan, criminals were tattooed for identification. People in some cultures used tattoos to identify their tribe. There have been cultures that thought certain symbols would ward off evil spirits or illness, and people had those symbols tattooed on their body for protection. The first tattoo machine was built in 1819. Several people improved on the machine, including Thomas Edison who used the machine’s design to invent the electric pen. VerVeer said today’s tattoo machines are similar to the original design.

VerVeer who lives in northwest Grand Rapids also sells his oil paintings in his shop as well as art his siblings create. When he’s not working, he still plays drums in a couple of heavy rock bands.

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