Shopping for Shoes, Jeans ... and Tattoos?

It's that time of year. It's time to see Santa, time to shop for holiday bargains, time to get ... a tattoo.

Now, at one New Jersey mall, shoppers can do all three in one stop. Tattoo Nation recently opened at the Willowbrook Mall, just 200 feet from Bloomingdales.

"Our goal is to certainly reach [a] minimum 100 locations," Tattoo Nation founder Heath Wolfson said. "Very similar to what Starbucks did for coffee, we're looking to do for tattoos."

With one store already operating and 10 more on the way, Wolfson, 31, is hoping to open one of his Tattoo Nation shops at a mall near you.

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"Whether it's on a conscious or subconscious level -- it definitely gives parents or people who are seeking tattoos to get a feeling of comfort," he said.

This is living, breathing proof that tattoos -- once the mark of the rebel, the outlaw, the nonconformist -- have gone mainstream. Way mainstream.

But tattoos have always exuded coolness. How cool can they be just down the aisle from a Foot Locker?

"We're not going to service the Harley Davidson guy who sort of brought this to the mainstream culture," Wolfson said. "I think that's why the mall bought into us as well. We'd be happy to service them, but this is not so much a rebellious or coming of age thing that people are doing anymore, it's become an art form."

Ink for All

It has been estimated that 40 percent of 18- to 39-year-olds now have tattoos. Scores of athletes and celebrities have them. And reality shows like "Miami Ink" have taken the art out of the back alleys and into the living room.

Wolfson's business is up 35 percent year to year thanks to customers like 39-year-old schoolteacher Renee Freeman who came in for her first tattoo -- a Celtic thistle on her foot.

"This is such a nonthreatening place, it just seems like a thing to do now," Freeman said. "Walking into a tattoo parlor for me, I just felt like I'd never fit in and here it just feels, like, natural."

Freeman brought a couple of her teacher friends along for moral support.

It could be a bit hard to imagine a scene like this at a traditional tattoo parlor like Daredevil Tattoo on New York's Lower East Side.

Daredevil Tattoo customer Matt Etchemendy said he doesn't shop at Bloomingdales.

"If there's a sale, I guess," he said, quickly changing his mind again. "No, still no."

Tattoo artist "Big Steve" Perone echoed his customer's sentiments.

"I don't go to malls because I don't want to deal with the people like that, you know what I mean?" he said. "Nothing's wrong with them, I just don't want to deal with them."

Diluting a Treasured Art?

Brad Fink, the co-owner of Daredevil and a big name in the tattoo world, said he used to fret about the mall-ification of his passion.

"Romantically, I think a lot is lost, but that's too far gone to worry about," he said.

He said he also worries that what might be missing at the malls is the art.

"It's not like being trained at Starbucks to be baristas. It is not computer-generated work. It is work being done by humans on humans," Fink said. "If you're getting a tattoo you need to scrutinize people's portfolios and do your research. You need to go on the Internet and find endless amounts of great tattooers."

Getting a tattoo, he said, should not be like window-shopping -- not like it is occasionally at Tattoo Nation, where Wolfson said he was surprised that many customers are impulse shoppers.

So what do the artists at Tattoo Nation think of the complaints from the purists?

"I don't really care," Tattoo Nation artist Matt Montleon said. "I come to work and I do tattoos. I deal with my clients just like I would at any other shop."

And there were other considerations.

"I have a wife and kid and I need the health insurance," he said. "The opportunity came up, I took it. I like it."

Tattoo Nation's artists get benefits and vacations, something that's virtually unheard of in the mostly cash, mostly freelance world of tattoo parlors.

But Freeman doesn't care about that. She cares about her Celtic thistle.

"It's beautiful!" she told artist Dan Castellano, after seeing the finished results. "You totally nailed it right on the head."

And when it was all said and done and paid for, where was Freeman heading next?

"Bloomingdales," she said, laughing. "And we're gonna go to Lord and Taylor's."

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