Tattoo artist out to make her mark

Courtney Mello Place paints at her new tattoo shop, Tooth & Nail Tattoo, on Church Street in Naugatuck on Feb. 22. Place plans to open the tattoo parlor later this month. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — Courtney Mello Place is hoping to make her mark on Church Street.

Place, a 29-year-old Naugatuck native who has always had a passion for art and tattoos, is opening Tooth & Nail Tattoo in the former Waterbury Printing and Engraving offices this month.

“Art has always been something I love to do since elementary school. My dad had a lot of tattoos and I was always interested in them,” Place said. “I think you have to be a little weird to want to do tattoos. So you have to be a little strange, which I always was. So it made sense.”

Place moved with her family to North Carolina her senior year of high school and began her tattooing apprenticeship shortly after graduating.

That apprenticeship led to a lifelong career for Place.

“This is pretty much my only job I have had my whole life,” Place said.

Place said while she loves other art forms, such as painting and drawing, there is something special about tattooing.

“With tattooing, the part of it that I really love is that it’s permanent. So it is scary to do. It is scary to put permanent art on people,” Place said.

Place moved back to Connecticut seven years ago and has been working in tattoo shops in the state ever since. Most recently, she worked in Lost Art Gallery in Oakville.

While she enjoyed working in other tattoo shops, Place wanted a shop to call her own.

“Why does anyone get into opening their own business? Freedom, independence, knowing that your hard work is going into something that you love and are creating. It’s a good feeling,” Place said.

Place, who will be the only tattoo artist working in the shop, said she enjoys working alone.

“I am kind of bossy. I like being in control of what I do and where I am. The more in control I am, the happier I am,” Place said.

When it came time to choose a location for her new shop, Place couldn’t think of anywhere better than Naugatuck, especially Church Street.

“I love Naugatuck,” Place said. “I love Church Street. I love the old buildings.”

Place said that her shop may look out of place on Church Street and people may have negative impressions of tattoo parlors, but she is out to change minds and prove she is a good business neighbor.

“I think people might have a preconceived notion of what it is going to be like. I went to Town Hall and their biggest concern was there won’t be a bunch of people outside, hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and whatever they think tattooers do,” Place said. “Even if people do have ideas of what I am going to be like as a business neighbor, it is going to change very quickly. I am quiet, I don’t like being around a lot of people. I am happy I can be here to show people that have these ideas that I’m not scary.”

For Place, changing minds about preconceived stereotypes is not new territory.

Tattoo parlors are a male dominated field where less than 17 percent of tattoo artists were female eight years ago, according to a 2010 study by Columbia University.

Place said often she and other female tattoo artists are questioned about whether they have actual artistic skills and what they did to get a job at a tattoo parlor.

“You have to work harder for the respect that you get,” Place said. “[Male tattoo artists] don’t treat you like another man. It’s always, ‘How did you do this.’ You have to prove yourself more and you have to be tougher because there are men that don’t like women who are on the same level or above them in their own industry. It is uncomfortable for a lot of them.”

“We are just like the guys,” Place added.

While female tattoo artists may be rare, tattoos have grown in popularity among women in general.

According to a Harris Poll, 2012 was the first year that more women in the U.S. had tattoos than men, with 23 percent of women having one compared to 19 percent of men.

Place has seen that trend bear itself out with more women customers.

“People think tattoos are a masculine thing but about 90 percent of my clients are females between the ages of 23 and 35. It is becoming more accepted. It is not looked at as outcasts or bikers or drug addicts. It is more of a common thing,” Place said.

Place is looking forward to opening her business, participating in the borough’s downtown festivals, and showing people that her shop will fit in well on Church Street.

“If they have a negative idea of tattoo shops it is going to be crushed and replaced with a happy one. I like donating to charities and the little festivals Naugatuck has,” Place said.