ANCHORAGE — So many customers ask for the state flower inked across their bodies, Juneau tattoo artist David Lang says he might as well have named his shop “The Forget-Me-Not.”
Then there are the “907s” dripping with icicles and the “AKs” in Old English font. The fireweed and the Big Dippers. Lang keeps a silhouette of the state tacked to his wall in case of walk-ins.
It seems no other state — sorry, Texas — inspires such loyalty under the needle. Well-traveled tattooists working in Alaska say they’ve never seen anything like the Last Frontier urge to stamp yourself with state pride.
“I’ve worked in Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Connecticut, Louisiana and here,” said Debra Yarian, one half of the husband-and-wife team that runs Eagle River Tattoo.
“The tattoo clientele here is different than it is in the Lower 48 in that they don’t follow any trends, other than their own trend of getting state of Alaska (tattoos),” Yarian said. She began in the trade 33 years ago and can’t recall inking any other state maps besides Texas and Hawaii.
“Nobody ever gets New Jersey,” she said.
The Alaska tattoos are a kind of merit badge for residents of the most physically unforgiving, remote state in the union. A place literally apart from the rest of the U.S., where people ink evidence of their time here like soldiers after a tour of duty.
Later this summer a wave of fresh high school graduates will file through the Anchorage Tattoo Studio in Midtown, inking Alaska on their backs and biceps before leaving for trade schools and colleges Outside, said artist James Allen.
Customers ask for Big Dippers on every part of their bodies. The constellation, a nod to the state flag, is likely the most popular Alaska tattoo, followed by forget-me-nots, said Don Yarian, Debra’s husband and co-worker. (Even Sarah Palin may have a Dipper. She once bet her husband Todd she’d get the state stars inked on her ankle if then-Gov. Frank Murkowski ran for re-election in 2006, which he did.)
Other Alaskans are more creative. Don once tattooed a scene of the Seward Highway winding up a forearm, embroidered with the words “C’est la vie.” On another customer he inked the outline of the state map across the full width of a woman’s pale back.
Don thumbed through pictures of her fresh tattoo on his iPhone. Forget-met-nots and the eight stars of the state flag covered the map, with “This is my playground” written in cursive across the woman’s shoulder blades. Southeast Alaska wound down toward her kidneys, along with a small image of two happily mating moose.
“I don’t ask a lot of questions,” Don said.
Such hometown pride has created a kind of cottage industry among the state’s 111 licensed tattooists, who become experts at inking Tlingit artwork and Northern Lights.
At Body Piercing Unlimited in Fairbanks, 907 area code designs are nearly as common as Kanji, the Japanese characters ubiquitous on lower backs across the country. “We do at least one (Alaska tattoo) a day right now,” said Kyle Roll, an apprentice at the shop.
At 21, Roll already has two. One is a moose skull on his chest. The other is tattooed on his thigh: A grizzly bear with antlers.
“It’s the Alaskan jackalope,” he said.
At Ink & Iron, a tattoo parlor in Sioux Falls, S.D., tattooist Curtis Linton said people rarely ask for artwork commemorating the Dakotas.
He once inked the South Dakota state bird, a ring-necked pheasant, on a friend. A few other customers have asked for “605.” Like Alaska, the state has just one area code, he said. Otherwise, it’s mainly tribal tattoos and Bible verses.
Las Vegas tattoo artist Oz VonMunster said customers often ask for designs honoring their visit to Sin City, but are less likely to demand, say, the fence post outline of the state of Nevada.
In Juneau, summertime tour-industry workers sometimes ask for Alaska pieces, but most of the demand comes from locals, said Lang, of High Tide Tattoo.
One of the newer state pride trends is the numeral “574,” artists say. That’s the first three digits of Social Security numbers assigned to Alaska-born babies. Others have asked for the Northern Lights, dog sleds, Alaska Native corporation logos and Inupiat, Yup’ik and Tlingit designs.
Yvonne Brown of Eagle River is an Oregon transplant and pediatrics nurse. She moved to Fairbanks in 1964 when expectant mothers arrived at the hospital by dog team from Interior villages. For one of her first New Year’s Eve celebrations in the state, her new Alaska friends took Brown out on the town. It felt like she visited every house in the city, she said.
Alaska had sunk its claws into her. She is now 69. Her husband, a retired air traffic controller, is 72. They plan to head south in a motor home this summer, but first Brown wanted a tattoo of her adopted home state. She saw a logo for a small clothing company, Alaska Roots, on a sweatshirt and asked Eagle River Tattoo to ink the design on her calf. The image is a Sitka spruce with long roots spilling into the shape of the state, Aleutians to the Panhandle.
Brown hadn’t told her husband about the ink yet, but she doesn’t think he’ll mind. “My heart just went, ‘I need to do this,’” she said.