Nov 032010
Authors: Andrew Carrera

There’s something with college students and tattooed butt cracks.

“I don’t know if it’s a part of rush –– but they have this thing where they get butt tattoos,” said 35 year-old Joe Van Amber, a lifelong artist working for Freakshow Tattoos and Body Piercing. “They come in all the time, so we had to develop a $100 minimum so they wouldn’t.”

Van Amber has done about 15,000 tattoos, worked in 15 parlors and lived in six states –– all in the name of what he calls one of his life’s greatest passions: tattooing.

Today he’s drawing a flower on the side of Samie Otteman, a Fort Collins resident who considers the practice artistic expression.

“This is my fifth tattoo,” she says, grinning as she lies down on a reclined chair in front of Van Amber. “I think they say that I’m creative and artsy-fartsy.”

The centuries-old art form has its origins in ancient Samoan society and has since found its way into college campus across the nation. A 2006 Pew Research Center survey showed that 36 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds have a tattoo; 40 percent of 26- to 40-year-olds reported going under the needle.

Van Amber’s been interested in tattooing since he can remember.

“I just grew up with it, that’s all I studied as a kid,” he said as he brought an ink needle to Otteman’s skin. “When I was 8-years-old, we moved to Arizona and there was a fella’ that lived next to us that was doing tattoos out of his house. His name was Wiley and his wife’s name was Smiley, and I don’t think they had a last name. It interested me from there on out.”

The husband and father of five grew up in Mankato, Minn. –– a small, liberal-minded college town of 20,000 people. After being homeschooled most of his life, Van Amber received his diploma and became a tattoo artist’s apprentice at 18.

The next year, he went into the Navy: “I never went to war or anything though,” he says.

The United States government paid for his education after his tour of duty.

“I used my G.I. Bill and went to the San Francisco Academy of Art, and then transferred up to Minnesota College of Art,” he says, as he colors in a flower leaf on Otteman’s side. “Those were happy times.”

Van Amber recalled a favorite college memory where he and his friends made snow penises on the campus grounds of the Minnesota College of Art –– an act that received the condemnation of their local paper the Star Tribune.
“They had a big article about someone vandalizing the campus. We did dumb stuff like that.”

The tattoo artist moved to Fort Collins two years ago, during which he has worked for Freakshow and seen his fair share of awkward tattoo requests. The weirdest ones involve genetalia.

“There was a guy who had a stick figure kicking the other stick figure into his butthole,” he says.

One of them involves cartoon characters and a sphincter.

“Another was rabbit tracks leading up to the butt crack, and Elmer Fudd with a shotgun saying, ‘Get out of that there hole you rascally rabbit,’” he says, laughing. “There are some funny ones.”

But people come into Freakshow looking for more serious tattoos too. The idea of permanent art work on one’s skin hits home for lots of folks looking to forever remember the loss of a loved one. A Fort Collins fraternity decided to tattoo themselves after they lost a brother in a train accident last year.

“He had a tattoo on him of a landscape of the area –– he loved the mountains and was from here,” he says. “And so (his fraternity brothers) all got different landscapes on them in memory of him.”

For Van Amber, tattooing gives him an opportunity to be “kind of a counselor.”

The tattoo artist said he sees tattoos memorializing friends at least 3 to 4 times per week.

“You learn to become a very good listener,” he says.

As he finishes Otteman’s tattoo, she shakes Van Amber’s hand and admires the fresh art on the side of her stomach. “It’s amazing,” she says, refraining from touching the drying ink.

“I get to meet so many people. It’s a neat way to be a social bird and still be an artist––trying to defeat some of the stereotypes of what art’s supposed to be,” he says as he schedules another eager-looking customer for a tattoo.

“It’s a labor of love, man.”

And loved by Fort Collins tattoo enthusiasts he is.

Staff writer Andrew Carrera can be reached at

Meet Joe Van Amber

Favorite beer: Sober for 3 years.
Favorite hangout: Surfside 7 Cafe.
Favorite band: The Beatles (“I love John Lennon”)
Hometown: Mankato, MInn.
Number of kids: 4 girls, 1 boy. “We’re trying for another!”

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