For centuries, men and women have been adorning their bodies with jewelry and tattoos as a means of self-expression.
"Tattoos are one of the most primitive forms of self-expression there is," said Visa Graves Norman, co-owner with husband, Wes, of Valhalla Modifications in Payson.
When people think of tattoos, they often associate them with prison or with military service, but this type of body art has a much wider appeal than ever and is busting out of its jailhouse association.
According to Wes, tattoos and body piercing have become much more mainstream in recent years.
"I've watched it become more trendy. Every teenager wants it now," Wes said. "Most parents are opening their minds to it more because it's no longer the criminal element that's associated with tattoos and piercings. Before, if you were a tattoo artist or a piercer you were either an ex-con or a biker and now you have people who graduate college with art degrees and become tattoo artists."
As its popularity has grown along with the spread of life-threatening, blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis C, it has become increasingly important to choose an artist very carefully.
Years ago, Wes and Visa saw the need for a safe place for people to get tattoos and piercings.
"We found out that there was a health epidemic here -- HIV and Hepatitis," Wes said. "There was a lot of tattooing and piercing going on at parties and out of people's homes. They were using the same needles and we saw a lot of young kids that were being pierced this way."
Wes described one man who carried a piercing needle in his pocket and would use it on several people in one night, soaking it in alcohol for 30 seconds between people.
"We also knew of a lot of people tattooing out of their homes using homemade tattoo rigs," Wes said. "You can't break it down and sterilize it properly."
At Valhalla Modifications, sanitation and safety are priorities. All needles and jewelry are brand new. Needles are used once and disposed of the same way as in a hospital setting. They sterilize instruments in an autoclave which is tested once a month, and soak them in disinfectant.
They use an ultrasonic machine to clean any portion of the tattooing machinery that is reused.
"We have an in-depth cleaning procedure -- it's hospital sanitation," Wes said. "I think most people in Payson appreciate us because we can protect their kids and family members from dying early in life because of some $20 tattoo they got."
"We saw a need for a professional establishment here," she said. "We saw a lot of fly-by-night operations."
Wes was asked to apprentice under a master piercer in a well-respected company in Phoenix.
"Wes trained with them and his apprenticeship took two years which is how long it takes to learn the full scope of what we do," Visa said. "Apprenticing is the only way to learn -- a weekend class is not enough."
Clients Mike and Dawn Thorp appreciate the professional, yet friendly atmosphere at Valhalla Modifications.
While Mike has had several tattoos, Dawn got her first tattoo four months ago at Valhalla Modifications.
"I was a little scared at first, but it has been a very positive experience. When you come here, they really care," Dawn said. "In the Valley they run you through real quickly."
Having a legitimate establishment close by is an advantage.
"You should ask yourself the question, ‘Is the technician or artist going to be available if there is a problem?', Visa said. "We are here over 40 hours, five days a week -- that's worth something."
Dawn is currently finishing a series of colorful butterflies that cascade down her ankle and foot.
Mike is having Wes cover up the name of a former girlfriend on his back. Earlier, Wes covered up another ex's name on his arm. Mike now has his wife's name tattooed on his neck.
Wes and Visa want to build a clientele of those seeking a safe and professional environment to get a tattoo or piercing.
"If your only concern is price, then we are not the place for you," Visa said. "There is an expression in the industry, ‘Good tattoos aren't cheap and cheap tattoos aren't good.'
"If you spend $100 on a pair of shoes, why shouldn't you spend that on something that's permanent on your body?"
Although their prices may be a bit higher than home-operated businesses or some in the Valley, Valhalla Modifications prides itself on its clean and professional environment and well-trained, experienced technicians.
Saving money on something permanent like a tattoo or a piercing cannot only result in a potential eyesore on your body, but illness and possibly death.
Body art should be a fun and exciting adventure in self-expression. Having a professional studio like Valhalla Modifications in town means that residents no longer have to go elsewhere for a safe and positive experience.