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Tattoo artist's tough business approach gets under customers' skin

AMHERST – Harvey Bird deals with business ethics every day he opens his shop in Amherst, and if he deviates from those ethics the results last forever. 

Amherst tattooist and business-owner Harvey Bird, of Flesh Impressions, makes marks that last a lifetime and deals while the conversation of business ethics is dealt with one day at a time. 

Owner and operator of Flesh Impressions, Bird comes from the old school of tattooing. Long before it was considered chic, or reality-television producers realized there was an audience for setting up cameras in tattoo parlours, Bird acquired his first tattoo gun as a teenager and began learning the trade.

After more than twenty years, he has no problem telling you ethics and morals are just as important as steady hands and straight lines.

“Every shop and every tattooist has their own code,” Bird said. “What one tattooist will do, another might not. It comes down to what’s right for them.”

For Bird, what’s right for him might not be right for you.

He’s spent a lot of time learning the relationship between skin and ink and how they two work over time, and he’s come to know a few secrets the general public doesn’t – like how the joints of our wrists are constantly moving and stretching the skin; or how small details begin to blur over the years. Bird believes getting a tattoo should be a conversation, so he doesn’t shy away from asking his client to reconsider if he thinks their tattoo wont survive these tests. Sometimes those talks break down and lead to the hardest business decision of all: saying ‘no.’

“I want a tattoo to work with the body. I want it to fit. I want it to last forever,” Bird said. “If it’s not going to work or last, I won’t put my name to it.”

He’s watched business walk out the door, online rants appear on Facebook, and has been called every four-letter word under the sun, he says, but his values don’t just stop because there’s cash on the barrelhead, meaning sometimes he has to stand his ground on principal alone.   

“I don’t do racism stuff, ” Bird said.  “I‘m not putting my name to it, and I’m not promoting it.”

Bird was threatened to be burned out of house and home after telling a group of skinheads he wouldn’t tattoo the swastikas they wanted. It could have been easy money, but it flies in the face of what Bird feels is right.

Not every decision in the tattoo-world is as cut-and-dry, however.

“In any community you have a lot of backyard tattooists who will tattoo anybody, including people under the age of 18. Last night I got a call from a mother and daughter who wanted a tattoo together, and the daughter is under 18. What am I supposed to do?” Bird said. “I said no, but that’s saying no to revenue.”

Like any tattooist, Bird has built his business of decision. He decided to have a storefront and pay business taxes; he decided a minimum age guideline for his business; and he decided to have the hard conversations because that’s where his ethics have taken him.

“I like to educate my customers, and I like people to know why I say no,” Bird said. “I could be making a lot more money, but I have standards and morals. And, yeah, every now and then someone does come in two years later that I said no to, looking for a cover up after they went out and found someone else to do it, and they tell me ‘You were right.’”

If you want to know if your moral compass is pointed in the right direction, it doesn’t get any easier than that.   

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