When Petaluma tattoo and piercing artist Frankie Cresci looked at her corporate research and development job eight years ago, she knew she wasn't happy: "I had to get out," she said.

So Cresci left her high paying job and embarked on a journey to become a tattoo artist, apprenticing for five years before becoming a full-fledged artist.

"I left good pay and a structured work schedule, but I was happy when I came to work," she said. "I always am now."

While most people don't uproot their lives for tattoos, Cresci's career change reflects a shift in attitudes toward both people with tattoos and the artists who create them.

"It's definitely becoming more mainstream, even over the past few years," said Cresci. "There's still a stigma, but not nearly as much as before. It's no longer for sailors and thugs."

Tattoos have been around since ancient times, when people inked their bodies with a single needle driven into the skin repeatedly by a stick. Over time, tattoos spread to fringe groups of society, including the military and gangs. But since movie stars and musicians began sporting tattooed skin and television shows like NY Ink and Ink Master made their way into primetime, the industry has seen an explosion in growth.

"I think having tattooing on television has made the biggest difference," said Petaluma artist Tito Ramirez, who works out of Petaluma's American Classic Tattoo shop and is covered in ink himself. "It put it in the forefront and really displayed tattooing as an art form."

Tattoos aren't just relegated to youthful indiscretions anymore. A 2010 national Pew Research poll found that 32 percent of people from the ages of 32 to 45 have a tattoo — a number that has likely increased over the past three years. The same study also found that 23 percent of all Americans have a tattoo.

"We see all ages, all genders, all races coming into the shop these days," said Cresci, who also works at American Classic Tattoo, and said that popular designs include "tribute" pieces for loved ones, realistic portraits and biomechanical pieces that often portray ripped flesh with mechanical parts.

Even two Petaluma City Council members have tattoos — mayoral hopeful and CrossCheck Vice President Mike Harris and Kaiser Permanente employee and Councilmember Gabe Kearney.

Petaluma is home to five tattoo shops, several of which are located in the downtown. While the city recently considered putting a moratorium on any new shops in the downtown area, that effort was ultimately quashed after artists and tattoo shop owners came forward to speak out against the proposed zoning changes.

"There's no reason for cities to get involved and push tattoo artists out," said Eye Spy Tattoo artist Milo Rorshack, whose entire face is covered in ink. "The market alone will do that."

As the industry becomes more mainstream, training, standards and regulations have also increased. Cresci said that each artist must be certified by the state and each shop is subject to health inspections and business license requirements.

"Each client must prove they are over 18 for tattoos and must follow after-care instructions to make the tattoo heal correctly," said Cresci. "In turn, as artists we only work with single-use needles, we wear gloves, we keep sanitary work stations and we treat each of our clients carefully. We are also trained on different ink pigmentations and skin tones."

But as this once-renegade industry grows in popularity, it also changes. Angel Gallardo, an American Classic Tattoo artist who has been working for the past two decades, said that because of the huge popularity of tattooing, artists who are not properly trained are cropping up more frequently.

"Just because it says &‘tattoo' outside, doesn't mean the people can tattoo inside," said Gallardo. "More importantly, people do things in the industry that never would have flown in the past, like setting shops up right next to each other. Back in the day, you just didn't do that."

Gallardo said that when he first began inking clients, tattoo machines and ink weren't readily available for sale on the internet like they are now.

"You had to apprentice, you had to learn the fundamentals of the art, you had to understand the traditions," he said. "Now though, any idiot can buy a machine online and do whatever they want."

In addition to a growth in tattoos, Petaluma is also seeing a growth in the number of people asking for tattoo removal. Dermatology Associates of the Bay Area in Petaluma offers laser tattoo removal and office staff said the number of people asking for the procedures has grown over the years.

Even Ramirez says he regrets some of the tattoos he got when he was younger. "I don't care about it that much, but there are some designs I got that I wish I hadn't," he said.

Cresci said that a lot of business comes from coverups — when a person gets one tattoo over the top of another one to effectively hide a design they do not like.

"It comes with the territory," she said. "Things you get at 18, you may not want at 40. Plus, with a largely unregulated artistic standard, there are a lot of people calling themselves artists who aren't artists."

"I think it's great that people are recognizing us as artists and people with tattoos as expressing themselves," she added. "While the stigma might always be there a little, it won't be long before the majority of people see that there's nothing wrong with it."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)