"As an artist, I think tattoos are the most flattering form of art because you only get one shot to do it right. There's no erasing. If you screw it up, it's there," Villacampa said last week. "I approached [Germinario] and asked if he knew how I could become a tattoo artist. At first I didn't even know he owned a tattoo parlor in Secaucus."
Villacampa added, "He told me I'd have to find a place where I could do an apprenticeship. Before I could even ask him for an apprenticeship, he said he only worked with artists." Villacampa took a few minutes to draw up a dragon, and within days he was apprenticing at Germinario's shop on Paterson Plank Road, then known as Underground Images Tattooing, now called Hardnox Tattoo.
Now, seven and a half years and thousands of tattoos later, Villacampa is among the most sought-after tattooists in Hudson County and has young apprentices learning from him the way he learned from Germinario.
State regulates growing industry
These days, the path to becoming a tattoo artist is tougher thanks to a 2001 New Jersey law that regulates body art procedures.
Under this law, an artist must train as an apprentice for a minimum of 2,000 hours before being certified by the state as a licensed professional.
An apprenticeship, which was akin to an unpaid internship back when Villacampa first picked up a needle, "is now like going to college," he said. These days, he added, it's not uncommon for a newcomer to actually pay $8,000 to $15,000 for an apprenticeship.
Apprentices must also take a course on the prevention of bloodborne diseases, such as Hepatitis C, offered by the American Red Cross or another agency recognized by the New Jersey Department of Health.
"New Jersey actually has one of the strictest state laws regulating tattooing in the country," Villacampa noted. "Some states have almost no laws on the books. It was getting so popular, so many people were getting tattoos, including kids, that people felt there should be something in place to make sure there were standards people had to go by."
Praying hands and Rosaries
Like many tattooists, Villacampa has mixed feelings about the popularity of this art form.
"The cable shows [such as "Miami Ink" and "Inked"] generate interest among the general public, which creates more business for people like me," he pointed out. "But at the same time, that trend has also led to the creation of chain stores, which drives the small, mom-and-pop tattoo parlors out of business."
The popularization of tattoos also had lead to trends in tattoo designs that change from year to year and which don't necessarily give artists the opportunity to flex their creative muscles.
"There are certain designs that are our stock in trade," he said. "Every tattoo artist will have to do their share of praying hands, black panthers, butterflies, roses. Whatever's trendy at the moment. Right now, a lot of women want to get a Rosary around the ankle like Nicole Richie. Those are the ones that people usually want to cover up or get removed [later]."
He added that he prefers that customers bring a concept to him, then let him interpret the concept in a drawing. He and the customer can then refine the design through conversations. Then it's made into a stencil that gets applied to the body and turned into a tattoo.
Villacampa said he encourages people to get tattoos that suit them and their personality.
"I know it sounds funny, but I always tell people that getting a tattoo is like shopping for a pair of sneakers," he said. "A tattoo should fit you like a good pair of sneakers."
What's in a name?
Given the relative permanence of tattoo grade ink - and the relative impermanence of many relationships - Villacampa said he often warns against getting tattoos that include people's names, although there are exceptions.
"Your parents will always be your parents, and your kids will always be your kids," he said. "That's not going to change. But your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife?" He shrugged without finishing the sentence.
He does sometimes break his own rules, however.
"Recently I did a tattoo for a woman. Her husband just died and she wanted to get a memorial tattoo of him. You could tell it was a really emotional thing for her." He added, "At one point [while she was getting the tattoo] she just broke down and started crying."
He speculated that getting this tattoo might be part of her grieving and healing process.
And in perhaps the biggest example of do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do, Villacampa has two names - Perla and Alice - tattooed to his left wrist. The names are among the 10 tattoos he sports on his own body. (They range from an image of the Incredible Hulk to Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters.)
"Perla's my daughter," Villacampa said proudly, bending his wrist so that the red letters that spell her name could be seen clearly.
"Alice is my wife," he said as he attempted to suppress a smile. "But I'm a tattoo artist! If I ever have to cover it up one day, I won't have to pay to do it. I can either do it myself or get one of my [tattoo artist] friends to do it for me."
Ironically, he said he won't "let" his wife get his name immortalized on her body, "Because if she ever had to cover it up, she'd actually have to pay someone to do it."
For the specific language of New Jersey's law on body art, including tattooing and piercing, please visit: http://www.state.nj.us/health/eoh/phss/bodyart.pdf.