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S. Whitehall artist sharpens tattoo skills as apprentice

By Ed Courrier

Special to The Press

“This is my happy place,” says South Whitehall resident Hannah Dennis as she practices tattooing an image of “Orko” from “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” series on an orange.

The orange peel, with texture akin to human skin, provides a viable surface for an apprentice tattoo artist learning the trade.

The roundness of the fruit also effectively mimics the curves of elbows and knees.

Dennis began her apprenticeship in late October 2019 with Brandon Burr, owner of Critical Acclaim Tattoos, 3035 Lehigh St., Allentown.

Dennis is putting in between 16-20 hours a week learning the craft while working full time at the Trexlertown Hobby Lobby as a custom framer.

As a self-taught artist with a background in architecture, Dennis graduated from Southern Lehigh High School in 2010 as a certified basic drafter.

“My heart wasn’t in it,” admitted Dennis, who also found the market had tanked at that time for someone with drafting skills.

While in 10th grade, she discovered tattoo artistry.

A friend asked Dennis to design a dog’s paw with a Celtic knot image for her.

A licensed tattoo artist then did the actual rendering.

Burr, once an apprentice himself, has been in business for 19 years, having opened his first shop in Emmaus.

The enterprise is at the corner of Lehigh and 31st Street S.W. where Burr also offers body piercing and manages the other artists, who work as independent contractors.

Two of them, Shelby Strix from Limerick, and Erin Tanczos from the Poconos area, had apprenticed with Burr as their mentor.

Each artist works out of a small private space equipped with a bench for the client and chair for the artist.

The décor reflects tongue-in-cheek gallows humor.

Masks are mandatory for all and there is a limit on how many people can be inside the shop at one time.

In addition to following state-mandated COVID-19 guidelines, all artists are schooled in blood-borne pathogen prevention in a workplace that is meticulously clean.

Strix said MadaCide is used for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces such as table tops and chairs.

Other products used to protect staff and clients include hand sanitizer, disposable gloves, alcohol for tattoo stencil fluid, lidocaine solution for numbing skin, and witch hazel to treat bleeding.

According to Burr, Pennsylvania has no state health regulations on tattooing, so he requires his artists to be certified to California’s strict standards.

Permanent skin art has become mainstream since Norman Rockwell’s “Tattoo Artist (Only Skin Deep)” graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1944.

A knowledge of tattooing history, starting with the frozen body of a hunter named Özti from ancient times through present day, is required by Burr of his students.

Soon, Dennis will move from oranges to rendering artwork on pig’s feet before Burr considers her ready for work with live clients.

She already has several friends volunteering their own skin as a canvas for Dennis to begin the final phase of her apprenticeship.

PRESS PHOTO BY Ed Courrier Critical Acclaim Tattoos' Thursday crew includes Erin Tanczos from the Poconos area, owner Brandon Burr from Allentown, Shelby Strix from Limerick and Hannah Dennis from South Whitehall.
Hannah Dennis practices tattooing an image of “Orko” from “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” series on an orange.
PRESS PHOTO BY Ed Courrier Hannah Dennis with her work in progress of “Orko” from the “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” series. An orange provides a practice surface that is comparable to skin.
Critical Acclaim Tattoos owner Brandon Burr, at left, consults with Nick Noguera from Allentown on the estimated cost for a sleeve tattoo. Nick Noguera is looking to have artwork featuring black roses along the length of his right arm.