CHESTER -- Pat Whitaker's tattoo gun buzzed as a small cluster of needles pierced Crystal Townsend's skin, slightly deeper than 1/16th of an inch, shaping the image of an angel on her left arm.
She didn't scream. She'd done this before. A demon on her right arm bears the evidence of her commitment to flesh art. Besides, being the one to create these designs is what the Chester native hopes to become.
Townsend is Whitaker's apprentice at Inferno Tattoo, the lone tattoo parlor in the county and the reason why the Chester County Council approved a set of guidelines last week limiting where these businesses can locate.
The new rules won't affect Inferno, which meets the county's guidelines and preceded the zoning change.
"All we did is put them in where they should be," said Mack Paul, the county's planning director. "We didn't want (a tattoo parlor) getting next to a church or a school or day care or downtown in the middle of the city."
The county had another tattoo parlor that closed last year, Paul said. But the arrival of Inferno in September forced the planning office, which Paul has led since October 2006, to evaluate its zoning code.
Legal tattoo parlors are relatively new to the state. Legislators lifted a decades-old ban on tattooing in 2004, but health and safety regulations weren't approved until nearly two years later.
Tattoo parlors still are prohibited in York County, which hasn't updated its zoning guidelines for the businesses since the state began allowing them, said Dave Pettine, the county's zoning administrator.
Chester County isn't looking to outlaw tattoo parlors. Paul said the county simply needed rules because it didn't have any. He checks out any kind of unusual business. Last year, he had to do similar work when a woman wanted to open a tiger preserve near Lowrys and when a couple inquired about opening a topless bar in the Richburg area.
"I just look at things different being a Chesterite," Paul said. "I just see something unusual like lions, tigers and bears, tattoos, SOBs (sexually-oriented businesses) ... go to the zoning book and see what applies to it."
Patrick and Cindy Heavener first looked to York County when they decided to open a tattoo shop a few years ago.
Having moved to Rock Hill from New Jersey for the warmer weather and relaxed pace, both husband and wife sport tattoos, but neither draws them. Cindy has worked as a bartender and dental assistant. Patrick remodels homes and paints cars and motorcycles.
They decided to go into the tattoo business after meeting Whitaker, who designed a tattoo for Patrick Heavener's brother-in-law.
"I could see he had talent," he said.
A Kansas native, Whitaker moved around, living in places such as Texas and New Jersey before coming to Rock Hill. He's been tattooing for about nine years, the result of his frustration with tattoo artists using the designs he drew. The idea was simple: Eliminate the middle man.
The three partners also saw an opportunity in the area. Whitaker said the closest in-state place he knows of to get a tattoo is in Columbia. Of course, there's North Carolina -- where anyone who's at least 18 years old can get a tattoo -- unlike South Carolina, which requires that a person be 21.
With the Heaveners financing the business and Whitaker handling the needles, the three searched for a shop. They found Rock Hill's rules too strict, and going outside the city limits was out of the question because of the county's ban on tattoo parlors.
Chester County had no zoning restrictions for tattoo shops. They leased a metal building behind Scooter's bar on the J.A. Cochran Bypass in Chester.
It's Friday afternoon, and customers are greeted with the throaty vocals and heavy-distortion guitar pumping from the stereo. The selections come from Whitaker's MP3 player. Mostly rock, metal.
The first sight through the door is the window into the room where permanent markings are made. The window has blinds. Some tattoos are only for a select group of viewers.
Various designs are posted in frames along a wall and in notebooks lying on a table in front of the window. Indian women. Cowgirls. Angels. Demons. Women in different stages of nudity. Of course, there are the various skull and death-themed patterns. Dolphins and whales for the lighthearted. There's even a Jesus tattoo, if that's what you're into.
The designs can vary as much as the location of the tattoos. In South Carolina, the rule is no tattoos from the neck up. But there's a lot of territory below that border. Over the years, Whitaker said he's tattooed "pretty much any place you can think of."
But should a man ask him to tattoo a more private area of the body, that will be expensive. He once made a small tattoo for a guy in 15 minutes. The image cost $200.
In Chester, Whitaker said, the most frequent request is for Old English lettering. But a word of caution: Carefully choose the name that will permanently grace your body. He's covered up the name of many ex-girlfriends and ex-wives.
Once, he said, he met a guy who had a portrait of his wife on his back. When the marriage ended, the man went to a tattoo artist to have the image covered. He was stunned when the work only took half an hour.
When the man finally looked in the mirror, large red letters across his back said "VOID."
Tough state rules
Despite a lull during the holiday season, business generally has been good for Inferno. Cindy Heavener said most customers are glad there's now a local place to get their ink fix.
But running a tattoo shop in South Carolina is tough because of the age requirements.
"It's killing us," Whitaker said. "We get a lot of college-age kids in here that are like 19 and 20, and we can't tattoo them unless a parent comes in and signs."
Inferno asks its customers to join an online petition that urges lawmakers to change the state tattoo guidelines. Along with the age requirement, the state's tattoo parlors can't sell merchandise such as T-shirts or ballcaps. Those kinds of rules are the ones South Carolina tattoo artists want to see changed.
As for Chester County's new guidelines, the Inferno crowd doesn't have a problem with them.
"It's a learning experience for them, too," Cindy said of county leaders. "It's all new to them."
The rules might even benefit their business.
"If they'd make it really rough, it'd actually help us," Whitaker said. "'Because that'd make it worse on anybody else trying to open one."