A Utah dental lab owner is making his mark as a tattoo artist -- on teeth.
Cats, dogs, flamingos, ducks, sports logos, cartoon heroes -- these are some of the most popular customized tattoos Steven Heward places on dental crowns. Prices for the tiny tooth etchings range from $75 to $200 for more complicated celebrity portraits, such as Mickey Mouse, Tiger Woods, Bob Dylan, David Letterman, President Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, and even Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
— Steven Heward, Heward Dental Lab, Salt Lake City
Heward, who has owned and operated Heward Dental Lab in Salt Lake City for more than 30 years, said he started putting tattoos on crowns back in 1979. He'd studied to be an artist at the University of Utah and had intended to become a portrait painter. But in college, he began working in his brother-in-law's dental lab, and he saw what an art creating crowns can be. After graduating from the university, he opened his own lab.
"Every once in a while, one of my customers would say, 'You've got to be an artist to do that [a crown]' -- but really you don't," he said. "So I decided to show people what an artist can really do."
Heward estimates he has crafted close to 1,000 tooth tattoos over the years. The strangest request he's ever had was from a pig farmer who was also a cartoonist, he said. The farmer wanted a caricature of a pig he'd drawn placed on his front teeth.
"So he asked his dental lab ... if they could put part of the pig on one tooth and part on the other tooth. That's when they called me," Heward said.
Most of the tattoos are on posterior molars. It takes anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour for Heward to craft a single tattoo, depending on the complexity of the design. He uses ceramic pigment -- not ink or stain -- that is baked right into the tooth. The tattoos are permanent and do not fade -- in fact, they should last "thousands of years," he said. Heward prefers black pigment to color because the contrast on the tooth makes the image standout.
"The process is tedious and difficult, and can be time-consuming," he said. "It's a matter of pushing the pigment around on the tooth until it is the right consistency. Once it dries a bit, the image begins to stay where you want it to. Then you glaze it and bake it."
Heward isn't the only tooth tattooist around, but he's gained some notoriety in recent months after a series of stories about his worked appeared in some British publications. He gets a lot of tattoo business through existing crown and bridge customers and through his Web site, www.toothartist.com. Word of mouth -- pardon the pun -- also helps.
"I don't understand why people tattoo their skin, although there's nothing wrong with it," he said. "I would never get a regular tattoo, but if I had a crown that needed to be done in the back of my mouth, I would put a tattoo on it."
Heward's son has three, his daughter one, his neighbor three, and his neighbor's wife four -- including a portrait of her three daughters on one tooth -- "probably the most difficult one I've ever done," he said.
"These tattoos are maybe 'white collar' tattoos because they are seen only when the person who has one wants to share it," he said. "No one will ever know they are there unless they want to show them off."