Tatted up teeth

March 21, 2012

Requests for portraits of pop-stars or ex-presidents are not unusual. Neither are logos of favorite sports teams or pictures of puppies, cats or even ducks.

Requests for portraits of pop-stars or ex-presidents are not unusual. Neither are logos of favorite sports teams or pictures of puppies, cats or even ducks.

The desire of one customer for a portrait of Jesus Christ on a porcelain front tooth framed by praying hands and a cross on adjacent teeth stands out as one of the more unusual for Steven Heward, owner of Heward Dental Lab in Sandy, Utah.

“You never know what somebody is going to ask for,” said Heward who, in addition to owning a dental lab, is a fine artist.

He applies the “tooth tattoos,” which are miniature paintings made of dental stain and painted on the crowns or bridges.

There are other labs that do tooth tattoos, but Heward’s stand out because of their complexity, quality and attention to detail. Dentists and other labs send photos of the subjects their clients want replicated on their crowns or bridges and Heward goes to work.

“It’s totally hand drawn,” Heward said. “It’s a meticulous process. They’re drawn with a needle and stain. It’s really difficult to push the stain to where you want it.”

Heward, who has owned his lab for 30 years, is a classically trained artist in figure and portraiture painting. He studied in the 1970s at the University of Utah and has racked up numerous awards through the years for the artworks he paints in the traditional format of paint applied to a canvas.
 
He has dubbed the tooth artwork he creates “white collar tattoos” because often people want the pictures on the side or back teeth so they can only be seen if the person chooses to open his or her mouth wide enough to show it.

Heward created one of Elton John on the back of a man’s front tooth replacement.

“He has to really tip his head back to show it,” Heward said. “The idea that it’s only viewable if a person desires to reveal it is part of the appeal. People act like they have a treasure. It’s like they have this piece of artwork and every once in a while they show it off.”

Needless to say, the tooth art is a conversation piece. If someone needs a crown or bridge Heward said they often take the view that they might as well have fun with it.

“It’s kind of like you need a crown anyway and since I can do this they say, ‘I want one of those,’” Heward said.

Heward started doing teeth art in the early 1990s when he did about two to four a year. Today, because of publicity via the Internet, he completes about 50 a year. The requests come in from other labs and dentists from around the world who email him images they want painted.  

Creating the artwork usually takes about an hour and the tattoos cost between $75 and $200, depending on the complexity. Heward said other labs do tooth tattoos but his are unique.

“Other dental labs will do a heart or a flower.” “Some will do an okay job. But mine are detailed,” he said.

He said the tooth tattoos are easily removable if a customer wishes to do so. It takes a dentist about five minutes to apply and abrasive and to then polish them away.

The tooth tattoos have helped enable Heward’s dental lab to survive a tough economy.

“With the economy being lousy it makes me feel good that my company is going strong,” he said.

Heward said he likes to think about how the artwork he creates will last and may prove intriguing to people far in the future.

“Sometime in the future, maybe in 10,000 or 20,000 years some people will dig up somebody’s bones and find the artificial tooth and say, ‘Oh, look. This guy has a portrait on his tooth.’” That’s how long it will last.”

Information on Heward’s tooth art can be found at toothartist.com. His artwork on canvas is featured at bristleconegallery.com.