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Charlotte ink

Behind the pain with a trio of the Queen City's finest tattoo artists



Remember when tattoos only adorned the bodies of bad-ass bikers?

You'd be driving down the highway and hear the roar of Harley Davidson pipes, and as you turned to your left, there was some bald, yet bearded man revving his hog with an arm full of tats. (And of course he was sporting a red heart with the word "Mom" going down the center on his forearm. As scary as he looked, at least you knew he loved his mother.)

Nowadays, it's hard to find someone who doesn't have a tattoo. Sitting in church, you can see ink peaking through Sister Betty's dress. And if you look closely, you'll spy the hint of a design on the back of the preacher's neck.

From bank executives to writers and yes, bad-ass bikers, it seems as if everyone has a tattoo.

That said, they had to get the ink from somewhere, right? You can find a smattering of tattoo shops scattered around Charlotte -- some on main thoroughfares and a few others off the beaten path. Inside these shops, the artists who design everlasting art are as diverse as the images they create.

"I like to push the barriers."

Crown Custom Tattoo and Piercing Studio is abuzz with activity in the afternoon. A couple of women flip through poster-sized sketchbooks welded to the wall. A quiet man dressed in jeans, Vans and a wife beater enters the shop, looks around then leaves. Is he afraid to go under the needle -- or is he an undercover agent checking to make sure that Crown owner Derek Crockett isn't cutting someone's penis in half?

Crockett has been investigated by the State of North Carolina because, sometimes, he does more than just ink a design on someone's shoulder. He's often called to implant metal studs in arms and pierce nipples. He used to bisect tongues, too; unfortunately, that's against the law and is considered practicing medicine without a license. When he found out he was breaking the law, he stopped ... but not before people started talking about him. Crockett's motto is: If people are talking about you, then you're famous.

"I like to push the barriers. If it's legal, I'm going to do it. And if it's illegal, I'm going to find a way to make it legal," he says. "I'll call the attorney general or call the health department and ask can I do it."

Crockett got into tattooing while he was in college. "I was a biology major, and I didn't want to be a neurosurgeon. I wanted to be an artist. I had to figure a way of making a living as an artist that would be successful. I came across, by chance, a tattoo magazine in Charlotte and I read a 150-word article written by a female apprentice. And from that moment on, it was full force," he says as he sketches a design of stars and vines for a client waiting to get her first tattoo.

Crockett says his family wasn't too thrilled when he decided to sack college to become a tattoo artist. He was the first member of his family to graduate high school in a long time, so telling everyone that he was going to be a tattoo artist caused some relatives to flip out.

"Some of them even refused to speak to me for a year. But once I started making a living at it, four years later, they started wising up," he says. "Hopefully, I'll tattoo my mom one day; she has a wild side, and she's been talking about it."

For Crockett to learn how to become a tattoo artist, he had to leave his home.

"I lived in a state [South Carolina] where, at that time, it was illegal to tattoo, so I had to leave ... to learn the trade," he says. "I finally moved up here when I was 21. I've basically been here ever since. I love this town."

An industry leader in body modification, Crockett is currently developing new scarification techniques.

"I was the inventor of microdermaling," he says. The process involves placing items underneath the top layer of skin. He placed a number of photographs online to advertise the service, and it took off.

But another procedure offered by Crockett -- his work of sticking horns in peoples' heads -- has caused a lot of controversy.

"What happens is, when you have horns sticking out of your head, people say: 'Ahhh, you're evil.' Christians, even though I'm a Christian now, fail to grasp that the only actual significance that we have toward body modification is that ... besides the 16 ounces [you lose] when you die, the only other proof we have toward a soul is body modification.

"Animals have their own language. There is really no difference between what we do and what [animals] do. Except that we're the only creature that modifies our bodies. If you tell that to some crazy Bible thumper, they'll be like: 'It's still satanic.'"

Tattooing is still mostly a boy's club. But once again, Crockett stands out from the norm. His studio has a predominately female staff, and he says that a lot of things are changing in the tattoo industry.

"I'm happy to say that [in this industry] I've seen a lot of racism go down the toilet. We're now seeing black tattoo artists, which is really awesome. The other thing that I'm seeing is the acceptance of the industry [by] American popular culture. There's a lot better artwork. You can get anything you want tattooed, and when I started it was very simple," he says.

Despite the fact that Crockett stirs controversy, there are some images he won't tattoo.

"In 1997, someone came in and wanted a communist star and sickle. Communism, for the most part, bans tattooing. So I wouldn't do that," he says. "I don't do anything that I feel is negative toward the industry itself. That's the only thing that I've refused."

"I've always hung out with the guys."

Amanda Voorhees-Hagy is a rare find in the world of Charlotte ink. She's a female artist in a mostly male dominated industry. For the last three and half years, she's been putting ink on people over at Crown with Crockett.

It was her ex-boyfriend, also a tattoo artist, who brought her around the shop. Crockett saw that she had an ability to draw and offered her an apprenticeship. Along with her artistic ability, another thing that impressed Crockett about Hagy was the fact that she's a clean freak. In an vocation where blood borne diseases have always been a problem, taking extra steps to protect the client and the artist don't go unnoticed. Right before Hagy starts a tattoo, she wraps everything that she's going to use -- the tattoo gun, bottles filled with liquid and the chair where her clients sit -- in plastic. And she then removes those gloves and puts on another pair to get started doing her art.

Hagy didn't begin her working life as a tattoo artist. She went to college for graphic design, but it didn't stick.

"I have a hard time sitting at a computer," she says. "I've got to move around."

She found she was more of a hands-on artist. So, tattooing seemed to fit, even if she was in the minority when it came to working in a shop.

"I don't mind," she says, "I've always hung out with the guys."

But at the first shop she worked in, it was too much of a guy thing going on there.

The owner of that shop had the place covered in pictures of half-naked women. And his computer's screen saver was a barely covered lady. "The computer was meant for the shop to look up images," she says. "That's like really gross. I felt like I was working in a garage. You know, when you work in an auto garage you see those pictures up -- and that's what I felt like. We know you are a man. We know you have needs and wants."

It's not surprising that she ran into a similar problem again. But Hagy wasn't going to be subjected to more racy pictures around the shop. When Crockett said that he was going to hang promotional posters that showed women in various stages of undress up and down the halls, Hagy threatened to walk.

"That is disrespectful to any female who comes in here to get a tattoo because all they're going to think is male chauvinist pig," she says. "If you want those posters, you can put them in the male bathroom and do whatever. But they make a woman feel very uncomfortable."

Often times, though, Hagy says it isn't her co-workers who have an issue with her sex, but some of the clients who come through the door.

"Sometimes someone will come in and they're like, 'Oh, you're doing [the tattoo].' If they are really that concerned about it, then they can look at my portfolio," she says.

Hagy says another misconception that clients have about female tattoo artists is that the process will hurt less than if a man does it.

Not true, she says.

"It doesn't matter who does it, it's still going to hurt," says Hagy. "Me and my husband worked together for about a year. One day this girl came in and she wanted to get tattooed, but I was busy and couldn't get to her. So, I said, 'Chris [her husband] can do your tattoo.'"

The client was apprehensive and told Hagy that she was afraid Chris would hurt her while he did the tattoo.

"Actually, I think he's more gentle than I am," she says she told the client.

Being a woman can also make clients feel a little looser.

There was the time when a woman entered the shop, walked over to Hagy, dropped her pants, opened her legs and said she wanted a star tattooed on her crotch.

"I said: 'Wow, I need a cigarette,'" says Hagy, who -- at the time -- left the studio to go take a smoke.

While she went ahead and did the tattoo for the woman, it's not something she wants to experience again.

"I don't think I want to tattoo another crotch," she says with a slight shudder.

"There are too many shops that are ... just in it for that quick dollar."

Billy Harris is thankful for crazy friends. Friends who allowed the art major to test his tattooing skills on them as he began his apprenticeship at Alternative Arts studio on Central Avenue.

Harris went on to become the first African-American tattoo artist to get apprenticed and a tattoo license in Charlotte. That was 12 years ago.

"I was in college, and I was getting a degree in art. I'd come to get a tattoo from John Rainey, and back then there were about five tattoo shops in Charlotte," says Harris. "Probably two or three really good ones."

Harris and Rainey struck up a conversation and Rainey asked him to bring in his portfolio. At the time, Harris says he wasn't really that interested.

"At that time, there wasn't a lot of black people getting tattoos [or] doing tattoos for that matter," he says. But Harris decided to test it out. He returned to the shop and started hanging around.

"I started liking the atmosphere, and what I started seeing ... was that more and more African-Americans were starting to get tattoos, but they really had no where to go to."

It never really dawned on Harris that he was making history, and he doesn't dwell on it.

Harris says the older artists who were more used to tattooing white biker dudes didn't really know how to work with black skin. "They think the deeper they go, the darker the ink is going to get. Not knowing skin types, they didn't realize that the darker complexion you are, the softer your skin is and you have to use a different technique.

"Also, the darker [your] skin ... the more likely you are to keloid. I noticed that a lot of people were leaving these tattoo shops around here with keloid scars that were supposed to be tattoos. I kind of got into it thinking that I could offer black folks a better alternative at the time."

Harris says he fell in love with the art form and began researching it to learn as much as he could to advance his craft. In the beginning, it was hard for Harris to even hold the vibrating tattoo machine in his hand for longer than 15 minutes without his hand going numb.

"Now, I can tattoo all day and be fine," he says. "I think the first paid tattoo that John actually let me do, somebody came in and wanted a little cherry. But by the time I got finished with it, it looked like a big ass apple. She was happy and satisfied with it, but I knew I could do better. I just needed a lot of practice."

At one point, Harris and a partner opened their own shop. It has since closed because Harris says he and his former partner had different ideas on how to run the business. Since he was working at Winthrop University building Web sites in the school's university relations department and wasn't in the shop every day, he says his partner's business plan was the one being used.

When he was at the school, Harris did all that he could to hide his tattoos at first. He thought being in a place of higher learning and being heavily tattooed would cause problems for him at the workplace. So for a long time, he covered his arms year-round with long sleeve shirts. In the heat and humidity of the Carolinas during the summer, that wasn't always the most comfortable thing. But, he says, once students found out that he was a tattoo artist, the phone at his desk started ringing off the hook.

For Harris, the relationship between artist and client is a special one. The artist creates a piece of work that will be with a person forever (or until they get it lasered off).

"I do appreciate how tattooing culture is on TV and more popular, but at the same time, it's causing more people to get into it that have no business in it. Because they are seeing it on TV, they think, I can make a lot of money and meet hot girls. If you're not in it for the love of the art, you need to get out of it. There are too many shops that are open now that are just in it for that quick dollar."

And because Harris isn't in it for the quick buck, there are some images he won't do.

"I won't do gang symbols," he says. "And I don't do faces unless the person is already heavily tattooed. If someone comes in and they just have a small tattoo on their shoulder and they want something like tear drops [on their face] I won't do it."

And even though he doesn't mind tattooing your boyfriend or girlfriend's name on your flesh, he will try to talk you out of it.

And if you're a man who wants a tattoo on your penis, be prepared to pay a "handling fee."

Artists Sound off: If you're lame, you'll love these tattoos.

Harris: "The tramp stamp is becoming played out. At one point in time, every third woman that came into the shop wanted a lower-back tattoo. Now girls are moving toward hip tattoos or just one side of their lower back. I'm kind of glad of that."

Crockett: "Stars! Stars have become the tribal [mark] of the 21st century. We have a little baggie of them over there, we do them daily."

Hagy: "Names and stars."