Thanks to pop culture and social media, it’s not a stretch to say tattoos have become mainstream.
But about 25 years ago, getting a tattoo, or being a tattoo artist, was a sign of rebellion, especially in a Bible Belt city like Charlotte.
Why it matters: There are over 100 tattoo shops in the greater Charlotte area. Just a few decades ago, you could count the total number of studios on both hands.
- The taboo around tattoos is fading quickly.
By the numbers: 30% of Americans have a tattoo, with the highest concentration among Gen Zers and millennials, per a 2019 Ipsos study.
Flashback: Tattooing is relatively new in North Carolina — legal tattooing, at least. The state didn’t regulate the industry until 1995.
- I spoke with four of the first players in Charlotte’s tattoo scene to learn how the industry has changed — for better and for worse.
Hayley Moran of Haylo Healing Arts Lounge
- Moran opened Haylo in 2015 with the goal of creating a comfortable, safe space for both artists and clients in an industry that can have a gnarlier, often misogynistic side to it, she says.
- “Even as a tattoo artist myself, oftentimes I would go to other studios and just feel like … they don’t want me here,” Moran says.
Her specialties include portraits, fine line, free-hand and mastectomy tattoo art for breast cancer survivors, which she says one of the more significant parts of her practice.
What she’s saying: “I think of the art as like a translation, you know, their insides on their outsides,” said Moran, adding that she sees tattooing as a healing art for others.
Flashback: A Charlotte native, Moran tells me she’s watched Charlotte’s tattoo industry morph from a handful of artists in the 90s to what feels like a city that “feels overrun with whoever wants to try it.”
- While Moran notes this boom is exciting, she believes there’s now a lack of mentorship in a field where proper training is crucial.
- “Social media has really enhanced the ability to access artists,” Moran says. “But I still think there seems to be a lack of education, even to the clients, for what makes a really good tattoo.”
Nikki Thompson of Nikki’s Tattoo Studio
The owner of Nikki’s Tattoo studio in Matthews, Nikki Thompson opened her studio in 1995, one of the first Charlotte-area shops.
Flashback: In those early years, she says most weekends came with a line of customers wrapped around the building. “I don’t think there’s any shop in America that would ever experience that nowadays because there’s practically a shop on every corner,” said Thompson. “But that’s how it was back then.”
Thompson specializes in cosmetic tattooing, such as permanent makeup. Like Haylo, Thompson’s studio also offers scar coverage and mastectomy tattooing. “Erasing people’s traumas is my passion, whether it’s from breast cancer or surgery,” she said.
- Thompson says the growth is exciting, but she doesn’t want people to mistake accessibility for true training.
- “It used to take people a year or more just to learn how to use the equipment on the skin,” said Thompson. “You can learn much faster now.”
But with the rise of YouTube and quick tutorials, she worries artists may not be learning the best, safest methods. “Nonetheless, they can make a tattoo stay in somebody’s skin, so they get to qualify as a tattoo artist.”
Terry Darkman of Forever Yours Tattoo Gallery
Terry Darkman has co-owned Forever Yours Tattoo for the last two years, but he’s been a tattoo artist since the early 90s. He’s known best for his work in black and white portraits. He even appeared on Ink Master in 2018.
But Darkman is not his real last name. It’s his industry name that nods to the difficulty he experienced gaining acceptance in the tattooing industry as a Black artist in the 90s.
What he’s saying: “It was rough,” he told me. “There was nobody [who looked] like me. There was racism thrown around back then, but I didn’t let it stop me.”
Unlike his early days in the industry, Darkman says artists of color have been able to thrive as tattoo artists in more recent years — both in Charlotte and beyond.
- “There are Black artists all over the place; there are a lot more opportunities for us now.”
Rodney Raines of Ace Custom Tattoo
Rodney Raines runs Ace Custom Tattoo on Thomson Avenue in Plaza Midwood. He began as an artist in 1999. By 2003, he owned the studio.
Flashback: Breaking into the industry in the mid 90s wasn’t easy. “It was very difficult to get in,” he told me. “You had to earn it.” And, he noted, it was even harder for women.
- “(Women) had to deal with all the chauvinism that was involved,” he said.
- These days, he says, the misogyny has lessened, even though it’s “not gone completely.”
Raines says there are now more opportunities for tattooers to get their foot in the door. “I counted in my head once that there were eight shops when I started in Charlotte in ‘99 and roughly 25 tattooers.”
- “The last time I asked my health inspector, he said there were just under 100 licensed shops and there were almost 500 licensed tattooers.”
He also reminded me that in North Carolina, there are only two requisites to becoming a tattoo artist: A health permit from the state and a tattoo kit (which can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $70).
The bottom line: While their expertise and backgrounds differ, these pioneer artists seemed to share four main takeaways about Charlotte’s tattoo industry:
- There’s more acceptance around tattoos. And with that, a higher demand.
- Because of the demand, there are more opportunities for artists to get apprenticeships and break into the industry. But there’s a case to be made that this high demand leads to high turnaround and lack of long-term mentorship.
- Tattoo equipment is much more user friendly. This wasn’t the case a couple of decades ago. Some artists even had to make their own needles — and the equipment was far from intuitive.
- The growth of Charlotte’s growth tattoo industry has been fast. More players in the game is a good thing, the artists say. But proper training, commitment to high-quality tattooing and a passion to self-expression remains at the forefront.