Jill Mackey walked through the small gravel parking lot and up the wooden steps into a building with a glowing neon sign that read “tattoo” in white lettering. Her body would soon be forever marked for the first time with a tiny set of Roman numerals on her ribcage in black ink.
“I thought there’s no way they want to tattoo some 19-year-old that had no idea what was going on,” Mackey, a senior kinesiology major, said reminiscing on her experience.
Yet there she was, leaning back in a black leather chair at a tattoo shop with the tattoo gun steadily buzzing as her ribcage became a canvas.Mackey said she was intimidated when she walked into the room, but that feeling quickly diminished as her tattoo artist kept a steady conversation going to comfort her the entire time she was in the chair.
This isn’t uncommon in Harrisonburg’s six tattoo shops, which all may appear to be the same on the outside. On the inside, they’re all homes to different stories.
Dreamland Tattoo is owned by Mike Hiles, who opened the shop in 2009 after attending Blue Ridge Community College for art. Hiles began tattooing as a teenager, spending most of his time tattooing with bikers. He taught himself everything he knows about tattooing over a span of 10 years by watching his friends tattoo.
Outside of tattooing, Hiles does T-shirt printing and vinyl cutting. He also makes metal sculptures and plays music. Hiles’ passion, though, is painting.
“Tattooing, to me, is painting on people,” Hiles said as he tattooed a black-and-white portrait of a lion on his client’s chest. “Art influences everything I do.”
Hiles tattoos as if his clients’ bodies are a canvas and his tattoo gun is a paint brush. He continuously emphasizes that tattooing is simply another form of art, although some people may not see it from that perspective.
“Art is what teaches you the foundation, and what you do with it is what individualizes you,” Hiles said. “Nobody pays for art until you die. That’s why we tattoo.”
Every morning, Hiles draws or plays to music “to get [his] brain rolling.” He does between one and three tattoos per day. The most tattoos he’s done in a day is 22. In 2012, Hiles strayed away from traditional pen and paper and now uses digital software to design the tattoos. Hiles focuses on portraits, but can and will tattoo anything a customer comes in with. Hiles said he just wants his clients happy.
On the corner of Reservoir Street and Martin Luther King Way, Nick Swartz runs Alley Cat Tattoo. Swartz bought the business with his brother 14 years ago from the owners who helped him get into the tattoo industry.
Swartz said they want to run a good business and treat people right. His shop uses pencil and paper to design every tattoo. Although their styles are mostly traditional American, traditional Chinese and black and gray tattoos, Swartz said they draw anything for anyone that comes in.
“Whoever walks in the door should be accommodated for no matter what they want,” Swartz said.
Swartz has also made Alley Cat a place where artists can come from anywhere to tattoo and celebrate the art of it. Artists come from as far as across the country to tattoo in this tiny, small town shop.
“Tattooing is a huge subculture [and] artists that want the best for you have a tendency to gravitate toward each other,” Swartz said.
Swartz grew up in low-income housing on welfare and food stamps, but that didn’t stop him from building a successful business. Now, tattooing provides his wife and children whatever they need in a way far different than his childhood.
“Tattoos are something that I never in a million years would realize has provided so much for so many,” Swartz said. “It’s my life. It’s everything to me.”
Swartz may be successful, but he still remains humble. Since cooking is another passion he has, he sometimes sets up a tent in the parking lot of his shop and makes food. He gives it away to mothers and children who live in low-income housing near the shop or trucks full of construction workers after a long day on the job. Swartz’s good deeds tie back into just what tattooing has done for him — everything.
“It’s important to take care of tattooing because it takes care of us,” Swartz said.
Contact Lauren McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.