Day 2 in KC: Modified Ways

“Can you recommend any other artists or shops that I should visit in the Kansas City area?” This was the last question I would ask when I was setting up my shop visits. And the name and shop that came up several times was Kimo Russell at Modified Ways in Blue Springs, MO. One of the artists even told me that when they wanted some work done, they would set up an appointment with Kimo.

Modified Ways is just about the opposite of Weirdo’s, where I had visited the day before. I wrote about that experience in my last post. Both shops are unique and inviting, but while Weirdo’s is sort of loud and in your face, Modified Ways has a clean, suburban feel to it. It feels like the sort of place that Coach-bag carrying professionals might go to get inked. While there was some art on the walls, it was more subdued and the tattoo samples were provided in 3-ring portfolios for Kimo and his fellow artist, Logan. The music was laid-back jazz

I met Kimo, who was very cordial and pleased that I had chosen to stop by his shop. Behind his workstation was a large self-portrait of Kimo working at his craft. He asked about my trip to Weirdo’s, and let me know that he was probably going to be a man of fewer words than the artists I had met there.

I also met Logan, who was working on tattoo on a young man’s chest, which already bore the address of some Bible verses from Ephesians 6 on the other side. If I remember right, it was verses 10-13. The man was pleased when I asked him if the verses referred to the “Armor of God”, saying “Ah–very good!” He then explained that he was reading his way through the New Testament and was enjoying the letters written by the Apostle Paul.

This was a young man who was reading the Bible, and yet his dialogue with Logan was seasoned pretty heavily with profanity. With his language and his tattoos, it would be easy for some to dismiss him as a lost soul. I’ve talked elsewhere in this blog about how easy it is for us to lead with judgment rather than curiosity. Curiosity leads me to believe that this young man was not much different from Jesus’ first disciples, a ragtag group of blue-collar fishermen. The Gospel of Mark tells us that one of those fishermen, Peter, “began to call down curses” when he was under severe pressure–and this after he had spent three years with Jesus himself! This same foul-mouthed fisherman became one of the key leaders of the early church.

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Here’s Kimo on the left.

Kimo had a young first-timer too (see the post about Weirdo’s). She had him artistically inscribe a relative’s birthday and Psalm 23:1 onto the side of her waist. I asked her about the Bible verse, and she explained that she herself was not a religious person, but her relative was.

“I’m not a religious person” is sort of an interesting statement. I’ve learned to ask the speaker what they mean when they say that–again, in a manner of curiosity, not judgment. Sometimes the response is “all religions are the same”, or “religious institutions suck” or even, “I don’t believe in God”. This last one can sometimes lead to an interesting conversation, especially if you follow their statement with this request: “Can you describe the god you don’t believe in?” After hearing their description, I often find that I don’t believe in that god either.

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And now it’s his turn…

Her experience was a little less traumatic than that of the young lady at Weirdo’s, and afterwards she was very proud of her new tattoo. As I mentioned in my last post, new tattoos are often a source of excitement and a desire to share the story with others. Her mother’s boyfriend was also in the shop, first to encourage, and then to have Kimo continue some of the work he had already begun. His entire arm was covered with intense colors, and today Kimo would add even more.

While all this was taking place, another young lady entered the shop and sat down on the couch across from the ink stations. I thought I might have recognized her from Kimo’s portfolio (she’s featured on the homepage of Modified Ways). I was surprised to discover that Amber’s visit was not a tattoo appointment, but instead she was there because Kimo had told her that I, “the guy from Ink and Skin”, was going to be stopping by.

1978682_10152888557431953_994889131_nWe talked about her tattoos, the most prominent of which makes her right arm looks as though it has morphed into a bionic, steam-punk combination of fully functioning motorcycle parts. Out of this I learned that she loves to ride motorcycles and that she and a friend were creating some videos of the tricks they were doing.

Amber asked if I had any tattoos, and I told her I did not, and that part of the Ink and Skin project is an attempt to reach across prejudices that can separate people who are different on the surface, but share human commonalities underneath. She confirmed what Kimo had shared with me earlier in the day, that prejudices run both ways: it’s not only people without tat’s who can be judgmental of those who have them, but those who have them can also be judgmental of those who do not. I asked Amber if she’s heard, “You’re such an attractive young lady, why would you want to spoil that with all these tattoos?” She said “all the time”, and said that she is also judged because she is a single mom. A single mom with tat’s.

Then she shared that she also gets comments about the scars on her knees, which were covered by her jeans. The comments are rude, unkind, and of a sexual nature. But her scars come from a horrible car accident from which she has not only the scars, but also a significant amount of memory loss. She doesn’t remember the relationship she had with her boyfriend, who was also severely injured in the accident.

Amber asked me what I do for a living.

I’m sometimes hesitant to share that I’m a pastor, because that revelation can significantly change the vibe in the room–especially in a tattoo parlor! My father, who was also a pastor, told me that when he would visit the barber in the small town where he served, the owner would always greet him with a loud “Hello Reverend!” My dad’s not much into titles, and after a few of these greetings, he told the barber, who responded, “Oh it’s not for your benefit that I say that–it’s for the other guys in the shop.” Exactly. It changes the vibe.

So I told Amber what I do, adding that I know that the Church is often seen as a judgmental place, and that we do struggle with it. But I also shared some stories of how my present church has worked through some difficult issues while holding onto the grace needed to stay together. She seemed to understand, and later that afternoon, she asked if I would pray for her when I got back home. She was going to see a doctor soon, and she was nervous about it. I gladly said that I would.

Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is an intentional wordplay. On the surface, the title refers to the stories that tattoos can engrave onto the skin of the bearer. As you can see on my home page, Nadia Bolz-Weber has said that “Tattoos take what’s on the inside and put it on the outside.” But the idea of “Word Made Flesh” is also an ancient concept that comes to us from the first century, AD. One of Gospel writers used it to describe Jesus as God’s Word, who “…became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” In other words, God ceased to be a remote, abstract concept and became Jesus, a human being living among us. God left heaven and came to earth as Creator among his creatures.

While Jesus was among us, he crossed the boundaries between rich and poor, slave and free, insider and outsider. He told stories that changed people’s perspectives. He suggested that there was another kingdom–a kingdom of justice, reconciliation, beauty and wholeness–that was available now, and available to all.

And so that is also part of the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh project. In a way, it’s as though the barber has announced to the world that there’s someone different in the room. The vibe has changed, not to one of rules and judgments, but to the potential for human connection with the divine, for second chances, and for love. That’s what happened when the Word was Made Flesh, and it can still happen today. My hope is that it happened, even if in a small way, in conversations at Modified Ways.

Day 1 in KC: Weirdo’s

You’ll find it just behind Honolulu, and just ahead of Los Angeles when you search the internet for the “most tattooed cities“. Right here in the conservative heartland of the Midwest, Kansas City is #9 on the list. Yes, you read it correctly: K.C. is more tattooed than L.A.! The ranking is based on the number of tattoo shops per capita, and Kansas City’s number is six per 100,000 people.

So when I began to do my research on the Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh project, one of the first places I put on the list (after Daytona Beach) was Kansas City. This part of the research journey would focus on the shops themselves: the artists and their clients. KC is just a three-hour drive, so that made it even better.

Let me back up for a moment. Several years ago, I crossed the river to attend the Best of the Midwest Tattoo and Arts Convention in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I had a few interesting conversations at the event, and I retained a large stack of business cards from tattoo parlors that I thought were mainly in the Midwest. However, as I planned my trip to KC, I looked through the stack and only found two in the KC metro area. Undaunted, I called these two shops and was received warmly and encouraged to stop on by. The last question I asked them was if they had the names of other reputable artists and shops in the area. They were happy to supply those, too. I booked a hotel on Trivago and drove south on I-29.

My first stop, which turned out to be an all-day affair, was at Weirdo’s Tattoo in Belton, Missouri. I opened the door to the sound of heavy metal music and waiting room full of customers. Weirdo’s is the workplace of several artists, including “Weird Harold” Simmons. Harold was the one I had spoken to on the phone, so the receptionist retrieved him and introduced us. He took me in and sat me down in his workstation. We began talking about body art, and how tattooing is an intimate, and yet invasive relationship between the artist and their client. Harold lamented that younger artists sometimes fail to make that connection.

He also mentioned that Kansas City is unique in its camaraderie between the artists and shops around the metro area. One would think that there would be some acrimony due to competition between so many shops, but there is plenty of work, and the successful artists book months–sometimes up to a year–ahead.

In addition to being an artist for the past 17 years, Harold is the bearer of multiple tattoos, including several on his face and neck. A woman gave Harold his first tattoo in a motel, surrounded by a group of bikers. Ironically, he would later own this woman’s tattooing equipment.

I have to admit that if we had encountered one another prior to the Ink and Skin project, it’s doubtful that I would have taken the opportunity to get to know someone like him. And that’s precisely the reason why this is so important! When someone is different from us, our first response is often to turn away, and in doing so, we replace an encounter with an assumption or, even worse, a judgment. That, right there, is the essence of what turns out to be prejudice: judging someone before we have a chance to get to know them and hear their story.

Harold’s first client for the day was accompanied by her mother and sister. Because Aimee had recently turned sixteen, she needed her parents’ consent to have her body artistically modified. It helped that the tattoo was the same one that her mother and sister already bore. It wasn’t long after Harold started in before she became queasy. No problem forIMG_2278 the guys in the shop–they’d seen this before and knew just how to care for the lightheaded young lady. They brought out a cot and some cold washcloths and Harold joked with the family as he patiently waited for Aimee to recover. A bucket was also on hand, but fortunately, was not needed.

Ryan Dugger, another artist at Weirdo’s, was helping a woman make a connection with her nephew, who liked Star Wars and Legos. If you look closely, you cIMG_2280an see that it’s not just any Yoda he’s drawing on her calf–it’s Lego Yoda! When we saw this woman’s car, we saw quite a number of Lego Star Wars figures on her dashboard. What I really like about the picture is the face on Ryan’s shirt–maybe she’s curious to see what the picture is, or perhaps providing a bit of quality control at Weirdo’s.

After spending a day with these artists, I wished I had chosen to visit artists and shops earlier in the project! It was great to be around them and their clients, who were enthusiastic about their tattoos and ready to share the stories connected to them. At Weirdo’s, I discovered that tattoo artists are some of the most welcoming–and some of the most hygienically conscious–people on the planet. It would be easy to be intimidated by the music and the macabre art that filled the walls of the shop. But once you get beyond that, these artists do their best, not only with their art, but also with their care of other human beings.