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 for 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 can 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.