Skin Deep

Artist making tattoo on male customer's shoulder in studio

Raleighites share the stories behind the ink they wear and the art they help create.

We all have our reasons for getting inked. I have three tattoos, one I regret because, at 19, I wanted a tattoo just to have one; it was an impulsive mistake. But the other two, a hummingbird on my wrist to honor my grandmother and a message on my arm for my brother, are different. They’re meaningful and make me smile when I look at them, a meeting of self-expression and deep emotion.

For Raleigh Magazine’s Ink issue, we spoke to four Raleighites you may recognize about the art they bring to the world by wearing it on their skin. Here, a chef, an athlete, a musician and a tattoo artist tell us about the events, the people and the places that inspire their ink.

Scott Crawford, chef and owner of Crawford & Son

As a boy, Crawford was fascinated by the military eagle tattooed on his grandfather’s arm. Though faded with age, he could still read his grandmother’s name inked below, a gesture his grandfather made before marrying in the hope that his love would be waiting for him when he returned from serving his country. She did wait and the couple was happily married for more than 50 years.

Crawford always thought that was romantic, so much so that it inspired much of the ink on his own body, what he calls the “story of my life.” He started with a phoenix on his upper arm at 18.

“Everything represents a time or a feeling or people,” he says. “Now, my tattoos are almost all about my family.”

Cooks and chefs have well-known penchants for body art but Crawford says he was drawn into the surf and motorcycle cultures of Florida, his onetime home. After the phoenix, he got new tattoos only after mulling over a design for at least a year.

Later, Crawford started banking his ideas for sleeves and went in search of a Raleigh artist. That led him to Steve Wetherington, owner of Mad Ethel’s Tattoo & Piercing on South Saunders Street.

“I believe in collaboration with an artist,” Crawford says. “I never like to micromanage. I like it to be an expression of both of us in some way.”

Crawford’s first sleeve piece was a portrait of his wife, Jessica. It took a year to finish the sleeves on both of his arms, which also incorporate the names of his children, Jolie and Jiles. While the process was time intensive, for Crawford, it was complete relaxation.

“It was the one true place I could be without stress or interruption,” he says. “Endorphins kick in and it’s total peace. It’s a state of complete relaxation and meditation. It’s my place, my thing, and my collaboration with an artist, just for a couple of hours.”

Christmas Abbott, professional athlete, branding advisor and motivational speaker

When Christmas Abbott got her first tattoo at 15, her mom told her to make sure she could explain it to her grandchildren when she was 80.

“This made me want to ensure I got all original work that was reflective of me, and what I love,” Abbott says. “I’m a collector. I’ve gotten pieces done all over, even from Thailand. I love the process. It’s like a little bit of a ritual that you have to endure the pain to get to the present. For me, tattoos are kind of like a transcript of the journey in your life. ”

For Abbott, who currently owns CrossFit Invoke near downtown Raleigh, that journey has been varied and ever-winding. The Raleigh resident has worked as a professional weightlifter and Crossfitter, a NASCAR pit crew member, a personal trainer and branding adviser, a motivational speaker, and a reality TV star on Big Brother.

“I have good ones, I have bad ones and I have great ones, but they all mean something from a different time period of my life,” Abbott says of her tattoos. “My pieces have been intentionally placed to complement my body and the artwork conveys the feeling and experience I want. Each one has been a masterpiece of its own.”

Raleigh, North Carolina – Wednesday January 25, 2017 – Musician B.J. Barham gets tattooed by Shaun Bushnell at Blue Flame Tattoo Studio in Raleigh. Photo by Alex Boerner. alexboerner.com

BJ Barham, lead singer of American Aquarium

Like his music, BJ Barham’s tattoos are eclectic. The lead singer of American Aquarium—an alt-rock band with country leanings and Raleigh roots—Barham has been getting tattooed since his early 20s when the Reidsville native was a student at NC State. Some of his tats come from his local go-to shop, Blue Flame Tattoo, while others he’s gotten on tour in locations all over the country.

“I travel most of the year and meet a lot of extremely talented folks, some of which are tattoo artists,” Barham says. “We trade tickets for tattoos and everyone wins.”

American Aquarium has gained momentum since the band’s outset a decade ago, when Barham was traveling so much that “home” had come to mean a storage container on Capital Boulevard. Now, he’s fully settled into a real home just outside of Wendell.

“Some (tattoos) were planned out, some were spontaneous,” says Barham. “They all mean something to me. Big or small, nothing goes on my body forever without having some kind of purpose. Except for my Tasmanian devil, that serves absolutely no purpose.”

Barham, who says he’s lost count of how many tattoos he’s collected to date, doesn’t think he’ll ever stop getting inked.

“They are pretty addictive,” he says. “I don’t know many people that just have one tattoo. Once you start, I think you always want more.”

Steve Wetherington, owner of Mad Ethel’s Tattoo & Piercing

From the moment he picked up a pencil, Steve Wetherington loved to draw. He studied art but when his GI Bill ran out, he turned to tattooing as a way to supplement his education. He soon came to realize that, by tattooing, he was practicing his first love, drawing. He’s stuck with it ever since.

“One of the things I love is that I’m forced to create and I can’t get stuck in one thing,” says Wetherington, who has been tattooing for more than 20 years. “It keeps me on my toes.”

With his experience, Wetherington is skilled at virtually any tattoo style but he prides himself on two.

“I love doing black and gray work the most,” says Wetherington. He likes portraits, too, for the emotional rewards of drawing peoples’ loved ones. “I’d say I do about 75 percent black and gray and 25 percent color. Portraits are closest to the heart. I’m honored to be able to do that for someone.”

Wetherington believes collaboration with the client is important but keeps his consulting sessions short, just to get an idea of what he is going to be drawing. For the actual tattoo session, Wetherington likes to draw directly on the skin, as most people change what they want at the last minute anyway. It’s good, he says, to continue discussing during the process.

Wetherington likes to draw for just a few hours at a time, to keep his concentration laser focused.

“I don’t like to do long sessions, but I can make exceptions,” he says. “There was a guy shipping out to Iraq who wanted to get a tattoo done before he left, so I spent all day on it for him.”

Thirteen hours later, the man left with a crouching panther stretching from his collarbone to his belly.

As for advice to those thinking about getting tattooed, Wetherington suggests researching artists first.

“See what they do,” he says. “There are a lot of good artists, but there are more bad ones.”

See part one of our Ink feature, Ink in the Digital Age. 

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