Paintings and animal skulls cover the walls. Why do so many tattoo artists obsess over skeletal remains? Is it because their artwork inevitably ends up in a cedar coffin?
I voice this thought to local tattoo artist, Mike Wexler, as he dips his machine into ink. He pauses, hovering over my back as he reflects on the morbid question. Goosebumps full of anticipation rise on my skin.
“I try not to think about it. I try to focus on the present.” He shrugs as his machine hums a monotone buzz.
We navigate through several topics during my tattoo. Mike’s patience never waivers as I run through questions like an auctioneer at an estate sale. Instead, he replies simply and honestly, clearly amused by my frankness. He is the type of man that you want to invite to your home for a BBQ. His country charm and relaxed attitude guarantees a fun time.
This isn’t my first time sitting for Mike. Five years prior he christened my skin in Virginia Beach’s Blue Horseshoe. It humbles me to admit but those two hours consisted entirely of tears. So I arrive in Big Kountry Tattoo Collective with a singular goal: no crying.
Big Kountry contrasts drastically from Virginia Beach’s Blue Horseshoe. For one thing, Mike acts as both the owner and sole artist. The studio’s intimacy allows me to relax. He begins and the pain builds. It feels like I trapped in a tanning booth. Second degree burns give to third degree nightmares. Mike insists I do the interview during the tattoo in an attempt to keep me distracted.
In the next three hours, we discuss everything from Hampton Road’s growing art scene to religion and death. How could I avoid it with so many bones lining the walls? What follows is a simple cheat sheet to Hampton Road’s tattooing industry. If you ever wondered what you should look for in an artist or contemplated tattoo tipping etiquette then Mike has you covered.
AltDaily: On your website it says that you began tattooing at 32. What were you doing before this?
Mike Wexler: I spent 22 years working for the government before I got into tattooing. I worked in the U.S. Airforce for 10 years. And I worked for the fire department for 12 years after that.
I started getting tattooed early, when I was 23; which is not considered early anymore. The first time I got tattooed, I just fell in love with it. But at the time, tattooing was illegal where I lived. I started tattooing out of my house. Eventually hooked up with the right people and did an old-school apprenticeship. Almost 16 years later, here I am.
What kind of person is your ideal client?
An individual who understands what they want, but is also willing to take advice. They listen to their options versus coming in and demanding this should be done this way or that way. It’s a really nice thing to be able to work with a client instead of battling a client.
Are there ever times that you outright say no to a tattoo?
Yes. Let’s just understand that we’re all in here to make money. We wouldn’t go into business if we weren’t. A lot of artists would much rather see you have something tattooed on you that’s going to stay forever. One good example is names. I used to try and talk people out of it.
Why did you stop?
They don’t listen. They know what they want. It ends up one of two ways. They either come back and say, “see it worked out just fine.” Or, they come back and say, “you were right, I’m not with this person anymore. Now we need a big cover-up.” Great, more money. You have to pick your battles.
What types of tattoos do you refuse to do? Are there any designs that you really enjoy?
I won’t tattoo evil. I’m not into macabre: demons, and things of that nature. The nice thing is, though, that I know plenty of people that do enjoy that kind of work so I send them in that direction.
Otherwise, I enjoy everything. I constantly get asked “what’s the stupidest tattoo that you’ve done?” Well you know.. There are no stupid tattoos. Everyone gets tattooed for a reason. Who are we to judge?
Why did you open your shop in North Carolina? Are there any shops nearby?
I had a partnership with Blue Horseshoe. We owned this studio for years. When I decided to leave, I talked to my partner Chris and made a deal for this studio. I have been here for just over a year now.
I am the only studio from Chesapeake to the Outer Banks. There are no other studios on Route 168. The next closest is in Elizabeth City.
If you could have anyone living or dead tattoo you, who would you choose?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I guess, I would have to say my grand-dad.
Your grand-dad was a tattoo artist?
No he was a golf-course engineer. He’s who I got my artistic talent from. He passed away back in 2010, but he used to design PTA golf courses all over Asia.
I saw on your Facebook that you had your son tattoo you.
I had both my sons tattoo me. My oldest tattooed me once. My youngest has tattooed me twice, once when he was 4 and again when he was 7. He has recently been begging to tattoo me again.
What should someone consider before picking an artist?
The most important thing is to do your research. There’s so much to a tattoo experience.
If you can have a conversation, that makes the whole thing so much better. It’s a procedure that causes a certain amount of pain. you have a tendency not to think about what is happening if you can talk with someone for a good portion of the time. I think that’s a big thing that doesn’t happen a lot.
Check out the studio. Pay attention to how clean it is. You can tell a lot about the people who work there by how the studio looks.
If they’re not passionate about what they’re doing, then they might do a good job?
If you’re not all about what you’re doing, then your studio is going to reflect that. It should have art hanging around and good portfolios. How much time did they put into showing others their work? These are just things you can tell by just looking.
Are there any mistakes that people make when getting a tattoo?
A lot of people complain about the price. But think of how much you spend on clothes. People will go out and spend hundreds of dollars on new Air Jordan’s and wear it for a few months, or hardly wear them at all. It will just lie in the box. Compare it to a tattoo. A tattoo will last you the rest of your life.
So they don’t know what they’re getting into?
No. Reality television and popularity has made the industry into more of a scene. It used to have history. Now that it’s the cool thing to do it doesn’t have the phenomena that it used to have. It’s why you have all the trends. Birds breaking off feathers and infinity signs. People don’t realize that they have more options than what they come in the door with. It’s frustrating as an artist.
What would be considered a good tip? Is it ever acceptable to not tip your artist?
In general, after research and discussing it with other artists, I’d say for every $100 you spend you should tip your artist $20. The thing that kills me. When you get a haircut, do you tip your stylist or barber? Yes. There’s a lot of people that don’t tip their artist. Why? Aren’t we doing a service?
You should only ever not tip if you didn’t enjoy your experience and you don’t like your tattoo. When asked, I tell my clients, “Tip me how much you think your tattoo is worth and based off your experience.” If you choose not to tip me, then you choose not to tip me. Am I upset? A lot of people would be.
What makes a good artist?
Tattooing is something an artist should be completely enthralled with. If you cannot tell me that you are completely engulfed in tattooing, then you should not be in this business. I have been doing this for 16 years now and I am up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning every single night drawing or doing research for designs.
Why do you need to spend so much time on designs?
It’s because of what I love about this industry. It is constantly evolving. If you don’t stay up on the changes, then you fall behind.
In your opinion who should we add to the list? Who should we spotlight next?
There’s a lot of talent here. A lot of people at Studio Evolve… Stained Studios…. American Tattoo Art… You’ve got Sean Sweeney over there, Tanane Whitfield over there now. Oh and here’s a good one: Folk City.
At one point the bell on the door rings. A walk-in. We decide to take a break as Mike discusses the design. He suggests that the couple try to come back in an hour. Later, when I’m distracting myself from the coloring, I ask if it is disappointing having to turn people away. With only one artist there isn’t the option to hand a walk-in to another.
Mike shrugs. “A good studio always has to turn people away, eventually. Better too many clients, than not enough.”
Big Kountry Tattoo Collective is located in Moyock NC, a short drive from Chesapeake VA. You may schedule an appointment with Mike Wexler through his shop’s website. To see keep updated on the shop’s news or see recent works, follow Kountry Collective on Facebook.