Skin Deep: Stories Behind the Ink

Skin Deep: Stories Behind the Ink
Photos by Nick Brothers Abby Richards displays her tattoos at Ink & Glass Saturday afternoon.

Photos by Nick Brothers
Abby Richards displays her tattoos at Ink & Glass Saturday afternoon.

Tattoos are pretty fascinating things.

Whereas a painter imparts their vision into an inanimate canvas, a tattoo artist uses living, breathing, talking humans as their medium. Instead of a paintbrush, a mechanically powered needle is used that penetrates the skin by about a millimeter and deposits a drop of insoluble ink into the skin with each puncture, and stays forever. No skin is off limits. Even the insides of lips and eyelids can be inked.

Throughout the US, there are 45 million Americans with at least one tattoo, according to a Pew Research report in 2013.

While often times concealed underneath long sleeves and pants, as it turns out, Northwest Arkansas is full of living, breathing, walking artwork. We at The Free Weekly thought it would be cool to seek out the ink and the stories behind the art.

What we found were four people with beautiful ink and beautiful stories. Each had a varying amount of pieces on them, but they all had one thing in common: they planned on getting more.

“(Getting a tattoo) is like a constant, nagging, weirdly pleasurable — but also terrible pain,” said Alex Burlison. “It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever felt. It’s nice though because it’s not constant. It’s really cool though, it can be kind of meditative. You just kind of go into this trance with it, and you get really out of it. It releases a lot of endorphins. I think that’s how they can become addictive. Some people, it’s not their thing. I like it for some reason.”

Thirty-two percent say they are addicted to ink, according to Pew Research. With most tattoos costing upwards of $150 an hour, it’s estimated that $1.65 billion is generated annually for tattoos. That’s likely to increase with the growing popularity and acceptance of tattoos in modern society.

Take Starbucks for example. The coffee retail giant last October relaxed on their dress code, allowing baristas with sleeve tattoos and piercings to have them visible while on the clock.

Despite the changing cultural standards, is there a downside other than potentially limiting some employment opportunities?

“I guess a downside I find is getting asked about them all the time,” Burlison said. “I used to wait tables, and I wore shorts a lot. Everybody would ask me about the quote on my leg, and I’d tell them, and it’d get absolutely no reaction from them. They’d just be like, ‘Huh.’ You think they’d ask why I got it or what it means, but they just wanted to know what it said and that was it. I got asked daily about it.”

Tattoos can be as common as a tribal design, cross or angel wings, or as original as the crawfish Grim Reaper Will Smith plans to get next week.

“Y’know, I have a Mario on my shoulder because I love video games,” he said. “I just like my tattoos to be unique to me.”

Living with tattoos also means a lot of stares, said Nic Claro.

“You get looks from people from time to time,” he said. “If they don’t say anything, you can’t tell if it’s judgement or intrigue.”

Unless the client wants to get a laser tattoo removal or a cover up of a once-loved-but-now-hated tattoo, the concept of permanence on the body is there. That’s not something Abby Richards said she’s concerned about, though.

“A lot of people fill up their homes with art and hang things up on the walls that no one will ever see, and no one will ever will ever get to appreciate. (With tattoos) people get to see that,” she said. “It’s just a different way of appreciating an art form for me. What else do you get to take with you when you die? Nothing. I get to take my favorite pieces of artwork with me. That to me is more meaningful than a big house full of crap or a nice car.”

Abby Richards



Number of Tattoos: 20, plans on many more.

Favorite Local Artist: Dustin Gray of Ink & Glass in Fayetteville.

First Tattoo: At age 18, a cross on top of her right foot with Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge or you too shall be judged.”

Most Valued Tattoo: One of her most recent tattoo of a lantern representing her best friend’s devotion, her light in a dark time.

“In high school, I kinda went through some things with some girls. Girls in high school are just terrible. I think every girl in high school can relate to being judged in high school at some level, y’know? I wanted it a lot bigger on my ribs, but the guy said for a first tattoo, that would be too sensitive. So I got it on my foot, which sort of grounds it in me. Everytime I meet someone I try to keep that in mind, to give everyone a fair shot before dismissing them.”

Alex Burlison
Alex 2
Number of Tattoos: 10

Favorite Local Artist: Jennifer Billig of Brainstorm in Fayetteville.

First Tattoo: A nautical star over his heart, to symbolize the drive to follow your heart, which he got with his best friends in high school.

Most Valued Tattoo: The above mentioned star has since been updated into a lotus flower, which he interprets as openess and acceptance to life.

“Me and two of my close friends in high school, we wanted to get something that kinda kept us together. So it was a star over our hearts, like the nautical stars. It was to remind us to follow our hearts. My most recent one was a transformation of that piece. It was just a normal star and kind of blocky. It’s kind of where I was at that time, as far as my outlook and spirituality. I wanted to keep the star there, but I was ready for it to be changed. Ten years ago I was a totally different person. I wanted the lotus flower to represent my life now.”

Will Smith



Number of Tattoos: 8, plans for 10 by next month

Favorite Local Artist: Drew Wilson at Brainstorm Tattoo in Fayetteville.

First Tattoo: The Ace of Spades on his right calf, because he’s a big Motorhead fan.

Most Valued Tattoo: A portrait of Sam, a beloved pet dog who passed away recently.

“Tattoos should have a point, but they don’t all have to be serious. Just whatever you like. Don’t get a little infinity sign, that’s silly. They all should have a little purpose. Every tattoo should be unique to yourself. I get to have my little buddy Sam with me all the time now.”

Nic Claro


Nic2Number of Tattoos: 7, plans on getting a sleeve on his left arm, despite once telling himself he would never get one.

Favorite Local Artist: Tim Martin of Brainstorm Tattoo in Fayetteville.

First Tattoo: A quote in typwriter font of “These words I write keep me from total madness,” by Charles Bukowski on his right bicep. Now a writer, Claro said the words explain how writing is his personal escape.

Most Valued Tattoo: Family portrait of his father, mother and sister on his left forearm.

“The photograph of my mother and sister is the first one I remember ever seeing of them. My mother was 26; my sister 6 months. I’ve always thought the two of them look so beautiful there together. It’s my mom smiling at a camera, with her first child in her arms and she just looks so happy. I love looking at it every day. And I chose the photo of my father for one reason. It’s just a great picture. Youthful. Proud. And in uniform.”

Categories: Cover Story
Tags: ink, skin, stories, tattoo