Safe Space: Ink Therapy owner puts heart into tattoos

Safe Space: Ink Therapy owner puts heart into tattoos

When Lex Ly welcomes a new client into her Fayetteville shop, smiling warmly and extending her hand in greeting, she likely has to reassure people they’re in the right place.

Ink Therapy is a tattoo studio like no other. It is spa-like, void of the edgy decor and hardcore imagery adorning most traditional parlors. Tapestries hang on blue-green walls. Small potted plants rest on shelves next to polished crystals and porcelain elephants. Colorful fish swim around in a large, glowing tank, and the sweet smell of incense drifts through the air. It feels comfortable. Safe. Just the way Ly wants it to be.

“I want to change the idea of the tattoo industry,” Ly says. “I want to create a safe space. I want it to be very private, very inviting, no intimidation.”

The 37-year-old business owner has always been interested in “anything that revolves around art and expression,” and she is constantly looking for new ways to push herself. Almost four years ago, after two decades of cosmetology, Ly decided to try a new challenge: tattooing.

After she made the decision to shift careers, Ly excelled. In the past four years, she apprenticed, got her tattooing license, and opened her business. Her passion for art, strong work ethic, and salon experience culminated in a unique shop with a spotless professional reputation. Dozens of people have written rave reviews about Ink Therapy on Google:

“I wish I could leave more stars,” writes Juliet Smith.

“She was warm, knowledgeable, and attentive and the vibe of the studio was calming and pristine,” writes Kyra Sameshima.

“I have found my forever artist!” writes Morgan Simmons.

These reviews and others like them are not only representative of Ink Therapy’s reputation, but of Ly’s. They are reflective of her and the experience she set out to create when building her business.

To those who know her best, Ly’s desire and ability to comfort is no surprise. Her roommate, a fellow tattoo artist, describes her as “very caring and loving” to the people around her. “The energy is the same living and working with Lex,” he says. “Lex is very professional when it comes to work, but also very kind. Her clients love her.”

It’s hard not to. Talking to Ly is like stepping out of the cold. She is warm and inviting; her smile is bright; and she laughs often. She refuses to dwell on her problems, instead choosing to see them as obstacles to overcome: “They’re meant for you to learn how to navigate and grow, not to hinder you from moving forward.”

The child of an immigrant, Ly was born in Vietnam and spent the first four years of her life there. It was during these crucial years that Ly absorbed the key lessons she carried into her present-day mindset.

“I was born and raised in a [house of prostitution]. My mother was the madam. At the age of 16, she sold her virginity and used the money she had to build the madam house. She helped all the girls like her from the village who, because of the war, lost their parents and their homes. She told the girls, ‘If you live here, you have a choice. You could be a maid, you could be a cook. You don’t have to be a call girl.’ She built a safe space for them.”

Ly tells the story with pride, but grows frustrated. “It’s hard to share that kind of story in American culture, because we don’t understand that kind of hardship. If the only thing that you can do is use your beauty for survival, what would you do?”

Ly never felt safer than the time she spent living above her mother’s roof in Vietnam. “My mom is who I am,” she says. “She never sheltered us, but she protected us. That was home for me.”

Home changed drastically for Ly after her mother decided to move their family to America. They settled in Fort Smith, a town with a sizable Vietnamese population, when Ly was 4 years old. However, when Ly was 14, she decided that Arkansas was not where she needed to be. Ly’s mother allowed her to move in with her aunt and uncle in Florida.

“I’ve always known I was different,” Lex says. “That’s why I moved at such a young age. I knew transitioning was my endgame.”

At the time that she moved, Ly was going through life as a boy. Rather than rejecting who she once was, she looks upon those years with a kind of nostalgia: “When Lex lived as a boy, I see that as my brother. Now, I’ve come into the woman that I am.”

It wasn’t always easy for Ly to express her femininity, though. Many of her friends didn’t know she was transgender because she “played a role to fit in.” Then, when Ly was 17 — still living as her “brother” — she found an outlet to express her feminine side: drag. But it still wasn’t perfect.

“Drag was a gateway for me. I used an art form to become a woman. But every time I looked in the mirror, it wasn’t me. Trans is who I am. Drag was just an expression.

“When I started seeing other trans women doing pageants, I was like, ‘Who are they?’ I realized, ‘Those are trans females,’ and instantly, when I learned that, my heart cried. Because I belonged,” she shares.

Ly fully transitioned at 25, while still living in Miami. Despite this monumental change in her life, Ly makes it clear that her transition is one part of her story, not the only part.

“At the end of the day, I don’t see myself as a trans person. I see myself as Lexi. Trans is part of my journey. But there’s more to my lesson in life than me being trans. Me being trans is like me being a tattoo artist, me being a shop owner. It’s a part of me. It does not define me.”

Ly supported herself in Miami through cosmetology work, using skills she learned in her aunt’s nail salon, and continued to do drag shows all the while. Two years later, though, she faced yet another huge change. She settled her affairs in Florida and moved back to Arkansas to be with the person she loves most.

“My mom had a stroke when I was 27,” Ly reveals. “She’s my rock. She gave me everything. The idea of not being around, I hated that. I moved back here, and I’ve been here since.”

Once settled, Ly continued her work in cosmetology. After a few years living in Fayetteville, she decided to shift gears and opened Ink Therapy.

Ly is willing and able to make anyone feel comfortable in her shop. However, she has a deep and vested interest in being an inviting place for other trans people. She knows that navigating the tattoo world as a trans person can be difficult.

“Being a trans person, if you go to a tattoo shop and you want to get a tattoo somewhere more intimate, you would feel uncomfortable. You have another person touching your body, and if that person is not fond or positive of the LGBT community, the energy is not good. My goal was to create something that doesn’t have that.”

Although her career changed, her love of drag didn’t. Ly started performing in drag shows around Fayetteville after she moved. But Lexi Lachappelle — Ly’s drag alter ego — gets her inspiration from a unique source: the women of her mother’s “madam house” in Vietnam.

“I witnessed what human desire can do to people in that place,” she says. “Noting stuff like that helped me create the character I am in drag. I use that art of alluring. I give the crowd two different elements. I want to give them the dark, seductive sexy, and I want to give them the classy sexy.”

And Lexi delivers. Cheers from the audience nearly drown out her music when she performs. People pack shoulder to shoulder to watch her dance through the crowd. But even when she’s dressed up and in character, alluring the audience, the real Ly peaks out every now and then. She still has the same bright smile. The same warmth. She stops often to hug people she recognizes in the crowd.

Priscilla Brown, a longtime client and friend of Ly, first met her as Lexi Lachappelle. Brown and her husband were new to town, and some friends took them to a local bar for a show.

“She had the big hair and was so beautiful and charismatic,” Brown remembers. “My husband had never been to a bar like that, so he was just downing beers. I started looking for him and found him smoking with Lexi out on the back patio. She had taken down her hair, so he didn’t realize that she was the one who was performing. I’m like, ‘Wow, he seems so comfortable.’ And it was such a new environment for him.”

After their initial meeting, Brown kept up with Ly on Facebook. Brown said she seeks ways to support the LGBTQ community in Fayetteville, so when Ly started tattooing, she reached out immediately. She has gotten around a dozen tattoos from Ly since 2018. While some might look at the hummingbird in flight or the blooming dahlias as testaments to Ly’s talent, Brown points to a more humble piece: a paw print. It’s a tribute to her beloved pet that passed away last year.

“There was one point during the tattoo that some song was playing,” Brown says thinking back to the session. “It was about rising up out of adversity. I was crying like a little kid. Tears were running down the side of my face, and Lex stopped tattooing me and held my hand while the song played.

“It’s not an artistic piece, but I think it’s more meaningful than the beautiful artwork that Lexi is obviously capable of,” she goes on. “Not only do I have this to remember him, I’ll always remember — sorry, I’m getting choked up — I’ll always remember that moment because it became more than just me paying for a service. It became, ‘OK, this is my friend, just being here with me in this moment.’ I don’t have enough good things to say about her.”

Trans woman. Daughter. Drag queen. Protector. Immigrant. Artist. Business owner. Sister. Friend. All aspects of Ly’s identity, and yet, these words fall short of defining who she is.

When Ly decided to become a tattoo artist, she had no way of knowing the impact she’d have on her community. Ink Therapy has become much more than a well-decorated shop that offers high-quality tattoos. It is a haven. A source of comfort. And it’s all because of Ly.

In her journey to create a safe space, Lex Ly became one.


Categories: Cover Story