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Tattoo artist hopes business success is permanent

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 34, Nick Quinn is an entrepreneur and small-business owner who wears a shirt and tie to work every day.

But he's not pushing a pencil behind a desk. Instead, he's running a tattoo gun in his Kanawha City studio -- and perhaps breaking a few stereotypes along the way.

"I actually had no clue this is what I would end up doing," said Quinn, co-owner of Black Eagle Tattoo on MacCorkle Avenue, as he prepared the arm of co-worker Zack Freeman for tattoo "flash."

Though much of what Quinn does is original work, flash is a pre-drawn design that hangs on the shop walls or gets displayed in large binders, to help clients who are picking out their art.

In the late 1990s, Quinn was attending school at the University of Charleston. He took classes in art but also in business, a traditionally conservative field. At night, to make a few extra bucks, he worked as a DJ in downtown Charleston -- and that's where his future came calling.

Employees from Danny's Ancient Art, which was then the new tattoo shop in town, used to frequent the bar scene in an effort to drum up business, Quinn said. He got to be friends with them and decided to check out their studio.

"I thought I might consider getting tattooed," he said. "I was 21. I didn't have any at the time."

After hanging around the shop for a while, Quinn became interested in the ins and outs of tattoo art -- and business.

"I came in to hang out. I was a student and had a young son, so I didn't have a lot of money. I asked them if I could do odd jobs in trade for work."

The shop manager at the time was a guy named Reno. He hired Quinn in a position that was worlds away from the glamour of inking bodies.

"Mostly, I was scrubbing toilets, washing windows and doing a lot of tracing," Quinn said.

Eventually, he took over the front desk, and it was there that he brought a little business acumen to the shop's archaic filing system.

"I introduced them to the magic of Microsoft Excel," joked Quinn. But he's all serious when it comes to learning the ins and outs of anything he tries. And it wasn't long before he was using a needle.

"Once I got to the front counter, I learned how to pierce. I was learning how to do everything, how to run the shop from the start," he said. "That was the ultimate goal. If I am going to go into a job, I am going to do it to the best of my ability, and try to make it to the finish line as quick as I can.

"I think you learn to appreciate things more that way, and you learn to respect the jobs that people are doing under you, because you've done it. You know what it takes to get the job done," he added. "I am a firm believer in learning by example. If there is a trash can that is full and needs taken out, I just do it."

Quinn's dedication and intense work ethic paid off. In 2009, he and co-owner Kevin Adams split off to form Black Eagle Tattoo. They first located their shop in South Charleston, but when Danny's Ancient Art went down in history, they decided to move back to the same Kanawha City location where Quinn got his start.

With an investment of time and money, they remodeled the studio into something that resembles a trendy lounge more than the tattoo parlors of old.

Today, the front room of Black Eagle is full of name-brand clothing choices and glass displays of body jewelry. Luxe couches are scattered around and there are always a few people hanging out considering their next works of body art.

With the ever-increasing popularity of tattooing, due in part to the reality TV trend, Quinn wants to keep the art safe for everyone. Before getting a tattoo, he recommends customers ask to see the artist's license and the shop's last health department inspection.

It is even possible to check the expiration dates on everything that is sterilized, he said. But, most important, you need to be comfortable with the artist, their safety protocol and the quality of work they are producing. A tattoo is permanent.

"There is one thing that people need to understand. Just because you are walking into a professional tattoo studio doesn't mean that the artist is doing professional-quality work. Not just drawings in a book, you want to see work on skin," he advised. "That speaks volumes of what they're capable of.

"I have heard of people getting tattooed by the apprentice and not knowing they were an apprentice."

Quinn and a few fellow artists around the state are lobbying for more stringent regulation of their profession, including policies that would require apprenticeships, cross-contamination training, and firm protocols in place before someone can pierce the skin.

As celebrities begin to openly sport bigger, more colorful tattoos, the demand for Quinn's talent continues to grow. His work has been featured in several national publications, including International Tattoo Art, Tattoo Magazine, and Skin and Ink.

Quinn also did a nationwide tour last year performing guest spots in studios and at conventions across the country.

These days, the average wait time to get an appointment with him is about three weeks.

After just five years in an industry that is growing by leaps and bounds, Quinn and Adams are expanding their focus with a new shop in Florida, where Adams is originally from, and plans to open a Hurricane location.

A 2010 Pew Research study found 32 percent of people ages 30 to 45 have at least one tattoo. Quinn doesn't see that trend slowing anytime soon.

"I think it will probably take another generation before people slow down. Right now, with it being as mainstream as it is, it is on the television, all the celebrities have tattoos, kids are going to keep emulating celebrities," he said.

"There will come another generation that decides they want to be different by not getting tattooed and pierced, but I am not looking forward to that day."

Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopkins@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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