Living in color

By Bobbie Curd

Chad Sinkhorn may have only turned 40 recently, but by standards set in the tattooing industry, he’s already considered an “OG” — a term used for someone who’s old school, or “authentic and incredibly exceptional,” as defined by a slang dictionary.

He’s regularly sought out by clients as far away as Alaska who want original art pieces needled into their skin; he’s traveled overseas and tatted, even in England for an invitation-only conference where several Brits paid for his work.

Chad has built a thriving business in Danville; he’s even created a line of Studio Ink needle cartridges, developed to his own specs and sold online.

Chad’s shop is busting at the seams daily, with six tattoo artists “on top of each other” due to space, along with two professional piercers. This is his “bred” and “butr,” as tatted on the outside of his fingers; he really could never see himself doing anything else.

But it wasn’t always like that.

Chad has always been a drawer. In his senior year at Boyle County High School, he got into doing custom airbrushing jobs on smaller trucks, sometimes freehand and sometimes stenciled.  

“I just started thinking, what was I going to do with my life?” Chad says on a weekday afternoon.

We are sitting at the top of the stairs at Studio Ink, an old converted house on Hustonville Road. Music plays constantly, hyping the vibe which is already lively, with clients getting consultations and piercers taking customers up to their secluded work room. His artwork frames the walls; the rich and vibrant color jumping off the canvas makes it hard not to stop and stare.

Although he never saw it as a career path, Chad was always interested in body ink. He got his first tattoo at 17 — a small skull on his shoulder blade that’s now covered up by a larger back piece. But back then, in the late ‘90s, tattoo shops were a different breed than what they’ve turned into.

At first, he worked part-time with a guy who’d been in the industry a while, Tom Thomen, who had his own shop over in the Greenleaf shopping plaza.

“I really didn’t think you could make a living being a tat artist; I really didn’t take it that seriously,” Chad says. “Once I got around Tom, though, it opened up my eyes; I was surprised with the skill it took, and how much ‘real art’ was involved.”

He began his apprenticeship with Tom, and considers what he learned as priceless. But he was one of the lucky ones.

“It’s common to hear stories about people walking into tattoo shops, asking for someone to apprentice them, and getting cussed out. I’ve even heard of people getting beat up for it,” he says. Sure; that’s a bit hardcore, but something he knows about this industry for sure is that it polices itself, and it’s very protective of its artists.

There’s no certification needed; you “graduate” and get your license from the health department when the teacher — an owner of a shop or an established artist — says you’re ready.

After he got his license, he started doing it part-time; he always had a “regular” full-time job, he says, in addition to tatting.

He learned how to make needles. “We all made our own back then. All these needles are made up of a grouping of needles; you’d order all different kinds, get these jigs that come with them, and solder them together, then sterilize them,” Chad says.

They’d have to use eye-loops to go through them all in order to thoroughly clean them, and make sure the ends weren’t burred.

About four years after he started, that all changed when companies started pre-making needles. Now needles are all single-use; used once then tossed out.

Tom only kept his shop open part-time, and Chad still wasn’t taking the artform totally seriously. After Chad got his license, Tom closed the shop down because he took a full-time tatting job in Lexington.

Chad moved on to a shop in Richmond; he was going to Eastern Kentucky University, studying art.

“But I kept coming back to tattooing,” he says.

Before he got serious, he went through spells where he’d quit. He worked in another shop in Nicholasville in the early 2000s. He began making more money tatting part-time than he did at his full-time job, so he decided to take it seriously, setting up a solid clientele base.

“I started doing more freehanding then,” Chad says, which wasn’t very common. “Back then, you’d go into a shop and look at pictures on the wall of people’s work. Not many would draw you something up; you’d just choose one of their designs. It wasn’t nothing for me to do the same tat five or six times in a day.”

Chad began putting his own twists on things his clients would choose. He’d consult with them, then say, “Why don’t you let me add a little something to this … or make it look different here, or here …” he says.

It added more work to his repertoire, and it was what he always wanted to do from the get-go, though he hadn’t know it. He wanted to create walking art pieces.

“Back then, I did so many tribal pieces. Tribal, for days and days … and Kanji symbols,” he says, referring to a Japanese writing system. He was able to learn while he did them, trying out different techniques, perfecting what would become his own.

In 2001, Chad decided he was ready to open up his own shop.

“The shop I was working at — I made money and stayed busy, but I was working my nuts off. And it was pretty shady, lots of drugs,” he says.

That got old for him, fast, and he decided he didn’t want to stick around.

“Not to take anything away from them. They’re still there and if it wasn’t for them, I’d probably not be here now,” Chad says. Not to mention it gave him more of a sense of purpose about what kind of artist he wanted to be and what kind of business he wanted to run — a serious one.

“Plus, that whole vibe wasn’t really uncommon in the industry, back then. And I really wanted my own little spot, here, where I grew up, to work in.”

But he says he really didn’t have a clue about what it would take. He’d accumulated some supplies over the years, and a few designs he could hang on the walls, a few chairs …

“I had $2,000 to start a shop with,” he says, shaking his head and laughing. “Probably didn’t do my homework like I should’ve, because that didn’t work.”

He went back to Greenleaf and rented a little space close to the bowling alley. But he ran out of money soon after, not taking into account “the many, many needs of starting a business like that.” He couldn’t afford to get a licensed plumber to put in a handsink; he went for two months not being able to work in the shop. He was living off a credit card.

But, the tide changed. He was only in the space for a year, then found another spot on Hustonville Road, and business started booming.

“Back then, people didn’t get big ones; only small ones. I’d have a tat an hour all day long, doing up to 10 in a day, five days a week.”

Chad has two artists who have been with him for more than 10 years. It’s hard for him to believe in terms of how far he’s come, but also not common in the industry. They’ve been in the most recent spot for more than a decade, and they’re running out of room rapidly.

The biggest difference he’s experienced over the years, he says, is that now people respect tattoos as “real art.’ There are several reality shows out about tattooing, something he says that’s looked at in two different ways by the industry.

“The shows really took it over the edge. I could tell a difference immediately after they came out, but it’s been a controversy. Some people hate what they’ve done to it,” he says.

Some tat collectors and artists think it’s too mainstream now. But on another level, those shows have opened others’ eyes up to how it is a real art, he says.

“I hear all the time, during consultations, ‘I am looking for a real artist.’ … Back in the day, it was just the thrill of getting one. Today, it’s about the actual art, and all about bigger pieces. People collect them.”

How long each work of art takes depends on the total situation.

“On average, for me, a full sleeve will take about 30 hours, but it can take up to 60.” Consultations can be done in person, or via email. Usually, people opt to do bigger pieces in four-hour sessions.

For most people, the ribs are the most awkward area to get work done, either because it’s against bone and more painful or because they’re ticklish. He’s done tats anywhere from earlobes to butts and ankles, but he won’t go below the waist anywhere questionable.

And yes, he does get sore. “I never thought me sitting on my butt for hours a day would make my body feel like this,” he says, and laughs. But he’s sitting in awkward positions for hours to get that perfect angle.

“I’ve worked manual labor all my life, farms and factories … So I thought this was awesome, I’d never break a sweat,” Chad says. He soon realized that working your mind full-time can be even harder than manual labor.

He does get some first-time clients who have seen his work and say, “Just do whatever you want.”

“That’s very stressful to me, because everyone’s taste is different,” he says. One client “wanted me to ‘do whatever.’ That’s so hard when you don’t know the person.”

He decided to send that client several pictures from a sketchbook he’d added to over the years.

“I sent him a ton of pictures, and he didn’t like none of them,” he says, and laughs. “He said, ‘Well, that’s not really what I was thinking’ … Sometimes you really have to dig and be perceptive.”

For Chad, the fun of it is when someone comes in with just an idea of what they want but they’re not totally married to it, and he can get creative during the process. He’ll sketch ahead of time and make sure his client likes it, but many times it gets changed during the process.

“I’ve got a handful of guys who I’ve tatted a lot, and they already know what I do,” he says. “They know what to expect, and they just let me run with it.”

But not everyone’s like that.

“For those guys, it’s the thrill of collecting another piece of artwork. They’re collectors.”

Chad gets tatted himself when he goes to conventions; he likes to hit people up who he’s a fan of, and tells them, “for instance, give me a skull in your style; I don’t care what you do to it, just make it yours.”

He continues national trips to conferences in order to continue his education, but spends most of his free time with this two kids — Olivia, 16, and Dayson, 13. His wife, Rachel, also works at the shop as a piercer, and has two full sleeves of Chad’s work, as well as an incredible back piece of abstract work.

Joyce Fischer sits for Chad one afternoon, getting more butterflies added to a sleeve piece she started some time ago. She originally came to him so he could clean up some “messy” ones another person did for her, something she says he’s amazing at.

“I just keep adding to it. A friend of mine calls me ‘Butterfly,’ and I like them,” she says. Chad uses some white and yellow to spruce some older ones up, giving them a 3-dimensional appearance, like they are flying off her arm.

“He does it so easily, you don’t flinch or nothing,” Joyce says. “He’s easy, got the magic touch.”

Many people who come in will deeply analyze what they want, Chad says, but the only time he’s heard regret “is from the ones who get little ones, because they’re too scared. They almost always come back in, saying they wished they’d gotten them bigger …”

“I’m always, always so happy with that he does,” Joyce says, standing sideways at the mirror, checking out the additions. “That’s what keeps me coming back. He’s been cleaning up the mess of another person … They were all black. I’m like, ‘Honey — I’m black enough! Give me some color.’ There were a lot of mistakes. But no more.”

Rachel hears Joyce’s voice and comes to the back of the shop. She pulls out pictures of Olivia playing around with a tat needle on some pigskin one afternoon while Chad sat with her.

“As far as my daughter being in the industry, whatever she has a passion for, I will support it 100-percent,” Chad says. Years ago, the old school guys simply thought there was no place for women as artists in the industry, he says.

Rachel thinks it’s a great idea for Olivia to get into it. “I don’t know why, but female artists are in kinda high demand at the moment. There is no doubt in my mind she’d make a great one.”

Chad says he’s seeing more women in the industry now. “I’ve seen that change rapidly, on a daily basis.”

The shop will tattoo people as young as 16 years old, but they must have state-issued issued identification and written, notarized consent from a parent or guardian.

“My only thing with tatting 16-year-olds is that it shouldn’t be spur of the moment; I don’t want them to look back years later and regret it.”

As far as how he hopes people remember him as an artist, he says he is definitely known for his color and illustrative style. He exaggerates some characteristics, making his pieces all creatively unique; you won’t see any twice.

“As an artist, you want people to recognize your work and like what you do,” he says. “But me and the guys talk about this, all the time — in this business, when you’re dealing with the public, you want them to feel comfortable.”

He says they hear stories all the time at Studio Ink from people who have been to other shops where they’ve been treated rudely, felt excluded or uncomfortable. Chad says he’s never going to say he doesn’t have a bad day now and then, but he’s never purposely made anyone feel like that.  
“Hopefully, no matter how far I take this, people will always now me as generally a good guy, and a good person that people feel comfortable around. Humble, approachable. That’s important to me.”

Chad says it’s always in the back of his mind that “this could all change next week. But so far, it’s increased, year over year.”

He doesn’t want to start a chain; he tried that, and it spread him too thin, it took away from his artistry.

“The artistry of it is really, really important to me,” he says. “There will come a time when I can’t do it as much as I used to. Until then, I want to do as many as I can. I’m real fortunate to make a decent living at it. But I never let myself get comfortable. In the back of my mind, I keep thinking, ‘It could end any day.’ It’s been an interesting ride, and I want to stay on it.”