Tattoo artist James Roberts is many things. He’s a passionate dog lover, established in the Google v. Alexa argument (Team Alexa!) and a bit of a perfectionist (you should see the files on his iPad).
He’s also a passionate artist, a lover of beauty and the proprietor of 1867 Tattoo Company, a new storefront opening in the former Happy Baby location on Lincoln Avenue.
When asked why he chose to leave his current digs on the other side of town for our corner of the Burgh, he had a list of reasons but they all could be categorized as “it’s home”. Roberts and his fiancee, Casie Shepard, who co-owns the business, live within walking distance of the shop and frequent the restaurants and stores in the area. He wanted to support his own community, but also to bring his dog to sit in the display window to greet every passerby.
“(Bellevue) is just the perfect little cozy mix of people and I just want to fit in,” he said, as he puttered around the almost-open shop, trying to finalize artwork on the walls and where the printer would sit.
The general vibe inside is filled with neutral shades and raw metallics, vintage Bellevue ephemera and plants, interspersed with prints of nature and artwork by the staff. Most of the tone was from the ceiling down, explains Roberts, who said the previous tenant mentioned a tin ceiling and then it became a mission to uncover and save it.
That required the removal of several “ceilings”, significant repair work and then five coats of paint to minimize the flaws that weren’t repairable. The result? A calming space filled with the strains of Annie Lennox and the occasional clatter of puppy paws as Roberts’ dog, Rory, wander by for snuggles.
One of his fellow artists, Kaitlyn Teressa, is already seeing her clientele at the shop. She gained regional notoriety recently for her “sinkhole bus” tattoo that went viral online. Her client entered the shop, commented on how beautiful everything looked and hugged Teressa and Roberts, before settling into Teressa’s chair.
The client, Cody McConnell, of Squirrel Hill, has been working with Teressa for years. In fact, his body is a veritable art gallery of her work, from language straight from Tolkien lexicon to a herd of dragons of every variety. He also has 32 sharks’ teeth of 28 different species interspersed with everything else. He tells Teressa what he envisions, and she researches to design it.
Today, he’s getting glowing Naruto eyes on his wrists.
His mix of fandoms and mythologies might theoretically be at odds visually, but part of what he loves about Teressa is her ability to meld his ideas into a seamless tapestry on his skin.”I come in and say what I want and then we sit together and make it.”
Teressa uses her skills as a graphic designer to take general ideas and create custom pieces with her clients, assuring that what they get is more than they might have even imagined. “We’re a team on this,” she says, as she gives McConnell an iPad full of eyes to scroll. “We’ve been piecing together as we go. It’s my job to glue (his designs) together so that they make sense.”
In asking McConnell, he has no qualms with driving from Squirrel Hill to work with the 1867 artists. “I have a piece by each of (the artists who work here), but mostly Kaitlyn. I would recommend any of them, though.”
The team assembling each have their own established clientele, including those who travel great distances. “Thanks to the internet, they find us from everywhere. Instagram helps people find the artist they want,” Roberts said. Whether someone from Maryland or Maine, Roberts and his fellow artists cater to people from all walks of life as tattoo art collection is on the rise.
According to IBISWorld, “About three in 10 Americans have a tattoo and that proportion climbs to nearly five out of 10 among millennials.” At over $2B, the industry has grown by over six percent since 2014. Today’s client is discerning. “They will have an artist in Finland design it, and then bring it to me,” Roberts said.
They also often buy custom designs from the artist, either designed as Teressa does, or pieces that they offer on a board or on their social media. “You definitely have collectors.”
Tattoo shop clientele evolved in recent decades, and shops like 1867 aren’t targeting spur-of-the-moment decisionmakers. Teressa, who also lives nearby, isn’t looking for walk-in traffic. “We have appointments lined up months in advance. They’re traveling in from all over, so when they sit down we’re getting to work,” she said.
They also come with a host of medical concerns including epilepsy, hemophilia, and cancer. In McConnell’s case, it’s Tourette’s. He began looking for someone for his first tattoo “who would be patient with him, and quiet,” because he was very shy. “I’m not shy anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Years later, McConnell considers himself an 1867 collector. Why does he keep returning to Teressa? “She is soft. She understands how to deal with me and her friends know how to deal with me. I’m not saying other artists don’t. I’m just saying I haven’t been somewhere else and I don’t want to find out.”
1867 Tattoo Company can be found on their website and Instagram. Sessions are by appointment only (booked well in advance) through each artist directly (see article for links), but walk-ins are welcome to come in and visit during normal business hours, Tuesday through Saturday. Shannon Kelly will also be joining the team but was unavailable at the time of the interview.