Business Reviews

Purgatory Tattoos – For One Hell of a Great Tattoo!

Written by  November 30, 2003

The beauty of tattoos is upon you as you enter the gates of Purgatory. An enthusiastic, cheerful, long blond haired beauty behind the counter, who just happens to be owner, Elizabeth Hilden, greeted me. Elizabeth was Pet of the Year for Penthouse Magazine in 1997. She rides her own bike, a Big Dog Chopper that happened to be in for a paint job at the time of this interview.

She guided me to a room and introduced me to Chris Melchert. He was working on customer, George Ketner, who was reclined in a chair. The ease that Chris displayed while performing his artistic work and talking with me at the same time is amazing. His enthusiasm and eye contact was contagious during the entire interview.

Elizabeth and Chris knew each other back when they were nine years old, when Chris was her boyfriend at the skating rink! Elizabeth started her business four years ago in Independence, Missouri after finishing her responsibilities with Penthouse Magazine. She called Chris to see if he would come to work for her and told him he wouldn’t have a boss standing around all day looking over his shoulder and he could do 'his own thing.’ Well the rest is history, although Chris said, “I still have a boss!” while looking at Elizabeth with a grin.

From the time Chris got his first tattoo, he knew he could do this himself. He has worked at three other tattoo shops over the years and occasionally helps his brother who owns a shop. Chris specializes in cover-ups, no matter how bad it is, he can fix an existing tattoo to make it look better. He has received numerous awards for his work, most recently, Best Black/Gray at the Shane Hart Tattoo Convention. At an Easy Rider Bike Show, Chris’ tattoo on customer, George Ketner, won second place. Chris has 60-70% of his body tattooed and even has one on the inside of his lip. Ouch! On the other hand, Elizabeth doesn’t have any tattoos. When I asked her why, she said, “I really haven’t found anything I want to wear for life.”

Purgatory employs a crew of six artists, three are piercing specialists. Elizabeth boasts highly about her team, “It’s the best crew we have ever had. Everyone gets along, we invite them to our home, we enjoy being with them and they like coming to work.” I bet the guys love having a gorgeous boss too, especially with the care and concern she shows toward them.

CC: How do you price your tattoos?

Chris: Each artist sets their own price, but we have the best prices in town. There is a minimum of $30.00. We also give great deals to repeat customers and friends.

CC: Where do your clients come from?

Chris: Mostly referrals and from others who see our work. We work on all types; upper class, professionals, preachers, college students, you name it. Just today we had a repeat customer who is a preacher come in with his wife and son. They had been thinking about having a tattoo for a long time and just decided to do it. It just seems a little ironic that a preacher gets a tattoo at Purgatory. (everyone laughs)

CC: Are you seeing more women getting tattoos?

Elizabeth: Oh yeah. When they turn 18 they think they need to rush out and get one. I have tried to talk girls out of getting one, I tell them to go home and think about it for 4-5 months and then if they decide they still want one, come back in and we will do it for free!

CC: That’s generous, how many return?

Elizabeth: There have been a few over the years. It’s just when they get one, it becomes addictive and they keep getting more.

George (the customer in the chair) had his own theory, “I think the manufacturer puts something in the ink to make you crave more tattoos!” He is speaking from experience!

Chris: Oh man, women are a lot easier to work on, they can sit still for hours, while a biker comes in, gets a few dots and starts getting antsy to get done and out.

Elizabeth: Yeah, and the guys are always the first to pass out!

CC: Have you ever put on a tattoo you didn’t want to?

Chris: Yes, today someone came in and we didn’t like what they wanted to do so we gave them our input and advice. Sometimes the customers don’t always know how it’s going to look and we want to try and explain so they understand. If the request is too outrageous, we will refer them to someone else.

CC: What do you feel has been the biggest impact in the industry?

Chris: The greatest thing that has happened, and your going to laugh at this, but
Dennis Rodman! When he steps into his hi-tops and hits the court with all his tattoos, it’s just awesome. In addition, there are extremely talented new kids who are kickin’ butt. They are doing great things in tattooing that guys who have been in the business for 20 years still can’t do. There are a lot of great artists in Kansas City, it’s really great to see so many.

CC: Are there any rules you enforce?

Elizabeth: No food, no drinks, no smoking, no pets, no kids, no loitering.

Chris: We won’t tolerate any of those. I was in a shop in Florida and the guy tattooing was eating a Twinkie, barefoot and smoking!

CC: What do you do for cleanliness and to keep the equipment sterile?

Chris: All of our equipment is disposable, we wear gloves, the City of Independence requires an annual blood test, and you can’t work until the results come back. We do use an autoclave and with the new needles, we solder them down to a flat, round or pointed shape then put them in the autoclave to sterilize again as extra protection. We also lay all the new sealed packages of equipment we are using on a piece of plastic. When the job is done, we roll everything up in the plastic and place it in a biohazard container.

CC: Why not use standard needles?

Chris: Because each artist has a different style and being able to use various shapes of needles allows them to be more creative.

CC: Do you do tattoo removals?

Chris: It depends on the tattoo, you can laser them off, but it's expensive, I use a white ink procedure that takes several applications over a period of several months. I then use a flesh tone ink to fill in. It doesn’t make it go away, but it makes way for a new tattoo to be put on.

CC: What should a person look for in a tattoo artist?

Chris: Look for smooth flowing line work, bold colors. We ask customers to look through all the artists’ portfolio books and see what they like best. We have a portrait artist and you just bring in the picture you want done and he can duplicate it to a tee. I would also suggest they get on the Internet and do some research on what they are about to do to their body so the have a better understanding.

CC: Do you have any license requirements besides the state?

Chris: Yes, the city of Independence requires an annual license by each artist, plus the shop maintains his or her own city and state annual license.

I was also informed by Seth Owens, an employee, that the business has liability insurance, but that the artists are independent contractors and they each have customers sign a consent and waiver form.

CC: Do you do body piercing?

Elizabeth: Yes, we have three guys, but we don’t do any piercing below the waist, and no minors.

CC: Why not below the waist?

Elizabeth: The liability and women are more prone to infections so we try to do a minimum of piercing. Ears, navel, tongue, nose and eyebrows.

Chris: The tongue is the fastest healing too.

CC: Do you do facial cosmetic tattooing?

Elizabeth: As soon as we have time we want to. We have a friend who owns a salon in Mission who wants to book Chris a couple times a week to do eyebrows, eyeliner and lip color.

CC: Does skin tone make a difference when getting a tattoo?

Chris: It depends on a person’s skin on how fast they heal, how much it scabs over and some people are allergic to certain inks.

Becky Ketner, George’s wife, mentioned that she was allergic to red inks and it caused her to break out. Elizabeth said Becky has five tattoos and has to be careful in her ink selections. Becky also has a 'bad ass’ bike.

CC: What advice would you give people doing it for the first time?

Elizabeth: Take your time, don’t rush into it. Tattoos are forever, think about it.

Chris: Take vitamins, don’t drink, and maintain good hygiene.

CC: What designs seem to be the most popular?

Chris: Guys are still getting tribal (solid black), but I’m seeing more coming in for Black and Gray, no color tattoos.

CC: Do most of your customers know what they want?

Chris: Customers who want custom work usually do. We are doing more free-hand work also.

Elizabeth: Some come in and say they have this much money, so free hand whatever you want.

CC: After four years, are you facing any business obstacles?

Elizabeth: I don’t think there are any. As long as we are good we will have customers and a following. Finding the right crew is important in any business, I would rather have one guy (looking and speaking to Chris) who is phenomenal versus ten guys who do half-ass work.

CC: What is the age of the oldest customer you have tattooed?

Chris: The lady who came in from the Lake of the Ozarks, she was in her mid 70’s. She had gone to another shop and they told her she was too old. She came in here and all she wanted was a little rose. We did it and she left happy!

CC: What are the most tattoos you have put on one person?

Chris: That’s hard to say because I spent over 100 hours on one customer over a period of years. I mostly do large tattoos that are pieces of work that all come together in a sleeve (completely covered areas). You just keep adding to whatever is already there and it all flows together.

CC: What body part do you think is the most sensitive to tattoo?

Everyone has an opinion on this one; I’m hearing voices all around me, abs, ribs, lower back, neck, penis!

Chris: There are 80-pound girls coming in for a 3-hour tattoo on their lower back.

Elizabeth: One client had two rows of flames tattooed on his penis.

Chris: For the record, I did not do that work.

Ouch! I bet any guys reading this are grimacing. I thought of several questions to ask about that type of procedure, but I think I will let a reader who wants to share his story inform us on the details. Any takers?

CC: What follow-up advice do you give after receiving a tattoo?

Chris: The sun is not your friend, sunscreen lotion and follow the after care instructions we give you.

Elizabeth: Any touch-ups after the initial tattoo are free.

CC: Do you sponsor any charity events?

Elizabeth: Yes, we do an annual Customer Appreciation Day in June and the proceeds benefit the Dream Factory. We provide free food, free drinks, a bike show, bikini contest and I fly the Penthouse girls in to sign autographs. Our parking lot is packed with motorcycles and it’s a really fun day.

Chris: Area businesses made donations of about $5,000 in merchandise and we had a raffle. The Dream Factory little boy stayed in a hotel for the night with his family and then was picked up in a limousine the next day and chauffeured to the Chiefs game. It was really exciting to be a part of it.

Elizabeth: We also participate in Bikers for Babies, Run what you Brung, and Special Olympics.

It was quite obvious that Chris and all his talents could not do a tattoo as big as their heart is when it comes to children. I could hear it in their voices, I could see it in their eyes how touching it is to help others, especially kids. Sharing and giving back to their community is definitely part of their business.

They love to ride, they love tattooing, and they have even converted a 35’ school bus into a mobile tattoo shop. They take it to Sturgis, South Dakota every year for the bike rally and have met so many people from all over the United States. Now those customers are coming to Kansas City for Chris to do their work. You can’t ask for a bigger compliment than that folks!

The excitement, friendliness, upbeat attitudes and laid-back atmosphere are why this business is such a success. Stop by, introduce yourself, meet the staff, and get inked! Be sure to tell the crew you read their review in Cycle Connections Online Motorcycle Magazine!

I had so much fun with this interview; the questions and answers were flying right and left. I almost wanted to jump into the chair and have Chris ink me, but once again, duty calls me on to the next interview.

Story & Photos by Goldie Arnold