Business Reviews

The Illustrated Man - So Many Tattoos, So Little Space

Written by  January 31, 2004

The synopsis for The Illustrated Man with Rod Steiger in a 1969 movie by Rotten Tomatoes says: “In 1933, a man whose body is covered with tattoos searches for the woman who painted him. During his trek, the drifter meets a young man, who envisions three futuristic sci-fi tales, each based on a different tattoo; “The Long Rain,” “The Veldt” and “The Last Night of the World.” Now flash forward 39 years to 1972 at Independence Avenue and Prospect in Kansas City, Missouri. There you will meet Jack Cox, self-taught from the old school, and owner operator of The Illustrated Man Tattoo Studio. Unlike the drifter in the movie, Jack is covered from head to toe in tattoos.

So what’s in a name you ask? How about over thirty years in the business. That in itself is a compliment, but to get a closer insight on how it all started, I talked with Shar Cox, Jack’s wife and Office Administrator. Jack is a little shy when it comes to interviews and photos, but you would never know it after seeing his artistic ability and completed pieces.

Jack got a tattoo first, lost his job second, and then started hanging out at a tattoo shop. Back then, it was something of a secret society to get into the business. He mentored with Art Balch and the rest is history. After 12 years at Independence Avenue and Prospect, he moved to 17th and Main where he remained for five years then on to 31st and Main. At the end of his five year lease there, he began looking for a new studio location.

Shar: We found an old radio station building downtown that was so perfect and with the Power and Light District Redevelopment plans, we almost committed to it. But when the redevelopment plans fell through, we were back to square one looking for a new location. We felt the Lord was leading us to look north of the river so we started checking out places. We were also tired of dealing with the City of Kansas City, Missouri, who was trying to regulate our business and tried to shut us down for nude body painting, which we were not doing. After two lawsuits against the City, ending in our favor, we fought for our rights and the rights of all other tattoo businesses in Kansas City to not be regulated. We had a regular business license, but currently Kansas City is issuing licenses that are regulated and the business owners are not even aware of it. That means the City can come into your business at any time to inspect, look at your accounting records, or whatever they want.

CC: So after the obstacles with the City of Kansas City, Missouri, what challenges did you face in moving to a new location?

Shar: Plenty! Other businesses did not want us in the same shopping center or next door to them. One lady told the landlord that she was concerned that one of our clients might murder her some night! (Shar rolled her eyes to that). We have an excellent business resume, family members in law enforcement and we still had problems.

CC: How long did it take to find a place?

Shar: We kept looking and looking, seven months altogether. Our insurance man told us about a doctor’s office that was available. We met with the owner, Dr. Sportsman, gave him our resume and after calling our pastor and another reference it was a done deal. The building was a perfect set-up because the rooms were already divided. It gave us five tattoo rooms, a kitchen, large lab room and reception area.

CC: Did you buy the building?

Shar: No, we are currently renting, but would like to purchase it when the time is right.

CC: How many artists do you have, and are you one also?

Shar: We have 5 artists: Jack, Ben Alvarez, Spike Palmer, Chris Orr and Creepy Gary. They are all independent contractors with us. I apprenticed about ten years ago and I just don’t have the talent. I am more skilled in the administrative and management areas of the business.
CC: How many tattoos does Jack have?

Shar: He is covered from head to toe and is running out of space.

CC: And you?

Shar: I have one big one, working on a partial body suit.

CC: How did you get started getting tattoos?

Shar: I was working at a doctor’s office on the Plaza back in the eighties and tattoos weren’t exactly the proper thing to do. I was going through a major change in my life and decided to get one on my hip. The second one, I was taking a friend to get one and never dreamed I would get two. I saw a design I loved and started looking at tattooing as an expression of myself.

CC: And is that when you and Jack met?

Shar: Yes, we formed a friendship and he encouraged me to continue so I have been adding to them since 1987 to present.

CC: How long have you been married?

Shar: Sixteen years.

CC: What has been Jack’s most artistic endeavor?

Shar: We had a client that had a mastectomy and Jack tattooed a beautiful angel over the scar. Another one had a breast recreated and Jack added texture to make it more natural looking.

CC: What awards has Jack received?

Shar: He won 2nd place in Black & White at the National Competition in 1986, held in Texas. He also received excellent test results in the Compliance Alliance of Professional Tattooing Course.

CC: Do your artists have art backgrounds or degrees in art?

Shar: Some do. Ben is linear thinking, sees it more mathematically, spatially. Chris has a Geology and English degree and can do anything in design, very creative.

CC: What makes a good tattoo artist?

Shar: It’s not always about art; someone artistic may not make a good tattoo. If you really want to learn, are disciplined enough, are good with people, responsible and apply yourself, you will gain from this business. When Jack started, he would go to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. military base twice a month on paydays. All of the time slots for Friday, Saturday and Sunday would be sold out for the entire weekend and he had four others helping him. They would work until 2 a.m. every night, so you must be very dedicated and disciplined.

CC: What do artists do when they get burned out?

Shar: Good question. It happened with Jack when he moved to Kansas City after tattooing with the same guy for 20 years. He surrounded himself with young artists. His quality of work has improved so much in the past five years because of his renewed enthusiasm and he really loves what he does.

CC: What is your advice to first time customers?

Shar: Decide where you are going to put it. Placement, in the sense a young girl wants one on her forearm that says 'Bitch.’ I try to talk her out of it. We had a guy who wanted 'Armed & Dangerous’ on his arms, so we gave him a scenario of being pulled over by a cop and how that might be perceived.

CC: Do you have a booth at the bike shows?

Shar: Not anymore. The people putting them on don’t require other tattoo vendors to be licensed and we don’t want to be associated with people who tattoo out of their basement. Not only are we licensed with the City of Gladstone, Missouri, but also the State of Missouri, the UMKC School of Dentistry tests our autoclave machines and keeps them up to par, and we have a bio-hazard waste container picked up on a routine basis. Hygiene is very important.

CC: What is the risk of infection?

Shar: After the customer leaves our door, the skin breaths. It’s like an open screen door, it lets stuff on the outside come in for a warm spot which is the open wound, and dirt gets in the area. We give verbal and written after care instructions. Usually during and after getting a tattoo their adrenalin is so high they don’t always hear what you are telling them. But we always tell them to call with any dumb questions!

CC: What is the average healing time?

Shar: Two weeks on the surface and four to six weeks internally.

CC: Is the customer always right when there is a complaint?

Shar: Sometimes they are right, but if they don’t follow our after care instructions, like staying out of the sun or water, the color comes out. Education is very important and we try to inform all our customers on proper care. We don’t care whose fault it is, if the customer don’t look good, we don’t look good.

CC: At what price do your tattoos start?

Shar: Thirty dollars and up. We are different from other studios, all of our tattoo samples have the price displayed next to them. Our most expensive is between $200 and $300. Cost is determined by size, design, detail and time.

CC: Do you do facial or permanent cosmetics?

Shar: No, the ink is totally different and so is working with the facial skin. We have a lady in Ohio who comes to Kansas City a couple times a year. We keep a list of customers who are interested or we give her number directly to them. You must understand on a nurse’s level about the body and the skin to be successful in this business.

CC: What changes have you seen over the years?

Shar: In the 70’s, we saw bikers and girls getting tattooed on their private parts. In the 80’s, we had a big boom tattooing African Americans. In the 90’s, there were more professionals, women over 40, and men getting hunting and Harley-Davidson tattoos. In 2000, everybody is getting a tattoo! Corrective tattooing has increased 50 percent in the past seven years.

CC: Are there any new procedures for tattoo removal?

Shar: Yes, it’s called Palomar Oyag5 Laser. It is the most advanced laser with no bleeding or damage. It takes approximately three to eight treatments and they can usually achieve 90 to 100 percent removal of a tattoo.

CC: What are the most popular designs?

Shar: Women started out with small roses and butterflies, but not anymore. They are getting tribal designs on their lower back, then the whole back and then sleeved out! These are girls in their 20’s & 30’s. Men are getting more testosterone pieces; bear claws, lions, wolves and rottweilers; not evil just aggressive designs. Religious designs are also getting very popular. We go to conventions all over the U.S. and design sells. Hair, clothing and tattoos all come from the West Coast and migrate to the Midwest. Tribal is still the most requested.

CC: Why the sudden popularity in religious pieces?

Shar: I think people are choosing them to celebrate spiritually. One client had his family crest put on his back. Another client had stars and banners on his chest with the wording, 'suffer not the little children who come unto me.’

CC: Wow! He must have been a big man!

Shar: Yes, 400 pounds! He and his wife had twin babies and one did not survive so he also had both names tattooed on, celebrating the blessing of life.

CC: You seem to project a strong religious philosophy in your business. Can you share how that came about?

Shar: We don’t see it as religious; it’s more of a living relationship with Jesus. It’s the ability, wisdom and energy to reach out to others. When Jack and I got married we were highly involved in chemicals, topless bars and porno and it got to the point where I just couldn’t hang anymore with that lifestyle. I needed to get straight. We faced some difficult times. We had a baby and I was alone a lot so I went to a small church where I attended Sunday school classes for a year and a half. Jack finally got straight and since it was the fourth marriage for both of us, we knew we could make it this time.

CC: What is the most satisfying aspect of this business?

Shar: Our biggest compliment is getting referrals from our customers, helping clients change their lives and the ability to share our life to help them.

CC: Why is your studio special?

Shar: The level of help, education and professionalism of our entire staff, our continued education in tattooing, our bio-hazard use and our resources for designs. There is a peace in our shop, people feel comfortable. Because we spend so much time here, cleanliness is imminent throughout. We also involve ourselves in every person who walks in our door.

CC: What forms of advertising do you do?

Shar: Word of mouth, satisfied customers and we advertise in the yellow pages. Rates have sky-rocketed over the years. Our first ads were $40, now they are $170.

I had the opportunity to meet and photograph Jennifer Angelo who is 28 years old and came to the Illustrated Man a year and a half ago. She went through the flash designs, selected one and for the next two and a half months had her entire back tattooed in all color (see photo below). At times she could sit for three hours, other times only thirty minutes. Ben Alvarez was her artist and the use of color, shading and technique are very impressive in her pixie/fair princess design. I asked Jennifer what’s next and she replied, “I will probably fill in around my shoulders, haven’t really decided yet.” When I asked her if she would come back to The Illustrated Man, she said, “Most definitely.”

Tony Myers had his first tattoo in 1986. I asked him why he chose The Illustrated Man. “I heard about them from someone else.” And what design did he choose? “Since I’m a Taurus, I chose a bull.” Since it has been so long, Tony could not remember the name of the artist, but he was happy with the outcome.

Not all tattoo artists are created equal. Tattooing is not about tracing stencils anymore, it’s about creative art and passion. There’s a lot of money that has to be invested in running a successful, safe, clean, sterile and professional tattoo business. The Illustrated Man seems to be the king of the hill. Folks, you can’t beat word of mouth and satisfied customers when choosing a place. Stop by and meet Shar, Jack and their team of artists. Their reputation stands alone and is second to none with the tattoo artists that are here today. Be sure and tell them you read their review in Cycle Connections On-Line Motorcycle Magazine!

Story and photos by Goldie Arnold
Photo of Jennifer Angelo provided by Jennifer