Getting Under Your Skin

Tattoo Artist Matt Terry (@lazers_spikes) has long been a fixture in NoDa’s body art community. Terry considers himself a naturalized Charlottean, having migrated from his native Syracuse, NY, almost twenty years ago. He came for the job opportunities in the Queen City prior to 9/11 and The Recession. “Syracuse’s idea of an economic prosperity was opening a new Applebee’s.… Also, I am too old to have cold wet feet from shoveling snow all the time.”

The young artist landed a job at Fu’s Custom Tattoos back when they were on North Tryon Street. “Fu’s was my family and my home for seventeen years. I love those guys.” He watched the shop and America’s perceptions of inked skin evolve, and he moved with the tattoo parlor to NoDa around 2007. He even made his home in an apartment above one of the bars, right across the street from work.

A couple of years ago, Terry met Jason Baker, owner of the newer upstart Canvas Tattoo & Art Gallery, and found the two had a lot in common besides body art. Baker, who brought the business over from South End, made a few half-joking attempts to lure the talented artist to come work with him. At the time, Terry was unwilling to make a lateral move, but he began to realize he wanted something really new and fresh.

That opportunity eventually presented itself when Canvas decided to add a second NoDa location, which Terry has dubbed “Stretched Canvas.” “It was an emotional move and kind of a risk. But I was like, if I’m going to put all my eggs in that basket, I want to help design the basket. I think my wife and I kind of just created a second home—so even when I’m here ten hours, I’m never cranky. I get to work with a smaller staff, all awesome guys who have been tattooing for a long time.”

All that comfortability—from the décor and art on the walls (for sale), interesting furniture, and music—is central to the client experience at Canvas. It’s akin to what you’d expect from a high-end salon. “You can see people’s tension just relax when they get in here because it’s not what they’re expecting. It doesn’t feel like a tattoo shop. So if you’re here for five hours getting a half-sleeve, you’re like, ‘Cool, I could go again tomorrow.’”

As the neighborhood has changed, so have the expectations of NoDa’s tattooed clientele. “Back when we did the gallery crawls, NoDa was a lot of local artists and a little grimier. The neighborhood has changed to the point now where now you’ve got $500,000 homes and people walking show dogs and dual strollers.”

Apparently, the rough and gruff tattoo setting of the past no longer goes with market expectations. “I feel like this kind of helps people not only be comfortable, but I feel like we’re keeping up with the vibe. I’m wanting to elevate the experience a little bit, and comfortability is key to that.”

These changes have allowed Terry to really focus on providing an original and highly personal fine art product to his patrons. First, he gets into his clients’ heads to really understand their individual visions, makes suggestions, and helps guide them. “I think what I’m impressed with the most is just having that relationship with these people. It’s amazing how close you get with somebody you’ve spent 20 hours with while they’re in pain. Yeah, and you’ve physically altered their life. So, I think that’s what I like most about it—it’s just having that rapport with people.” Terry even says some of his best friends started out as clients.

Terry characterizes his work as “Stylized Realism” and is known for his large pieces and subtle shading. He tends to base his work off of paintings and photographs. The artist combines his own stencils with free-handing markers on the skin, and absolutely will not copy another tattoo or work from flash. If someone walks in with a photo of a lion-head tattoo, he refers them to National Geographic. “I try to go back to the raw version of it.”

Ryan Sumner is the creative director of Fenix Fotography and specializes in artful portraiture of business and cultural leaders, corporate headshots, and other advertising images. He can photograph you and your coworkers at his portrait studio at the Colony in NoDa and is available for location work too. His fine art work is available through his gallery at the Charlotte Art League.