Shortly after Angela Russell opened Underground Art in 1993, employees at a competing tattoo shop tossed a Molotov cocktail on the porch after business hours.
"It was more of a biker-run, male-run industry, so a woman coming in and doing something totally different was not cool," Russell said.
Fortunately, a neighbor saw the fire and called for help in time to save the shop, which is located in a converted historic home at 2287 Young. The building wasn't damaged heavily, but it did need a fresh coat of bright red paint.
Russell's competitors never managed to take her shop down, and the boutique-style studio is celebrating its 20th year of business in February.
"At the time we opened, Memphis only had street shops. We wanted to do something different with no flash on the walls and really great artists," Russell said.
"Flash" is tattoo slang for those pre-drawn tattoos often displayed on the walls or in large display books at tattoo shops. But Russell wanted her shop to have more of an emphasis on artists creating original designs. Most customers today walk in with an idea or original drawing, but Russell said the shop does have a book of flash in case someone needs inspiration. It's just not displayed prominently in the shop.
"We're not above flash, but we try to persuade people to get more original work," Russell said.
At the time it opened, Underground Art was the first Memphis shop with a more artistic slant, and there were only three to five shops across the city. Today, there are more than 20 shops, many of which have that same emphasis on artsy, original tattoos. A few of the artists working at other studios got their start at Underground Art.
Unlike some shops, where customers can walk in off the street and get a tattoo on the same day, Underground Art requires a consultation before the customer can make an appointment.
"We want the customer to sit down and talk to the artist first. A lot of people have that fast food mentality, and they want a tattoo right now. But that doesn't work in tattooing," Russell said. "Usually, 95 percent of our customers get it, but 5 percent walk out pissed off."
Russell doesn't want to piss anyone off. In fact, her mission is to make everyone who walks through the doors feel comfortable. She advertises the shop as vegan-friendly (they use inks free of animal products) and, from the beginning, has shunned the tough reputation that used to haunt tattoo shops.
"We've tattooed stars and basketball players. Because we are more accessible than what people are used to makes a big difference," Russell said. "People walk in and expect tattoo shops to be either rough and tumble or extra hip, but we really try to make people feel comfortable. We just kill them with kindness."
Underground Art will celebrate its 20th year with an all-day benefit for Literacy Mid-South at the Hi-Tone Café on Saturday, February 2nd. The party will feature live music by the Gloryholes, Capgun, SnagglePus, and more. Plus, there will be a burlesque performance, a comedy act, a silent auction, a literary costume contest, and a book swap table.