Think Ink

Northern Virginia’s oldest tattoo parlor and its owner, Rick Cherry, are still going strong.

Some artists work on canvas, paper and wood, but Rick Cherry’s preferred medium has always been skin. The owner and operator of Rick’s Tattoos has inked tens of thousands of customers over the decades, adorning their various body parts with hearts, skulls, dragons—you name it. Though his clientele has evolved from outlaws to soccer moms in recent years, Cherry’s traditional style hasn’t changed. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the National Tattoo Association in Reno, Nev., in 2011, but he’s not taking the honor as a cue to retire after 42 years in the business. These days he’s designing his own tattoo machines, training young apprentices and continuing to practice his art at his studio on Lee Highway in Arlington—a cash-only otherworld catering to clients who don’t mind the pain.

Where did you get your first tattoo?

At a studio in Washington, D.C., when I was 14 years old. The little red devil on my left arm. Cost $5 back then.

How did you get into the tattoo business?

I was 18 when I actually got my foot in the door. A guy named Johnny Walker first hired me to be a bouncer for his tattoo shop in D.C. He had just left working with Sailor Jerry [the father of old-school traditional tattooing] in Honolulu.

Was it typical to have bouncers working in tattoo shops back then?

In the ’60s and ’70s, tattoo shops could get a little uncomfortable. Most studios didn’t even open until 5 or 6 in the evening and closed around midnight or 1 a.m. The biggest part of the business at the time was drunk and rowdy people.

Has that changed?

Now it’s a parking lot full of minivans and a lobby full of soccer moms.

Where are you from originally?

Born in D.C. My family moved to Arlington in 1952.

Why have you stayed in Arlington?

I established myself here in 1980, which was a bit of a battle with Arlington County at the time. I don’t think they really wanted a tattoo shop here, but you know, it’s a legal business in the state of Virginia, so we went through the process and got everything taken care of.

How would you characterize your style?

Old-school traditional, that’s what I like to do. To me it’s the best you can get. Bold lines, solid color. It’s in-your-face tattooing. You can see it 20 feet away. Now there’s ultra-fine line work, and some tattoos without outlines. I don’t like it. It’s not a lifetime tattoo. It starts to blur out; there’s no clarity to it.

You also design tattoo machines. Is that the apparatus that injects the ink?

Yes. It’s the machine that works the needle into the skin, real fast up and down. It’s like a handheld sewing machine. I went through a series of surgeries so I couldn’t do a lot of tattooing for a couple of years. That gave me time to get out in the garage and start making pieces [of equipment].

What are some of the hot tattoo trends now?

The big thing now everyone wants is writing, which to me is not even a tattoo. It’s writing. They want it on their ribs, which is one of the most painful places you will ever get a tattoo.

Have you had any noteworthy clients come into the shop?

Not really. I mean Brad Pitt hasn’t been here or Jennifer Aniston or anybody like that. We’ve had the local sports figures. We used to have a real market on a lot of the older Redskins guys. A few rock ’n’ roll people have come through.

What are your favorite tattoos on yourself?

I am a big fan of the women. I like my Indian princess, my mermaids—old-school pinup tattoos. I love that stuff.

What do you think is the most timeless tattoo you could get?

A tattoo you would never regret would be about your mother, father, brother, sister. Even if you don’t talk to them, they are your family for life.

Do you ever counsel people before they get a tattoo?

I do, especially the young kids. I do my best to tell them [what they’re getting into]. But I’m not here not to tattoo. If that’s what they really want, you know, I’ve warned you. Now I’ll take your money.

Do people come back again and want them removed?

Absolutely. I’ve had them come back as quick as the next day to tell me to cover them up.

How important do you think it is for a tattoo artist to have a good bedside manner?

I used to be the meanest guy in the world. That was the nature of the beast back in the day when you were dealing with drunk people in the lobby. But over the years I have mellowed. It would have to be after my granddaughter was born. She just softened me up. Tattoo shops have bad reputations…and it shouldn’t be like that. Tattooing should be a fun experience with pleasant people.

Are most people ready for the pain?

Once you’ve made up your mind to do it, you’re pretty much convinced. But I will tattoo a woman over a guy any day of the week. They are tougher 10-to-1.

Christy Ullrich is a writer and editor who lives in Reston. This was her first time inside a tattoo studio. She remains ink-free.

Categories: People