DEEPER THAN SKIN

With Kustom Thrills Tattoo, Chris Saint Clark is making a positive impact on the East Nashville art community

  • Nashville has always drawn the dreamer, from the prehistoric hunters along the Cumberland River to the ravenous heart of Hank Williams to the suited-up snake oil visionaries of today. Out in broad daylight are those who wear their dreams on their sleeves. And their skin.
         Chris Saint Clark, renowned tattoo artist and owner of Kustom Thrills Tattoo, is one dreamer who works in that open light.
         His shop is alive on Main Street in East Nashville, and is one part studio, one part salon, one part garage. The big room pulsates with a vibe that is simultaneously rebellious and warm. A soundtrack of surf rock and rockabilly emanates from speakers throughout and the whole conjures a nod to West Coast Kustom Kulture — tattoos, hotrods, Rat Fink.
         “I was consumed with art all the time as a child,” Saint Clark says, looking the part as he sits quietly behind a beer at Red Door Saloon East. “I was continually drawing monsters — I was known as the ‘Monster Kid’ in school — but then, the first time I got into cars and hotrods, I was borne away by that imagery. I couldn’t get enough of the Ed Roth thing, the Rat Fink thing.
         “The nutty excitement of hotrods and monsters drew me in, the metal flake, guitar-inspired surf stuff — rockabilly. Kustom Thrills is a nod to Kustom Kulture, and a nod to Ed Roth and Von Dutch. Kustom with a ‘K,’ the West Coast nod. Exciting — the word ‘thrill.’ Spills, chills, and Kustom Thrills.”
         There is a strange American cleanliness in recalling the fat days of that culture, the late-1950s and early 1960s, and its Southern California influences. It is a cleanliness mixed with danger, oddly, and familiarity — a movement built on custom cars, motorcycles, hairstyles, fashion, and art. But even its bedrock founder, “Big Daddy” Roth, joined the Church of Latter Day Saints in his later years, revealing the beautifully stunted national fusion of thrill-seeking with a Pilgrim guilt.
          It is the same tension that has driven so much American art — from rock & roll to Jackson Pollock, from Warhol to Merle Haggard. Cormac McCarthy’s work is easily as frightening as anything found in the Old Testament.
         Enter the tattoo. Or, rather, reenter the tattoo. From its beginnings in ancient Polynesian culture to a sidewalk on Fatherland Street, the tattoo has supported the bearer as he or she moves through two worlds.
         The world that leaves a physical mark, and the one that allows you to speak to your dead grandfather, as you walk along arm in arm. The tattoo may be the present-day American manifestation of enchantment, writhing beneath a society that has always struggled in speaking to magic. Culturally, the tattoo has moved into the mainstream consciousness in a way that never previously existed. No one saw this coming. But when you examine the art, you examine the reasons that propel it — and much lies rooted in the real human disconnection created by the digital world of today. Tattooing is a last stronghold of handson work.
         “The way Europeans visualize and approach art is so much different than with Americans,” Saint Clark says. “They are the masters. We just wanted a picture of the girlfriend, and your dog. Maybe your religion on the other arm. I’ve been in the culture a long time, and in it as an artist for 20 years. Tattoos always made you dangerous, you know, a guy with a skull on his arm. But underneath it is a rite of passage, a life-altering event. The sense that you’re never going back.”
         There lies in everyone a heart for this, of course. Secret thought. It is that powerful place where art, music, and literature converge, a place in which anything is possible, where the heart swells and retreats, and spirit holds sway. Some howl and wrestle there, while others turn and walk the straight line. All mix as one out in the workaday street.
         “Tattooing has become so much more accepted culturally just in the past decade,” Saint Clark says. “Tattoos are worn by just about everyone, from police officers to your barber. Tattoos don’t make the person, so why should we be judgmental? It’s an antiquated way of thinking. I think it’s positive for everyone to have tattoos, but there’s a huge difference between the guy with the beautiful, full-color sleeve and the thug with homemade face tattoos.”

    Saint Clark, who arrived here in 2007, has worked to turn his shop into a Nashville flash point. Admittedly, he believes Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, and his native Atlanta are the richest cities when it comes to the scene, but he claims to have found fertile creative ground of a high order in East Nashville. And he believes the community around him has grown stronger, citing safer streets and more business, in the nine years he has been in the neighborhood.
         “It’s a secret paradise here,” Saint Clark says. “It is amazing. When I moved here, I sold everything I had. It was all or nothing. That’s what I did, and I was meant to be here.
         “We have tried to help in growing the neighborhood and being a part of the change. We’re going to bring positive people in here, and help with events, and be a part of everything. The artistic energy here is just emitting always.”
         Saint Clark is no stranger to challenge. He came to Nashville after a bar fight almost landed him in prison, and following a post- 9/11 stint in the military. The son of blue-collar rock & roll Baptists, with four older sisters, Saint Clark had certainly been supported in his home life when it came to art and music, but he floundered for direction out on his own.
         “I started playing music when I was around 13 years old,” Saint Clark says. “I look back on the people in my life. Found a drummer and found a bass player. Started making music. From there it was all downhill. I fell in love with everything music, art, and rock & roll. My dad was a mechanic, and he was molding me into this ‘Kustom Kulture’ kind of guy. He had the slicked-back haircut, a greaser-style pompadour. Rock & roll man. I was immersed in it all, this working class family, and they were very supportive of my art and tendencies — they never said ‘no’ to that direction. I just wasn’t really taking it anywhere.”
         Saint Clark was living a life on the edge, always on a motorcycle or in a fast car, partying and bartending in Atlanta when chance brought him drunkenly to a table at which master tattooist Tony Olivas was sitting. Saint Clark had embraced the tattoo culture, but didn’t understand it from the artist’s perspective, and the invitation to join the table changed his life.
         He had received a bachelor’s degree in arts in 1992 from the Art Instruction Schools of Minnesota, but had found no real-world application. Upon discovering Saint Clark’s background, Olivas asked him to bring some artwork for review at his shop, Sacred Heart Tattoo.
         “It was a natural progression, I guess,” Saint Clark says. “I didn’t know who I was. Just trying to look cool, and be cool. One of the guys I hung out with then had pushed me to become a tattoo artist, and that night I sat across the table from the king — Tony Olivas. World famous. He told me he was looking to hire an apprentice, and to come by the next day.
         “I woke up late, so hungover, started pulling out everything I could think of. I didn’t have a real portfolio, and it was pouring the rain. I didn’t have a car at the time, either, so I literally ran the few blocks down to the tattoo studio and sat there with crumpled up drawings. I had no presentation. I waited for a couple of hours — I think he was surprised to see me, but he could see the gleam in my eyes.
         “He took a real chance on me,” he continues. “History was made, and I’ve built a life around it now. I’ve been all over the world with it, and won awards working alongside him.”
         However, despite his good fortune, Saint Clark’s life did not change overnight. As he apprenticed at Sacred Heart, he also pushed the nightlife to the edge, winding up in a bar fight that nearly derailed him. Despite having his hand on a real lifeline, he seemed intent on destruction.
         “During those years of my apprenticeship, I was running around with some tough guys,” Saint Clark says. “I went deep into it. I was more of an asshole. I wanted to show out, and I got into a lot of trouble one night — got in a bar fight and almost went to prison for two years. Thank God the judge listened to my plea. I did probation and all I had to do to stay out. It was a bar fight like hundreds before, but I got caught. … If you’re a tough guy you’re going to wind up in the prison yard, or the graveyard.
         “I hung out with guys that went to one of those two places. What kept me out was that Sacred Heart was a thoughtful shop, and Tony Olivas was a thoughtful guy. It rattled my cage and woke me up — almost like it happened for a reason. Someone came in and switched the light on.”
         Saint Clark joined the state guard after 9/11, and turned his eye to a newly imposed discipline. He wound up in Savannah as a second lieutenant in the military police, but kept his hand in tattooing while there, working in street shops. He ultimately took the gamble on Nashville to be closer to his young daughter.
         “During that time, I think I went from being a boy to being a man,” Saint Clark says. “I started seeing positive effects from being positive in my outlook, and moving away from the negative.
         “I was still honing my skills, and I became a Freemason. It made me a better man. That’s when I learned about really giving out to the community, and receiving in return. Negative people disappeared — gone from my life. I learned about being happy and keeping a smile on my face.”

    The time that had passed since his chance meeting with Tony Olivas had provided fuel for his art, a tougher life that built his ultimate inspiration. And all made him a better artist, one that has no trouble walking in two worlds. When a person places his or her hands on another, they are making a commitment. They are making a commitment to the physical world of flesh and blood, and most certainly to the one unseen. Saint Clark recalls a childhood experience that originally broke down that barrier.
         “I definitely grew up in a religious household,” he says. “Southern Baptist. They were into healing. My grandmother was a spiritualist, and I saw things in my childhood I can’t explain. I can only attribute them to a divine presence.
         “I once received a black onyx bear with a lightning bolt carved in its side. It landed in my hand out of a bright flash of light in the middle of a room when I was a child. My grandparents believed in these Indian spirits that protected our family. I don’t think it was trickery by my grandmother, but I can’t explain it. I would never believe it of her. It would blow my mind, but at the same time, there was this weird thing that came out of thin air.”
         His tattooing is the gateway to that other side, the personal portal. “I believe in a divine being that’s bigger than us,” Saint Clark says. “There’s energy and spirituality out there. We’re energy and our bodies are vehicles. “The work is deeper than skin,” he continues. “Tattoos are very healing. They represent something to the bearer that words can’t express. They tell a story only that person knows. It can help someone move on. When a client comes in for a memorial piece, they are resonating that energy.
         “So, when I am in contact with that person for hours on end, you get this kinetic type of energy that flows through you. It can be exhausting both physically and mentally. It’s amazing to experience someone when they get to see the finished tattoo. Sometimes they hug you, sometimes they cry joyfully. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I pick up on these type of things. That’s why we care so much about what we do. Art connects people.”
         Saint Clark’s work is recognized around the world. He is an award-winning black-andgray realist, seemingly at odds with his personal Technicolor show inside. But that recognition is a secondary benefit, and he enjoys the strong connection to the creative community.
         “Our art definitely resonates with the community and the idea of rebuilding,” he says. “Just as I have come from the ashes, so to speak, so has Nashville. My goal was to start something fresh and new and apply myself every day to make a positive impact on the art community. I think we’ve done that. I feel very embraced by Nashville as a whole, but East Nashville is where our heart is.
         “This community has pushed not only me, but my staff to be better. Nashville has a creative vibe, anyway. Everyone around us is creating music and art, so naturally it’s going to rub off on us. I always say, ‘Like attracts like.’ ”