The Sage and the Serpent
Tattoo shops are plentiful in Nashville these days. In recent years especially, the city’s tattoo scene, while long beloved by locals, has grown in both size and reputation, with new shops and high-profile artists popping up all over town and wait lists growing ever longer.
Even with the influx of new shops and new artists, there are still plenty of lifers in town — folks who set up shop in Nashville years back, amassing dedicated client followings and helping to provide a sturdy foundation for the growing tattoo community. Shannon Wages is one of those lifers.
Wages currently calls Sage and Serpent Tattoo, a shop on Gallatin Pike in the heart of Inglewood, her artistic home. Over a decade into her career as a tattoo artist, Wages laughs when she recalls that, in some senses, she fell into the career by accident.
“I started working in a tattoo shop in Murfreesboro when I was in school to be an audio engineer,” she says. “I’m like everybody else in Nashville, and I didn’t come here for anything but music.”
While Wages first found herself in a tattoo shop because she needed extra cash, she quickly realized she fit right in. Both the tattoo culture she encountered and the customer service that the job demanded appealed to her in ways she hadn’t anticipated and would end up eventually changing the trajectory of her life.
“I had a lot of brothers and worked at my dad’s salvage store as a kid, so it was a very natural place for me, like nobody thought I was being crass there, or was like, ‘Uh, you’re a little too tomboy to be here,’ ” she explains. “Honest to god, I think the environment is what kept me there. I understood customer service from growing up in a store. I know how to make people happy and I know how to listen and ask them what they want, which is one of the biggest challenges in tattooing. It’s not like any other art form. You have to work with a client. You’re not making clothing and then they can pull it off of a rack. It’s something really personal.”
Wages took a short break from working at the shop so she could run sound at local rock venues like the Muse and Springwater, but soon discovered that making a living as a sound engineer was no easy task. She got her old counter job back, at which point she had something of a come-to-Jesus moment. “There was an apprenticeship there that lasted a year where I’d definitely have a job, or there’s an internship in recording that’ll last who knows how long and I may or may not have a job,” she says.
She took the apprenticeship, and she’s been tattooing ever since. And while it wasn’t the career path she’d originally set out for, it also wasn’t totally out of left field for Wages, who says she’s been passionate about art in all its forms for as long as she can remember.
“I was in theater my whole life,” she says. “I was in music my whole life. I took every kind of art lesson you can imagine. . . . I almost feel like it wasn’t even a question of, ‘Which art are you going to pick?’ It was, ‘Pick an art.’ I’m a pretty passionate person. I can get into just about anything. But I’m a people pleaser more than anything. I really like to see people happy.”
Making people happy as a tattoo artist takes many forms for Wages. Flipping through her portfolio, you’ll see a wide variety of tattoo styles, from intricate, colorful florals to bold, black line work. While with Wages the customer really is always right, she is quick to note she prefers black tattoos to those with color. “Sometimes with my clients I call myself a tattoo advocate,” she explains. “My goal is for them to get what they want, not me to get what I want, which has sometimes caused problems for me in tattooing. I’ve had a few struggles where I’ve fought with it. I just want to make everything black and that’s not really what people want. So, you have to cater.”
Another unexpected outcome of that college counter job is Wages’ close relationship to her client base, one that often takes on the role of therapist. “Some of my clients have become some of my best friends because we’ve had such intimate conversations,” she says. “You have to have exceptional customer-service skills, because you’re a nurse. You have to sit there with someone when they’re going through something painful and convince them to continue. It’s not just, ‘You’re a good artist!’ If you can’t talk to people, you’re screwed.”
Wages notes that these inadvertent therapy sessions sometimes go both ways, with clients often teaching her valuable lessons as they work through their own personal difficulties while under the needle. She says that while “some tattooers won’t do memorial tattoos because it’s so heavy,” she invites her clients to be open with their stories, though she’s also careful not to take on too much at any one time.
“It can wear on you if you do it too much,” she says. “I’ve learned that, too. In the past year I’ve worked crazy hard doing a lot of tattooing and there were some weeks where I was just like, ‘I don’t have anything left.’ I put in too many hours and now this person is coming in, and I need to call them and tell them to come another day. My creativity is tapped. I don’t have anything for them. … Creating is giving of yourself and then letting it go once it’s been created.”
While Wages certainly directs most of her creative and therapeutic energy toward her clients, she also cares deeply about both her community of fellow tattooers and her community in East Nashville. Expressing concern for the city’s rapid growth over the last few years, she cites maintaining strong communal roots as one of her foremost goals for the next phase of her career.
“You know that first year of college, when everybody gets to school and they’re freshmen and they can wear whatever they want and they’re their own person? East Nashville is like that now,” she says with a laugh. “There’s all these people moving here and they’re like, ‘Oh, I get to be a different person now. I’m gonna wear a cowboy hat!’ There’s this danger in that of us losing depth between each other, depth in relationships.
“My goal for the next few years is to help our area — Inglewood is where I am, so that’s what I’m thinking — to have more roots, put down stable roots. This is who’s here. This is who is unchanging. This is who’s foundational. I feel like we’re so in danger of having that shallowness to us, that I’m reaching out to other tattooers and trying to form bonds. Like I’m trying to reach out to Cait, and she’s on the other side of Gallatin. But if we have a bond, then the distance between us does, too.”
“Cait” is Caitlin Bush, an apprenticing artist at Kustom Thrills. She’s one of a handful of local artists Wages mentions in the conversation, saying it’s young artists like her, who Wages considers one of Nashville’s most exciting new talents, to be foundational to what the growing community can become.
While Wages’ talent as an artist is immediately apparent, it’s that sense of community that makes her such an important figure in the local scene. Anyone “can figure out a tattoo machine,” she says, but it’s the artists who are as passionate about people as they are designs who will ultimately determine how the community grows and evolves.
“We invest,” she says, of both herself and of her fellow artists. “That’s something that’s carried me, interestingly enough. I have tons of clients because I’ve been tattooing here for 12 years. My clients have carried me. Those connections I’ve formed, those bonds I’ve made, they’ve carried me through the hard times. And they always will.”