Inked: Local tattoo artists keep it real in the age of reality TV and commercial counterculture

The Painter
“I’ll do realism. I’ll do Japanese. Whatever. But if I have a choice, I’ll push the customer toward something that’s going to look good in 20 years,” said Tim Forbus, gazing out the storefront window of his studio at Acme Tattoo on the edge of downtown Staunton.

Forbus grew up in Talladega, Alabama, and then Lynchburg. He aspired to be a painter, a serious fine artist, and followed a group of art instructors when they moved from an art school in Lynchburg to one in Staunton.

Tim Forbus, owner of Acme Tattoo in Staunton, set out to become a painter before turning his focus to the human canvas. Forbus called opening a tattoo parlor on Elliewood Avenue the “worst business decision I ever made.” Photo: Sasha Moore

“Nothing that I learned studying classical painting was transferable to tattooing,” Forbus said. “In fact, I felt like a sellout when I first started tattooing.”

But the feeling didn’t last, and Forbus became first a fan and then a student of the Traditional American style. His walls are covered in traditional flash—industry lingo for spec art—some of which is from his own hand. One long wall is papered with flash he obtained from Spider Murphy’s Tattoo Shoppe in California. Most of it is an ultra deft, modern take on the old school traditional style, not nearly as cartoony as what most people might associate with that kind of work, but still steeped in the alluring elements of girls with faraway eyes or lamentations of unaccounted for time, money, and lost love.

“It’s weird to me that people shun stuff off the wall,” said Forbus. “People always want something that’s never been done before. Well, I’ve never done a single one off of that wall.”
Forbus worked for a while at Red Dragon (now Caspian) in Charlottesville. He eventually struck out on his own as the original founder of Charlottesville’s Acme Tattoo. His final location as owner of Acme was on Elliewood Avenue.

“Worst business decision I ever made,” he recalled. “People had to pay to park, UVA kids don’t get tattoos. The kids would ask what the charge for the tattoo would say on their credit card bill, worried that their parents would find out they were paying for a tattoo. I should have changed my name to Acme Tutoring. I’d probably still be in business.”

After that, Forbus worked for a few years in Southern California, before he returned here earlier this year. When he had his Central Virginia grand re-opening back on April 1, he employed an old tattoo business promotional gimmick for April Fools. Customers could get tattooed for free, but they had to do it with their arm stuck through a curtain and could have no idea what kind of image they would be indelibly marked with until it was over. Thirty brave souls signed up for the freebies, but Forbus only had time to do eight or nine.

Forbus does amazingly intricate work. His most interesting art, to my eye, is based on old machines, like steam engine trains, but also, simple, exacting designs of property plot maps and machinery from a futuristic world, as it would have been imagined in the 1800s.

“The tattoo TV reality shows have ruined the business. People have unrealistic expectations. They come in 30 minutes before closing and want me to do full sleeve outline of a dragon wrestling a Kodiak bear. I say, ‘This is going to last forever, maybe we should think about this.’”

Ben Miller, owner of Ben Around Gallery, grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, and learned the tattoo business doing guest spots in Chicago and Detroit. He had plans to open up a tattoo parlow near a military base in Germany, before 9/11 changed his mind. Photo: Ashley Twiggs

The Traveler
At first blush, Ben Around Gallery, with its red velvet feel, indirect lighting, carefully selected art (but no flash) on the walls, and large aquariums suggests a classy place where a high-rolling character from “Boardwalk Empire” might go looking for female companionship for a couple of hours.

“We started out as an art gallery that did tattoos,” said its owner, Ben Miller. “When I first opened, tattooers had such a bad reputation in town that we couldn’t find a space to rent.”
Now Miller has an international reputation as a first class tattoo artist and clients all over the country. “One guy flies in from San Francisco, lays on the table while I work on him for eight hours, two days in a row,” Miller said. “Then he flies back to San Francisco.”

Miller grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, and started doing tattoos on his own there. When he got a job in a shop in Grand Rapids, the guy who took him on said, “You don’t do tattoos no more.”

“So I scrubbed tubes, I made needles. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to me,” said Miller. “Everything I had been doing was wrong.”

Miller’s Grand Rapids apprenticeship led to regular appearances from Chicago to Detroit, doing guest spots in both cities and working the convention circuit. Which is how he got his first job in Charlotteville.

“I was moving to Heidelberg, Germany, near a military base. I was going to tattoo soldiers. I had the job, a place to live, the visa, but then 9-11 happened,” said Miller.

The Army’s clamp down on foreign military installations made it impractical to try and serve the newly-immobile GI population.

“Right around then I got a call from a guy I met at a convention who offered me a job in Charlottesville,” said Miller. “So, a month later, October of 2001*, I came here.”

The job he came here for was at Vintage Tattoo (now Caspian, yeah, that same place, it has changed names several times), where Miller eventually ended up as manager. When he was finally able to break out on his own, it didn’t take him long to etch his name into Central Virginia tattoo lore.

Ben Around does appointment only, all custom work. No flash books to pick from here, but there’s an immense reference library of picture books with animals, tribal inkings, Japanese art, most anything. People can come in with pretty much any idea for a tattoo and between Miller’s imagination and experience, not to mention the prodigious image bank, he and the client can come up with something unique and, ideally, timeless.

Like Forbus, he eschews Google image searches for inspiration or guidance.

Miller has been invited to appear at two international conferences in the coming months, one in Germany and another in Australia, but when I ask him about his legacy as a tattoo artist he points out a very crude rendering of a bat above his knee. The piece was executed by his son, who is now a teenager, when he was 9. Crude as it may be, it fits in perfectly with the constellation of accompanying bats done by other novice tattooers—Miller’s teenage niece, his wife, his mom, and stepdad. And these pieces are the ones on his body, which is covered in work, that he displays most proudly.

“I’ve been hustling art since I was 13,” said Miller. “There is nothing after this for me. There is no next thing.”

*An earlier version of this story said Ben Miller came to Charlottesville in October 2011. The correct date is October 2001.

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