Charlie Wheeler got his first tattoo — of a panther head on his arm — in 1969 at Sailor Bill’s Tattoo in Cave City, Ky. Wheeler was hooked after that first one. He went on to get two full sleeves of tattoos and various others, including one that said “Your Name” on his rear end, then asked Bill Rogers of Sailor Bill’s to teach him the art of tattooing. In 1975, Tattoo Charlie’s opened at the corner of Seventh Street and Berry Boulevard. Charlie’s son Buddy, who took over the business after his father’s death in 2007 at age 56, says the name actually came from a mistake in the phone book. “It was originally Charlie’s Place: A Studio for Tattooing, and the phone company transposed the lettering on the ad and changed it to Tattoo Charlie’s,” Buddy Wheeler says. “And it stuck.”
Wheeler was a year old when Tattoo Charlie’s opened. He began working in the shop when he was about eight years old. “Dad had me in the studio a lot when I was a kid,” he says. “We’re talking early to mid-’80s. There was still smoking in the tattoo studio, so my job was to clean the windows and clean nicotine stains off the design sheets.” He recalls that the original shop was a long, narrow building with a giant bald eagle tattoo design painted on the front window. A bar and strip club called the Merry-Go-Round was across the street.
A lot has changed since Tattoo Charlie’s opened. His son, who’s now 40 and has 13 tattoos, says his father’s shop was the only one in town until the late ’80s. The company started with just one tattoo artist, Charlie, and now has 12 tattoo artists and five piercers between two locations (7904 Preston Highway and 470 New Circle Road in Lexington).
During our interview, a 20-something woman gets the words “love you more,” written in her mom’s handwriting, tattooed on her wrist. Wheeler says many clients come in with pictures on their smart phones — infinity knots, stars and flowers are common, asking artists to replicate the images. According to Wheeler, the clientele in the first decade or so was almost all male. His dad’s business card actually said “ladies welcome” to encourage women to come in. “When my dad started tattooing, it was still looked down on in many parts of society,” he says. “You normally found studios in seedy parts of town and you had the potential to have some rough customers.” Today, Wheeler estimates that 60 percent of clients are women.
Most tattoos at Tattoo Charlie’s run from $100 to $250, but can cost more for larger, more complex designs. (Random fact: The studio’s busiest season is right after tax refunds come back. During that time, the artists do up to 25 tattoos per day at the Preston Highway location.)
These days, Tattoo Charlie’s clientele is in its third generation. “We now have people who got tattooed by my dad in the ’70s telling their grandkids to come here now that they are 18,” Wheeler says. And the story behind the slogan “Tattoos while you wait”? Wheeler explains: “Dad was in Florida in the late ’60s, and he saw it on a little hand-lettered sign in a studio. He said, ‘Hey, that’s really clever. Can I use that?’ And (the guy) said, ‘It’s a free country; do what you want.’ So Dad built a business on it.”
Article photo courtesy Mickie Winters