What happens to talented artists who do not want to or cannot afford to attend art school? How do they remain devoted to their gifts AND take care of themselves?
The beginning of Henry “Spirit” Henderson’s story is not that unusual. Henry was a talented, young artist who did not know how to break into the art world. He attempted to have his work shown in local galleries, only to be turned away because he had no “name”. But luckily for Spirit, and for us, someone came along to offer him a way to make ends meet and continue his art practice–tattooing.
In 2006, South Carolina legalized tattooing in the state, but people have been tattooing themselves around the world “for over 10,000 years”, says Nina Jablonski as reported to Alexa Stevenson of the Penn State News. Jablonski is an anthropologist and author of Skin: A Natural History. Jablonski explains, “Tattoos become more socially acceptable because they are visibly sported by people who are themselves socially accepted”. In modern times, we have seen everyone from royalty to servicewomen choosing body art to express who they are and what they believe. This is proven today, as we see ministers, doctors, and public personalities proudly displaying their body art and, while doing so, they are pulling down the taboo that has been attached to the art practice.
Spirit was in his early twenties when the suggested path was just being cut out, which made for a wild and creative opportunity at the right time. As he describes it, “being so new, it wasn’t clique-ish; everyone was really hungry.”
Spirit chose South Carolina to call home because, as a native, he finds that he can have an influence in the area more easily than in a place like New York, where he also lived for a time. He said he likes the idea of knowing people and having roots in the state. He also appreciated being able to get back to work and see his clients earlier in the Pandemic than other industries. He points to the fact that tattoo artists already keep a high level of cleanliness and only had to add face masks to their measures to accommodate COVID regulations.
Spirit has been able to become a successful and respected tattoo artist in the Midlands. This was helpful in 2019 during the COVID-19 Pandemic when he experienced some of his highest demand. Spirit describes the desire for body art during that time: “We were experiencing so much pain and loss at this time. I tattooed a whole family.” That family memorialized the loss of their mother, who had passed away from COVID. Spirit hypothesized people sought him and other tattoo artists out because of their desire to be around other people and be comforted. He does not take the trust that people put in him, or his talent, for granted. On his website, Spirit states, “Establishing that bond of trust with a new client is important to me as an artist, and the loyalty and friendship you establish when they return to your chair for their next tattoos is one of the greatest feelings in the world.”
Coupled with these relationships, Spirit takes pride in the art that he can give to clients. I asked Spirit why he thinks people have been attracted to tattoos for millennia? He replied, “Because art is a natural part of the human experience.” As Spirit explains it, ”in a constantly changing world, you have something that doesn’t change; it is your little friend forever. Something that you came up with in your head; a symbol or a sign, a reminder of something, that you get to keep forever.” What Spirit did not say, but I will, is that he is the one who walks you through the process of turning a dream into a reality. You could go to him with the idea of having a clock and rose put on your forearm and he, after a consultation, may design a warped clock with roses for its hands, creating a one-of-a-kind design. I think there is a reason that a tattoo from a gifted artist can cost hundreds of dollars an hour—it is comparable to a “fine” art commission.
Spirit manages and creates from Tattoo Trillionaires in Columbia. Spirit cites that not only did he apprentice under a South Carolina artist, but he also sought out another accomplished mentor tattoo artist that he studied under. That artist has a long lineage in the tattoo world, and they shared with him different techniques and methods that he uses to this day. For instance, a tattoo flash (an original drawing) is available for clients to use or they can develop a custom design with their tattoo artist. Spirit showed me hundreds of pages of flash designs, so any person can find something incredible.
Inspiration is not hard to find for Spirit. In the past few years, he produced a poetry event with Max Parthas in Columbia that was streamed all over. It was called The Sessions Live. Now, he is studying the old masters of the Renaissance. He feels drawn to the iconography and how it relates to tattooing. I imagine that to be a magnificent rabbit hole that he will be exploring for a long time. He shared that he has a new focus on being a better overall Artist and he is not limiting his growth to tattooing. During our talk, Spirit confessed that he has been thinking about exploring different art opportunities. Here’s to that and to many more beautifully adorned bodies.
Spirit can be found at Tattoo Trillionaires in Columbia, on social media (@tattoosbySpirit), and at his website tattoosbySpirit.com