HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (12/4/12) – According to the Smithsonian Museum, people have been getting tattoos for over 5,000 years for a variety of reasons. They have been used as medical treatments, criminal branding, badges of honor, spiritual guidance, methods of beautification, and milestones, as well as expressions of inner longings and impulses.
“I believe that there is power in symbolism,” says Elite Tattoo Lounge owner Aaron “Chappy” Chapman. “Oftentimes, people feel empowered by receiving their mark, and the tattoo process acts as a rite of passage. Someone may express their sorrows in a tattoo, and the tattoo process acts as a type of therapy. When someone wishes to let go of a loved one who has passed, or to overcome a hard time in their life, they might memorialize it in a tattoo. For whatever reason, people generally feel comfortable opening up to me and talking about some of their deepest feelings. Also, people may express their joy in a tattoo by getting a tattoo for their loved ones that are with them.”
Chappy’s interest in art has been central to one his most beloved endeavors: using the human body as a canvas. Ever since he was a teenager, he has been helping others to express things that often reach beyond words by painting it visibly for the world to see.
“I feel that each tattoo is charged with my own spirit, something like a talisman,” explains Chappy. “Every time someone walks out with some ink, they are taking a piece of me with them, and it will be with them even in the grave. Every time they look at it they will remember me, even if I never see them again.”
That being said, one might wonder what has proved significant enough to permanently mark Chappy’s own body?
“I have three tattoos for my family,” shares Chappy. “I have a tattoo of a phoenix in my right arm for my son Phoenix, and I have a tattoo on my left arm of rubies and crystals for my daughter Ruby, and my wife Crystal. Then there are tattoos that express ones religious or spiritual beliefs. Someone may get a cross or praying hands if they are an ardent Christian, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, someone may express their pagan beliefs with a pentacle or a tree of life tattoo. To me, all religions share a common root, so I am happy and proud to do them all. Myself, I display my gnostic/hermetic beliefs via two Theban tattoos on the back of my arms, and a Hagal Run/Taranis Sun Wheel on my left leg. I also have two gargoyles perched on my shoulders, which, to me, symbolizes my belief that my body is a temple for the soul. In the middle ages, gargoyles were put on cathedrals to protect the holy ground from demons. My tattoos represent protection from symbolic demons, such as pride, avarice, and greed.”
So how did Chappy get to the point where he is at today, you might ask?
Chappy was born in Denver, CO on December 25th, 1978. He grew up in Garden Grove (Orange County) in Southern California, and for a long time, would fly back and forth between the two states to spend time with each of his parents who divorced when he was very young.
“My mom basically raised me to be an artist,” says Chappy. “She recognized my talent at a young age and really nurtured that. She was also an artist, so she was constantly buying me art kits, supplies, and stuff. She kind of moved me into that direction. She was always buying me books about art. When I was eight she got me the whole Time Life Library of Art. I’ve still got it actually. As a kid, I was always reading about classical artists and modern contemporary kind of stuff too.”
Around the age of twelve, Chappy moved to Colorado to live with his father and spent the rest of his adolescence living on the north side of Denver.
“After moving to Colorado, I started getting into spray paint and graffiti art,” says Chappy. “I used to be a member of a graffiti crew out in Denver called ODK. Three of my buddies and I started it. ODK became the biggest tagging crew in Denver for a few years. I ended up dropping out of that crew, though, because it got so big that I would meet people at parties on the south side of Denver that would say they were a member of ODK, but they didn’t even know who I was, and I was the founder. It got kind of ridiculous.”
Unfortunately for Chappy, his free spirit got him tangled up in the wrong scene, and in his juvenile years, he was put in prison after being arrested on psychedelic drug charges. The silver lining to this circumstance, however, was that Chappy was able to focus on his art while being locked up. In fact, he says that he spent most of his time drawing and reading books while serving time.
“Every day I would draw something and it got to the point where that was how I got a lot of my hygiene supplies, soups, and canteen items. I would draw on envelopes or draw portraits for people. I ended up getting so good at drawing that I started trying to tattoo in there. I had messed around with tattooing when I was a teenager, making little homemade tattoo machines. We’d mess around with each other when we were hanging out and stuff.”
As one can imagine, though, the process of tattooing is a little different behind bars. Inmates are forced to think outside the box and construct tattooing equipment from altered everyday items.
“In prison, we had to make tattoo machines with a little motor from a tape deck or something like that by running a guitar string through a BIC pen. It got to the point where I was doing it on a regular basis. In there, it’s pretty hard to tattoo, because it’s all one needle. You’ve got to make your own ink. It requires collecting soot from a little candle that you make out of baby oil. Then you need to make a wick out of toilet paper. You collect the soot from the candle and mix it with water to create the ink. Then you have to hook everything up to the back of your radio. On top of all that, you’ve got to have someone watching out for the cops. They walk by every hour to check on you and you’ve got to pretend like you’re not doing anything. I did that the whole time I was in there.”
Chappy understood the penalties if he were to get caught creating art in such a way, but took his chances regardless.
“I got in trouble a few times and had to do some time in the hole for it,” states Chappy. “The first time I got caught, they put me in the hole for a month. It kept happening, over and over again. Eventually, they put me in the hole for six months straight just for tattooing.”
Then, after seven long years, Chappy was freed and eventually made his way to Madisonville a few years later.
Why here, though?
Chappy’s grandmother was his connection to Madisonville. After his grandfather died, his grandmother remarried to a man who was from Madisonville.
“After she passed away, I came out here,” says Chappy. “First, my mom moved out here to take care of my grandmother’s estate, and then I moved out here to stay with my mom and help her out.”
That was when Chappy met the love of his life, Crystal Wooten. The two met in late October of 2004 and were engaged by January.
“We met at our friend’s house,” remembers Chappy. “I met her over a game of pool. It’s kind of a cheesy story. We were playing pool and I made her a little bet. If I won, she had to give me a kiss. If she won, I would have to give her a kiss. So, either way,” laughs Chappy, “I was making out.”
Chappy and Crystal were married June 18, 2005, and by the following April, they were proud parents. Shortly after Phoenix was born, the Chapmans moved back to Denver to raise their little family while Chappy worked at a tattoo shop downtown called Celebrity Tattoo.
“I just wanted to get back home, because it had been a long time,” says Chappy. “We moved to Cherry Creek the first time. We got an apartment on the edge of the Beverly Hills of Denver. That apartment was in the one little rough spot of town where it was real cheap apartment living and everything. Throughout the rest of the town, everybody was driving Beamers and Mercedes. It was real nice down there.”
Life was moving along at a steady pace, Chappy was now working at Inferno Tattoo in Denver, and the Chapmans started to notice that their son Phoenix was extremely advanced during his early development.
“Phoenix could say mama at three-months-old,” says Crystal. “By about six months old, he could say around ten words and seemed to otherwise be a ‘normally’ developing baby. Phoenix loved to learn new words and concrete facts. At 13-months-old, he could say his alphabet, and by 15-months-old, he knew shapes and colors as well. He was ahead of schedule by most standards. He slept through the night, looked at us, laughed, and smiled. Around one-and-a-half-years-old we started to notice a change.”
Despite his intelligence, Phoenix started presenting some red flags and atypical behavior at about 18-months of age. It was determined at Phoenix’s preschool screening, paired with a follow up diagnosis by physicians, that the Chapman’s little boy had “classic” autism. After bringing their daughter Ruby into the world on February 14th, 2008, the differences between the two children were worlds apart.
“Ruby and Pheonix are like fire and ice,” says Chappy.
The Chapmans continued to raise their children in Denver until early May of 2008 when Crystal’s grandmother’s health took a turn for the worse. The family relocated back to Hopkins County to help however they could. Meanwhile, Chappy had taken on a job tattooing at Sherry's Queen of Hearts in Henderson, KY. He continued to work there while opening up his own tattoo shop, Eternal Ink, in Madisonville.
“We moved back because I missed my family,” shares Crystal. “My grandmother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and I needed to be with her. I was so thankful that we did, as I got to spend that last year with her.”
After her grandmother’s passing, Crystal and Chappy returned to Denver with their family. From there, Chappy worked for a short stint at House of Ink and then took on a job at Mile Hi Tattoo not long after.
“We moved back to where I’m originally from on the north side of Denver - a place called Thornton,” explains Chappy. “It used to be a good family area; it was a good place to grow up. Now, it’s run down, gang infested, and shocking crimes occur all the time. We didn’t want the kids around it anymore. We decided to move back to Madisonville.”
Today, the Chapman family continues to focus on art via their new business, Elite Tattoo Lounge, which is located at 530 East Center Street in Madisonville.
“There is more going on here than tattoos,” says Chappy. “We’ve got a game room and a stage. It’s a cool place to hang out even when you are not getting tattoos. It took two and a half weeks to renovate everything. I was here working 14-hour days just to get it going.”
Chappy has high hopes for the space, which totals 2400 square feet, and has already procured four, top-of-the-line tattooing stations.
“My vision for Elite Tattoo Lounge is to get all the best tattoo artists in town to man the stations,” smiles Chappy. “Eventually, people aren’t going to want to go anywhere else. This isn’t a huge town, and the last time I counted, there are like six tattoo shops in Madisonville, which is ridiculous. We are just trying to raise the bar and show people in Madisonville that there is better art out there that they can put on their body for the rest of their life.”
On the shop’s opening night, the Chapman family hosted a live show on their new stage to approximately 80 attendees. Local bands Laced and Dirty Angel tore it up and the event proved a big success.
“I’ve always been big into the music scene even though I’m not a musician,” says Chappy. “I used to be a DJ and promoter, but this town is really lacking in venues where local bands can go and show off their talent. I just want to provide another place where these musicians can perform.”
While talking to Chappy and Crystal at Elite Lounge, Crystal showed me her newest ink, provided of course by her husband. Her latest piece displays a bee on her forearm. According to the mythos of Ancient Aegean cultures, the bee was believed to be a sacred insect that could bridge the natural world to the underworld.
“It’s significant to me,” shares Crystal. “Bees symbolize compassion, mercy, and gentleness. Honey is something that preserves things. You can preserve food in honey; it’s sweet; and it’s kind of like a medicine. The sting and justice aspect is pretty neat to me, too. It’s like dual forces - the sweetness and the sting. Then we’ve got the fact that they are endangered right now because of genetically modified organism crops, which are poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems. I’m pretty ill about all that. At the same time, I’m semi-allergic. The last time I got stung, my throat swelled up and I could barely swallow. They told me the next time I get stung I would probably go into anaphylactic shock.”
Tattoos are significant to Crystal as well, for many reasons.
“It’s a way to express yourself without using words, and that idea hits home with us because we have a child on the spectrum,” says Crystal. “There are things that you can’t say in words sometimes, but everyone, when they look at an image, gets a feeling on some level. I think it gives words to people who don’t have words.”
“Tattoos mean many different things to different people,” says Chappy. “I feel blessed that I have the talent to give people an actual living form of art that someone will take with them everywhere for the rest of their lives.”
You can contact Chappy in a variety of ways. Look for Elite Tattoo on Facebook or check out the shop's website. For more information, or to set up appointments, call 270-875-3801.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessica Dockrey
Photos by Jeff Harp