TAMPA — Ryan Harrell, 41, and his wife Nicole have for years served members of the armed forces with their American Tattoo Society shops near military installations, including their flagship store just outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
But since last year, the couple has branched out, opening tattoo studios on base at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base in March.
“All of the branches of the service are looking at how they can do this in an effective way, and then they’re also looking at regulations, making sure that regulations match how the world is changing,” Harrell said.
As they worked to open their third on-base location in Texas in this month, Harrell spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about their business. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you open a studio on a military base?
It was a long, long process, but the Army and Air Force Exchange Service was with us the whole way. And we worked hand-in-hand with them to develop the regulations and how we would do things and our processes and procedures and all those sorts of stuff that they wanted to see from us.
What are some of the unique regulations you face by being on a military base?
I don’t know that there are a whole lot of things that we’re doing on base that are different from our studios that are off-base. But being that there wasn’t tattooing on it before, a lot of people had a lot of questions.
We track all of the lot numbers for the inks that we use, when we are tattooing. And that’s not common. (It’s in case there’s a problem with the inks, such as someone having a reaction to one.) Outside of that, it’s really the same procedures and stuff that we do here in our off-base studios.
We just had to educate and inform the folks that were giving us the go ahead, we had to let them know this is how we do it and this is how we would do it if this came up or if this arose. We had some flights up to Dallas, to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service headquarters, to meet with vice presidents and stuff to go through and answer those questions in person.
How do you build customers on a base versus in a general commercial area?
Our off-base shops are extremely large. Our North Carolina shops are 7,000 and 5,000 square feet, respectively, and we have 20 artists at one shop and 11 at the other shop. We have to attract a lot more clientele, obviously, to keep everyone busy. But at our on-base locations, they’re much smaller. Nellis has four artists. And MacDill will have seven, when it’s all full of artists.
So it’s a little bit easier to keep their schedules full. Plus, tattooing and the military have gone hand-in-hand for as long as tattooing has been around. So once they heard that we were coming, and that there was a tattoo studio opening, we got a lot of interest. People wanted to see the portfolios.
So showing off the work and letting them know kind of how we operate has really helped us to draw in folks. Plus we’re in the exchange mall, on base. So it’s really easy to find us. Our artists and our counter staff are extremely good at both tattooing and taking care of the customer. So with our team, once we get them in the door and show what we can do, the word of mouth on base travels extremely fast.
We opened (at MacDill) Wednesday before the grand-opening week. And by the end of the week, Ian, the shop manager was pretty much booked out for a few weeks. And by the time the grand opening came around, he was booking into May.
We have a lot more retirees coming in (to MacDill) than we do at Nellis. There’s still a lot of retirees and veterans that come in.
Can you share some of your more popular designs or any restrictions you face in what you can do?
We will follow the guidelines, rules and restrictions for the tattoo policies for all the branches. And outside of our studio, we have these posters, which show the regulations for each branch.
And MacDill is a joint base. Every branch is represented there. So we have to be wary that the Marines can only get certain tattoos, they can only do in certain places. Pretty much all the other ones have dialed back all their tattoo restrictions.
The Marines are kind of the last holdout for it. We know well what we can and can’t do with Marines, because we have a large shop outside of Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina), which is one of the largest Marine bases on the East Coast.
We know that the Marines like traditional tattoos and that they like tribal and traditional work. They also get our realism tattoos, black and gray, stuff like that. But the Air Force is more comics and anime. It’s almost like a younger style of artwork that they like.
In the Army, infantry guys especially, they like larger black and gray. There’s a lot more memorial and military-style tattoos that come out of the Army and infantry guys than any of the other branches.
But the Navy guys are pretty wide open. They have the most relaxed tattoo policy. The Navy has historically been the tattoo branch. We verify what branch they’re in and that we’re staying within regulation.