Alston Henry prodded his partner with jokes as he drew on his shoulder with a needle. After he finished, he slapped a cloth on the fresh patch of ink, stamped to the shoulder of fellow tattoo artist, Legend Lee, who didn’t flinch.
The pair never stopped talking and joking with each other, even while concentrating on tattooing. Henry, who goes by “Lex,” said their talkative attitude has soothed every customer that comes under the needle, in more ways than one.
“We defuse bombs here,” said Lex, lead artist at Natural Mystics tattoo shop in Olney. “Sometimes people come in here bent-up, stressed out. By the time they leave, they’re laughing and feeling good. God knows what they were on their way to do when they came in here.”
Lex honed his skills in tattoo artistry in New York City, before moving to a shop in Camden, where he was featured on the Spike TV show, Tattoo Rescue. Lex’s calling card is a skill most artists in New York, Camden and Philadelphia can’t compete with: free-hand script.
“My script is known,” he said as he prepped a needle and dipped it into a capsule of ink.
Lex’s custom script is strewn across the walls of Natural Mystics. His letters cater to the style and taste of the client. They flow, zig-zag, bend in ways that look like they were drawn on a computer, not by the steady hand of an artist.
Before putting his script to skin, he sketched it out on a piece of paper, then used the draft as reference for the actual tattoo. For the tattoo on his partner, Legend, he chose the word “Knowledge.”
Legend didn’t hesitate when asked if he wanted the tattoo.
“Where do I have some extra space?” he said as he scanned his body, already half-covered in ink.
Lex and Legend are the most recent in a long line of tattoo artists who have called the little shop on Fifth Street home. Legend’s mother, Muminah Harris, has been at Natural Mystics since its beginning. It started more than 20 years ago, Harris said, under the name “Popcorn,” the artistic moniker of her brother, Wendell Harris.
Popcorn got the idea after a visit from well-known tattoo artist, Eric “Inksmith” Pearlman. Harris said Inksmith noticed a lack of tattoo shops in Philadelphia and told her brother what to do to start his own.
“Back then, it was almost impossible to find tattoo artists who were black,” Harris said. “We were the first shop recognized in Philly for tattooing skin of color.”
For a long time, it was thought near impossible to apply bright-colored tattoos to skin of a darker pigment, Harris said. But new techniques were developed to allow more vibrant colors, and the Popcorn tattoo shop was one of the first to experiment with them.
Harris said the artists at Popcorn made reds, yellows and other colors that showed on black skin and didn’t fade. She traced a finger over a red heart on her wrist, still bright after many years of wear. When the new colors were developed, Harris said the influx of customers was astounding.
After years spent beside customers under the needle, Harris has seen how tattoos have brought new life to a community. An art deeply rooted in the personal lives of its bearers, it is a form of expression like no other.
“Ink is a way of tears,” she said. “Tears of sadness, tears of joy. A lot of tears were shed here, and sometimes people need to say something without speaking. I see people, when they start getting tattooed, they break down and cry.”
Harris said tattoos offer a permanent connection to loved ones who are gone. The names of those who have past, tombstones, the letters R.I.P., she has seen them all. On the other hand, Harris said, tattoos symbolize a sense of freedom, and they are a perfect way for young people to express it.
That’s not to say she hasn’t stopped a few young people from putting unsightly ink on their skin.
“I don’t tattoo myself, but I sit by them, talk to them,” Harris said. “I’ve change a lot of peoples’ minds about that stupid tattoo on their body.”
Vernesha Lee, who just turned 18, entered Natural Mystics afraid, trying to work up the courage to sit through the pain of her first tattoo, a small symbol of Virgo, her astrological sign. Instead she settled for a belly-button piercing.
“I’m really afraid of needles,” Lee said. “But I went in there and got it. It was only a small pinch. They make you feel comfortable and trusting here.”
It’s the feeling that Lex, Legend, and the other artists at Natural Mystics try to instill in every customer. Their custom work is cheap too, Lex said. The script he applied to Legend’s shoulder runs for about $50, much less than a similar tattoo at the shops on South Street.
Lex has not only enriched the community with his tattoo work, he also brings his music skills to community events. At an open mic night held by the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, Lex blasted the audience with riffs on his electric guitar.
“He was rocking out, blowing us up,” said community engagement coordinator Stephanie Michel.
– Text, images and video by Joe Gilbride and Grace Nonnemaker.