The story of Behind the Ink, a years-long tattoo photography project from local arts organization Creating Exposure Through the Arts (C.E.A.) that has since spurred exhibits, a book and a documentary, began on a Saturday back in 2008, when Joseph Johnson was getting clowned by his friends.
“They thought one of my tattoos was girly … They were giving me hell about it being a rose,” he recounted.
C.E.A. executive director Mark Pendergrass, who had not yet founded his organization but was volunteering with the kids at a local youth center that weekend, aimed to make it a teachable moment.
He asked Johnson to share the backstory of his tattoo. Johnson explained that his mother died when he was only 2 years old, and he wanted to pay tribute to her by getting a tattoo of a rose with her name.
Pendergrass, who was teaching photography at the time, saw how youth responded to this compelling tale. Within a week, he had decided to work it into the curriculum.
“We would do these workshops where if you had a tattoo, you’d come in and get a portrait,” he said. Portrait subjects — friends, family members, teachers, volunteers and the like — would pose for students, then share their reasons for getting their respective body art.
Initially, these began as casual conversations — born out of small talk while waiting around to take pictures. Students would ask about the meaning behind their subjects’ tattoos, and Pendergrass began to recognize just how powerful these stories were in building context for the art itself. He began recording them to act as companions to the photographs.
“We intentionally started capturing interviews a couple years ago, where we would talk to them about their stories,” he said.
Since 2008, the idea has developed and branched into several different creative projects. And since founding C.E.A. in 2012, Pendergrass has been able to put a stronger focus on the project.
In addition to multiple exhibitions throughout Charlotte, select photos from the project have made it into a Behind the Ink coffee-table book. Though released in April, C.E.A. was finally able to celebrate the book release with an event in The Collector’s Room in South End on Dec. 7.
The book features portraits and stories from many Charlotte folks, including tattoo artists like Crystana “Dutchess” Lattimore, a Charlotte Latin grad and former star of VH1’s Black Ink Crew who played a major role in the Behind the Ink Project; photographer Justin “UncleJut” McErlian; rapper Deniro Farrar; former Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis; and others.
At the Dec. 7 event, organizers also screened a documentary by the same name that also wrapped in spring 2021 after two years of delays, many of which were brought on by COVID-19.
The film follows Fedelina Feliz, a young woman affiliated with C.E.A., as she gets her first tattoo. She connects with Anthony Morrow, a former NBA player turned creative who introduces her to Lattimore, who gives Fedelina her first tattoo.
The journey is intercut with interviews in which other people with tattoos — a 70-year-old woman, a mother working in the corporate world, a muralist, and so on — share their stories. They describe their creative visions for their respective pieces of body art, the inspirations behind them and their advice for young people considering tattoos.
Young C.E.A. affiliates were involved in every step of the process. They wrote interview questions, took photographs and shot the scenes with help from their adult mentors. Morrow, who interviewed Fedelina as part of the documentary, was struck by the students’ work.
“When I was in the field with them, I got to really see how versed in the craft they all were,” he said. “I told them all, basically, like, ‘I’m really proud of all y’all.’ For these guys to come in and get into a position of purpose at a young age — that’s something.”
C.E.A. didn’t stop with the documentary. Since its release, the team has hosted screenings, curated exhibits and competed in film festivals locally and nationally. In 2020, Pendergrass had several enormous banners with photos from their exhibitions printed out for the Charlotte SHOUT! street festival. Though the festival was ultimately canceled, he worked with the city to keep the street exhibit, which is currently still displayed on the outer walls of the soon-to-be-demolished Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Main branch in Uptown. It will remain up through the end of the year.
The Uptown street exhibit includes QR codes on nearby signs, which lead interested passersby to a nine-minute clip from the documentary. Building new things continuously off of one idea is most gratifying to Pendergrass.
“I’m most proud of the teamwork that it took to get this from images to documentary to the desire to make a docuseries,” he said. “There are so many images that we haven’t even shared yet … There’s so much that we can create with that people can enjoy.”
More than tattoos
Behind the Ink has done more than just give young people a creative outlet. It has changed perspectives on tattoos. Some documentary subjects tell funny stories, like Morrow, who talks about his mother’s reaction to his first tattoo.
“She went crazy until she saw it was her name!” he said.
Others, like Charlotte artist DeNeer Davis, provide deep introspection. Davis recounted a suicide attempt that led her to getting inked out of a feeling of self-love and recovery.
Morrow, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Davis, thought it was important to end the stigma around body art for those reasons.
“For so long, we got shunned for having tattoos,” he said. “But I truly believe it is art. For me, personally, my body tells my life story.”
Charlotte photographer Aliya Minter said she was transformed by her work with young people on Behind the Ink. As a mother of four, she had a long list of concerns about tattoos before working on the project.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, why would you put that on your body? It’s permanent, if you don’t like it, you’re gonna be stuck with it and have to pay money to get it removed’,” she said. “I never looked that deep into a tattoo.”
But the thought-provoking stories she heard while volunteering changed her mind — so much so that she and her husband got tattoos themselves.
“I am not the age to be doing something that crazy,” she laughs. “But me and my husband, we were just like, ‘You know what? We’re gonna do it. Maybe we’ll make the next documentary.’”
Minter raised her daughter Essynce around the arts. She took her to photo shoots and supported her interest in music and dance from a young age. Then she met Pendergrass during National Night Out on West Boulevard some years ago.
She signed her daughter up for the program, and that’s when Essynce’s interest in the arts went from hobby to passion.
“Meeting Mark was absolutely an opportunity for her to come into her own,” Minter said. “That really increased her love for photography.”
That’s just one of hundreds of similar stories of lives that have been touched and impacted as they’ve passed through C.E.A. The nonprofit is on a mission to foster a passion for the arts among students, mostly serving young Black creatives and people of color.
On the weekends, instructors get together with students in libraries and community centers to lead workshops on photography, writing and editing. Through these classes, special events and mentorships, students develop the skill sets and networks necessary for creative careers.
Essynce’s experience had a ripple effect; as her passion for the program grew, so did her mother’s.
“If there was anything they needed, I would just be there to help as a parent. I would take care of the small stuff, the little things that would make it go smoothly,” Minter said.
After helping out as a parent for several years, she jumped at the chance to become an instructor.
“I just believed in Mark’s vision, you know,” Minter said. “Being a photographer, I related to not just where he was coming from, but the students as well. Watching my daughter grow in the program actually helped me, because there were a lot of things I ended up learning through being a supportive parent. As I was supporting, I was kind of a student as well.”
C.E.A. is staffed entirely by volunteers. Like Minter, many started out as supportive parents. Several others began as students of the program who, after successfully making careers in photography and the arts, return to share their knowledge with younger generations.
“I’m really proud of the students who were part of the origin and are now still part of it,” Pendergrass said.
Pendergrass, who works full time for Wells Fargo, described his work with C.E.A. as “a labor of love,” and that labor goes beyond the arts.
C.E.A. has helped fundraise for academic opportunities like study-abroad trips or immersive-learning experiences for high-achieving students. C.E.A. also maintains partnerships with local grocery stores to help donate food to families in its network as well as nonprofits like The Relatives, a system of resources that helps children and youth find shelter and support.
Pendergrass keeps tabs on freelancing gigs and other opportunities for those affiliated with C.E.A.
“If there’s anything big going on in Charlotte that he thinks we don’t know about, he’s definitely gonna let us know,” Minter laughed. “Mark’s support is just unmatched. We’re so much of a family at Creating Exposure, and I really appreciate our relationship.”
Perhaps nothing has affected Minter as much as her work on Behind the Ink, which is far more than skin deep.
She said she wasn’t just inspired by the body art she saw, but by the perspective change it invoked in her.
“We tend to judge what we don’t understand. Because of Behind the Ink, I’m a lot slower to judge … Young people should join us because getting involved will really change your perspective of the world as a whole … That’s a major responsibility for a program. But they do it so well. I think it’s so rewarding in the end.”