“Let me tell you, I don’t usually come to work looking super-cute,” says Stacy Smith, with a little laugh and a hint of an eye roll, after walking into the front door of her shop as eminently camera-ready as one can be — her outfit smart, her skin glowing, her hair perfectly coiffed.
“It’s usually, like, sweatpants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on.”
But ever since word got out that the 30-year-old Charlotte resident was hand-picked for the cast of the 11th season of the cult-hit reality-competition show “Ink Master” (premiering at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Paramount Network), people have been coming into Southend’s Tattoo Me Charlotte to try to catch a glimpse of her, or even simply to peep at her workspace on the second floor.
So forgive her for wanting to look more presentable than usual.
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This is, to some extent, exactly what she was afraid of when she agreed to join the cast of 22 tattoo artists competing for the series’ $100,000 prize: the spotlight, yes, but also the judgments about her work and her personality and her looks coming from all sides — from people in Charlotte to the national viewing audience to the actual judges on the show.
In fact, it’s why she turned down the opportunity when producers from “Ink Master” first approached her a few years ago.
“I’m not gonna lie, I enjoy being a wallflower,” Smith says. “I like to sit back and kind of just observe, and not have all of that pressure, or attention, or eyes, so to speak, on me. I tend to freeze a little. I didn’t deal well with pressure. I mean, I tattoo in a room, by myself, with my own music, calm, every day..... So I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t strong enough.”
Then along came a challenge that made her realize that she was pretty good at dealing with pressure after all.
Finding her calling
Smith was born in Charlotte in 1987 and raised in Lincoln County, where she attended East Lincoln High School.
She always loved art, and shared that love with classmates by decorating their arms with ink and Sharpie drawings; at one point, most of the school’s baseball team was walking around with fake tattoos scrawled onto them by Smith.
By age 15, she’d determined that she wanted to be a tattoo artist when she grew up. By 17, Smith had illicitly gotten some permanent ink of her own — an ankh on the back of her neck that she says she eventually had covered up because it was poorly done — and within a few weeks after she graduated from high school in 2006, she was apprenticing for an artist in Cornelius.
She quickly moved on to an apprenticeship at a Mooresville shop called Anything’s Possible, which ended up hiring her as an artist and kept her for six years. Then in 2012, a tattooer friend started working out of Infinity’s End, a smoke shop on Independence Boulevard, and convinced Smith to do the same.
The advantage: She’d be her own boss, keeping 100 percent of her fee and just paying a flat rental fee for the space. The downside? She had to build a client base from scratch.
“I sat in a room alone, and no one was there for me to tattoo,” Smith recalls. “I would go to colleges and pass out business cards, and then come back through and see my business cards on the ground. So that hurt ... those weren’t free. But I just literally would promote myself anywhere I was. When I did do work, I would post the tattoos on Instagram. Eventually, I started getting booked out two weeks, and then four weeks, eight weeks.”
And the tattoos she was doing were not just visually striking, but also unlike almost anything anyone else was doing in Charlotte.
Smith calls her style of tattooing “Bohemian watercolor,” and if you study the tattoos she’s done you’ll marvel at both the intricacy of the patterns she inks as well as the fact that a piece of her work essentially looks like a painting.
“People that I have tattooed before, they come back and they say, ‘Everyone asks me if it’s real,’ ” she says. “I love that. I love that it looks so incredibly different that it almost doesn’t look like a real tattoo.... I want it to look like you took a piece of art and fused it to your body.”
Once business at the mini-shop started booming, Smith enlisted Heather Helms — one of her best friends since high school — to help manage her bookkeeping; as the numbers kept piling up, they started dreaming of opening their own place together as equal partners.
There was just one little problem: They had no idea how to start their own business.
“We didn’t have any college experience,” Smith says. “We would YouTube ‘How to Open a Business.’ ”
“Yeah, we went to Google School,” Helms chimes in, only half-jokingly.
“YouTube University!” Smith adds. “But seriously, you don’t really need to go, in my opinion, to college to be successful.... A computer can tell you just about anything you want to know. Use the tools you have in front of you. Stop taking selfies, and look up how to get your taxes done.”
That said, nothing about getting Tattoo Me Charlotte open for business was easy. There were zoning code issues, fire code issues, family members and friends who tried to tell Smith and Helms at every turn that close friends shouldn’t go into business together, tears, arguments, and the fact that, oh, they didn’t have enough money to adequately furnish or decorate the place. They re-did the floors and painted the walls themselves. When they threw open the garage door to the public in January 2016, it was with an old sofa set of Smith’s in the lounge, and nothing but vast blank spaces on the walls.
So when the folks at “Ink Master” came back around again, this time, Smith felt she was emotionally ready. Over the course of conceiving and launching Tattoo Me Charlotte, she’d grown up.
But more importantly, she felt like it’d be silly to pass on the opportunity.
She’s got the look
Smith does indeed stand out among “Ink Master’s” cast of characters, several of whom look like the type of person you’d expect to find if you walked into your neighborhood tattoo parlor. She has several large tattoos, but her body isn’t overrun with them, so — along with her diminutive stature, her natural effervescence and her easy smile — she’s on the conservative side for someone in her profession.
Furthermore, as is common in the reality-television game, the producers of “Ink Master” decided to play up Smith’s looks: In the bio Paramount Network wrote for her, she’s the one with “blonde hair” and “a killer body.”
When asked about these descriptors, she shrugs them off. “I do have blonde hair, and I like to be feminine. I’m a very feminine woman. I enjoy looking nice,” Smith says.
However, she admits that the outfits you’ll see her wearing on the show — which the producers steered her toward, she says — are things you’ll never see her wearing at work.
“I constantly looked like I was going to the club. Have you ever worn heels for 96 hours in a week? You should try it. I’m used to wearing heels about two hours at the bar on a Friday. I never in my life wore as much makeup as I had on in that show. I had pounds of makeup. And you have to keep up with the look from the beginning of the season. ... I mean, I just want to wear sweatpants and tennis shoes and a T-shirt.”
Still, getting people outside of their comfort zones is par for the course on “Ink Master.”
In the premiere that airs Tuesday night, Smith is forced to do a type of tattoo that she is totally unfamiliar with, leading to some awkward moments and harsh comments from one of the judges and one of the coaches. So, she winds up flirting with elimination much earlier than anticipated.
But — as the bio Paramount Network wrote for her also says — “underestimate Stacy Smith at your own risk.”
“I don’t look like that typical tattooer. I don’t,” she says. “I’m not this big, burly, bearded dude that’s gonna come in all loud. I’m very quiet, and I think the underestimation just comes from the fact I don’t sit here and demand the spotlight. I’m not gonna sit here and talk a bunch of junk. I’m just gonna go and do my own thing and let my art speak for itself. Quietly.”
That’s also how she and Helms have built Tattoo Me Charlotte into a success over the past 2-1/2 years — quietly.
The once-bare walls are now covered with funky and beautiful artwork. They’ve grown to four artists in addition to Smith, and recently added their childhood friend Danielle McCall as a piercer. Smith herself is booked out till next March; meanwhile, the business as a whole is turning a profit, so this winter, they’re planning a fairly significant renovation and updating of the space.
And the expectation is that “Ink Master” will increase the shop’s exposure exponentially.
“The only reason I did it is for the shop,” Smith says of the show. “I’m not a very competitive person. I’m definitely more of like a light-hearted, chill, let’s-just-all-be-happy kind of person, and I knew the show had a lot of drama and a lot of meanness. I was also pretty afraid of that, but I knew I could handle it. I mean, I can handle pretty much anything now, for sure.”