South Charlotte

Charlotte photographer stumps for students’ ‘Inked’ exhibition

Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis shows support for his home state as part of photography collection “Inked: The Story Behind the Art.”
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis shows support for his home state as part of photography collection “Inked: The Story Behind the Art.”

The hundreds of photographs stored on hard drives waiting to be reviewed mean a great deal to Mark Pendergrass and his former students.

“These photos reveal untold stories about the people in them and the people behind the camera,” Pendergrass said.

In 2010, Pendergrass, a professional banker and a photographer at Snap Photos, taught a photography class at the Stratford Richardson YMCA called Teen Scoop. The class consisted of 15 to 20 youths age 13 to 19 and focused on portrait photography.

The students created a photography project called “Inked: The Story Behind the Art,” that featured students, professionals, celebrity athletes and Charlotte residents with tattoos.

The students spent a couple months photographing tattooed people around Charlotte. The photo sessions took place on the streets, at the YMCA, in tattoo parlors and at Johnson C. Smith University. Pendergrass said they were able to meet and photograph a wide variety of people and tattoos.

“Some professional athletes – NFL Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, NFL Minnesota Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and Charlotte native NBA Oklahoma City Thunder guard Anthony Morrow – visited the students and shared stories about their tattoos, as well as inspired them to pursue their dreams,” said Pendergrass.

“People always look so negatively at tattoos, so I just wanted to show how many have meaning behind them,” Davis said. “I also thought it was a great outlet for the kids to be doing this.”

Pendergrass said his students also spent a day photographing and talking to college students at Johnson C. Smith University. “Being on a college campus was a first for many of my students; it was great exposure for them.”

As they were preparing the project for presentation, the YMCA changed its after-school program structure, and funding was cut for the photography program.

The photos have not been printed or viewed by the public, but Pendergrass refuses to allow the students’ hard work to go unnoticed.

Five years later, Pendergrass has pulled together a fundraising platform on the GoFundMe website. He needs $5,000 to print and frame at least 20 poster-sized portraits. He intends to exhibit the photos in various galleries, tattoo shops and venues around Charlotte.

Pendergrass’ efforts have raised almost $300 in donations in 20 days.

“I want to bring to light my students’ hard work,” he said. Pendergrass said their models’ tattoos symbolize the memories of loved ones, their faith and the hardships and joys they’ve endured.

“The project is diverse: mostly African-American youth photographers, but the models come from all walks of life,” he said. “The camera brings people together, my students and the rest of the world, as will the exhibit.”

Kevin Mitchell, 23, was moved by his experience as a student in the project. He said working with Pendergrass and on the project inspired him to pursue his passion for photography, which he now does full-time. Mitchell’s artistic photography, Surf Mitchell Photography, has been published by BET, MTV and in various skateboard magazines and advertisements.

Mitchell is enthusiastic about “Inked” being exhibited. “What really grabbed me about this project (were) the stories behind the tats,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for youth art to receive recognition and inspire others enduring hardships to focus on their passions.”

Pendergrass said he hopes to keep mentoring youths through photography, and that this project’s exhibition is just the starting point. He is in the early stages of establishing a nonprofit called Creative Exposure through the Arts to mentor and teach photography skills to Charlotte-area youths who face challenging financial and family circumstances.

He said the nonprofit will give such youths an artistic skill that can turn into a business opportunity; but he also said the camera is a vessel for delivering life skills, such as how to build relationships with clients, speak and act professionally and connect to the greater community.

“Exposure to the arts is exposure to life,” he said.

Crystal O’Gorman is a freelance writer:

Want to help?

To donate to the project or host an “Inked” viewing, visit or contact Mark Pendergrass at Follow CEA at or on Twitter @CeaMark.