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Charlotte Observer: A Portrait Of The Tattoo Artist

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com,

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com, Charlotte Viewpoint and UNC-Charlotte to enhance arts coverage in our region. ARTS ALIVE CP: photograph Rodney Raines who owns Ace Tattoo /Gallery. Photo: T.Ortega Gaines As midnight approached on Nov. 11, tattoo artist Rodney Raines finished his last tattoo of the day - an entire 24-hour period spent inking the last in a series of 11-themed tattoos inspired by the 1984 rock 'n' roll comedy "This is Spinal Tap" that he started in February to commemorate the 11-11-11 date. Eleven is his lucky number. He named the Plaza Midwood art gallery and wine bar he opened in 2009 with his ex-girlfriend Twenty-Two "because there were two of us," he said. The "11" tats, which originated with one he did on a friend years ago, feature an amplifier knob with its dial turned to the 11 position because in the film, Christopher Guest's character, Nigel Tufnel, has his amplifiers dialed to 11, louder than standard amps. Raines only did "11" tattoos on the eleventh of each month for $11 - dirt cheap for any tattoo, let alone an artist considered one of the best in the Southeast. Before 2011 there were six. Now there are 174 with messages like "Mojo" or "Big Plans" where the word "volume" would be. "It became this social thing. People would camp out on the porch. They weren't quick either," said Raines, 38, who has 11 knobs, one for each month. "Everything I do, I do to 11." He isn't exaggerating. When he's not tattooing at Ace Custom Tattoo, the Plaza Midwood shop he purchased in 2005, he's hanging art for an opening at Twenty-Two, playing bass with his band the Poontanglers, drawing a concert flier or jetting off to tattoo conventions, where he's collected numerous awards. "At first there was little room for artistic freedom. It was more get them in and out the door," he said of his early days tattooing tribal designs and butterflies in Gastonia. Raines hails from Easley, S.C., and studied art at Lander University in Greenwood. "I was immediately minded toward doing large-scale work that was derivative of me going to college and studying sculpture." The idea of sporadic pictures derived from sailors who were tattooed at each port; the Asian world gravitated toward intertwined larger pieces, though those cultural differences have changed with the times. Most of Raines' early customers could only afford the former. Even if someone wanted an entire tattoo sleeve, they'd pay for it paycheck by paycheck. Raines, who got his first tattoo while studying in England at age 19, eventually had his entire left arm tattooed by an artist in New York as part of his own learning experience. Today he's covered in elaborate, colorful tattoos. "It's different. Watching it heal and where it turns and where the pivot points are," he explains. He tattooed friends and colleagues to add large-scale pieces to his portfolio and eventually began getting more of those kinds of requests. "Customers come back to my station and see they're not limited to (the options) that's on the wall." Building a reputation through convention appearances, awards and the work he was putting out in the public allowed Raines to explore the creative freedom he craved. Tattooing is now a collaborative process with the customer. Existing clients take priority over new ones, and he only books a month out due to his busy schedule. Tattoos as art form Over a decade ago Penny Craver, then owner of Tremont Music Hall, unknowingly inspired Raines. "She asked, 'Where did you have that done?'" he recalls about one of his full sleeves. "What she said next hit me like a bolt - 'Oh, you couldn't get that around here.' I thought, 'I've got to change that mentality.'" He set out to change the perception of tattoo art in Charlotte. Through events that showcased his fellow tattoo artists' fine arts pursuits as painters, illustrators and mixed-media artists, he attempted to change the perception of tattoo as an art form. His vision for Twenty-Two was similar. Raines, who also collects art, wanted to display work he wasn't seeing at Charlotte galleries. He also wanted it to be affordable, which allows customers who may have never purchased art before to start collecting. "I had a group show, maybe the first December, and one of the artists bought a piece of artwork for the first time. He was a guy in his 30s that had never bought anything up to that point," Raines said. While some work is more traditional, he's also featured pop culture-friendly themes like skateboards, zombies, comic book art and a tribute to punk band the Misfits. His latest group exhibit, "Countdown," runs through the end of January. On the big screen Raines has tattooed as far away as England and Japan and has inked celebrities including Steve Smith, but his work will receive a much wider audience when the upcoming Matthew McConaughey/Reese Witherspoon film "Mud" is released in 2013. Raines was commissioned to design the stars' tattoos for the film, which turned out to be an arduous process. "I had no freedom at all," said Raines, who is accustomed to creating custom artwork on the fly for clients who trust his skills and judgment. McConaughey's jailhouse tattoo of a cottonmouth snake proved grueling. "I would show them something that would work as a tattoo where the turns need to be made and where the emphasis needs to be for your focal point, but I had to fall to the director's desires and do what he wanted," Raines said. He was given more freedom with other designs and is open to doing it again. "It's cool to have my work on Reese Witherspoon, being an Oscar-winning actress, even though it was painful in the middle of the process." This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts. Check out the art Easley, S.C.-native Rodney Raines, 38, took over Ace Custom Tattoo (1312 Thomas Ave.; 704-342-3661) in 2005 and opened Twenty-Two a block away in 2009. His original artwork, which is sometimes displayed in group shows at the gallery, is also available at acecustomtattoo.com. What: Gallery Twenty-Two, which doubles as a wine bar, is showing "Countdown," a group exhibit that signals the new year. When: 7 p.m.-2 a.m., through Jan. 28. Where: 1500 Central Ave. Details: 704-334-0122; gallerytwentytwo.com