By Tom Maglio
In his latest album, Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle croons through a chorus: “You may forget / The why’s and where’s / of an old tattoo on your forearm there / but usually you recall the day you got one” on the track “Fresh Ink.” That song is actually only nominally about tattoos, and it’s way more about defining characteristics of who we are as people, but it still felt appropriate as I made my way to Sellers Ink tattoo parlor in Chestertown, Md.
And I do recall the day. It was blustery and cold, the sort of November day that heralds what kind of days are on the horizon. I had just been given some rough personal news, and I was staring down the road, blaring the above song and trying to re-discover my excitement for the day.
See, I wanted to get a tattoo for this Byways column. I, in fact, DID get a tattoo for this column, which is something that I’d bet a lot of columnists cannot say. The point of these features is to experience a local business or place and then write about it. We cover a lot of restaurants because it’s easy to find, experience and write about eating. We could do it three times a day, one hour each, and it’s easy to try food beforehand to see if we’ll like it. None of that applies to a tattoo parlor.
You’re scouting out talent in tattoo artists, scheduling an appointment, a consultation and then 2 to 5 hours in a chair, plus a week to let things heal. And then the kicker: you must like the result, and you must like the people who did it. That’s a tall order to roll the dice on, because if we don’t like an experience, we won’t write about it. Case in point: this is my second attempt to do this, and you’ll never hear a word about the first.
But Sellers Ink seemed like a solid bet, so I was able to push through my current personal crisis to make my appointment. Arriving a few minutes early, I ended up chatting with co-owner Matt Sellers outside and then inside as we waited for the head artist and owner, his wife Pam. After a few minutes talking with some of the apprentice artists and roaming the shop, my morning gloom had given way to genuine nervous excitement.
See, the tattoo industry is cool but weird, and tattoo shops are cool but weird. At least, all the ones I’ve been to. I’ve never stepped foot in a tattoo parlor that didn’t have ’80s slasher monsters decorated all over the place, for example. Pinups, zombies and deceptively nerdy merchandise as well. Sellers was no exception, with the striking inclusion of some preserved snakes and the like in jars.
This is not an aesthetic that is foreign to anyone with ink, and for someone with (at the time) six tattoos from four different shops, it can feel cool and familiar, especially if the staff is friendly and fun. The artists at Sellers fit that bill perfectly, and by the time Pam was ready to meet with me, we were all fast friends. The shops and artists may look like the most metal places and people you can find, but in my experience, the best ones are also sweethearts and total nerds.
I was excited to meet Pam: I had heard whispers of a talented tattoo artist in Chestertown, and when I was browsing her portfolio online, I realized this was her. (Anyone with a good tattoo has heard “nice ink, where’d you get it done?” before). Particularly her crisp linework and varied styles, but the Pokémon tattoos I’d seen of hers in the wild were what originally sparked my interest. I’d wanted one for a long time but never found an artist I fully trusted to adapt the style. But now, it looked like I was getting a Venusaur affixed to my skin. (If you don’t know what that is, ask the nearest age 8 or 30-something. It is a stout little flower-dinosaur.)
After sharing my publishing experience, the team at Sellers showed me their own digital magazine, 247 Ink Magazine. It’s … gorgeous to say the least, and the photography top-notch. Talk grew more excited, and I was feeling that familiar itchy need to get tattooed. This was just supposed to be an initial meeting: Pam is high in demand, and was booked out into February. But, as we talked, Pam checked her appointments and shrugged.
“My session today had to cancel. Wanna just do it now?”
I smiled and with no hesitation took off my jacket. “Absolutely.”
A half-hour of planning went as smooth as silk. She was quick to point out any issues she foresaw with placement (my right arm is crowded real estate) and worked with me to find solutions. I was impressed with how fast and willing she was to adapt to changes and tweaks I suggested, but still advocated as the expert to make sure I was getting the best tattoo possible. As someone with experience with different tattoo artists, Pam set a gold standard in friendly collaboration.
And then the ink itself. This is different for everyone. I’d never call myself a tough guy, in fact I’m the first to admit I’m annoyingly whiney when it comes to pain. But tattooing never bothered me, but I thought Pam had a nice, steady technique that made conversation easy and comfortable through the whole session.
And there WAS conversation. Over the course of the session, we discovered that she, Matt and I were all the same age and grew up in the same area, just outside of each other’s school districts. We talked about childhood in Annapolis, our love of our homes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the music of the early aughts and all things nerdy. By the time we had gotten underway, I had found the storm cloud over my head completely gone. I was too busy recounting being an Annapolitan during the days when Good Charlotte was just taking off, or comparing my favorite Pokémon with Pam and her team.
Several of her apprentices (I counted three) checked in during the tattoo and got wrapped up in conversation. These guys are great, and before long we were all showing off our various dorky tattoos and trying to make each other laugh. And for the record, each was talented in their own right, judging from their online portfolios. I also got to see one of them working that day, and I’d be more than happy to get some ink from them as well.
But there’s no doubt, Pam was a master. My tattoo was small, and she was efficient, but her attention to detail still kept me in the chair for almost three hours. Once it was all over, the results spoke for themselves.
Look, I love all my tattoos. I happen to think they’re pretty well designed and I’ve always been proud of how they look years later. Even if, as Darnielle points out in his song, “Usually they fade in the sun.” Some represent important building blocks in my life, like my wife, my favorite song from high school, my closest friends over the years, and some don’t. There’s no earth-shattering meaning behind the one I got in Sellers Ink, except that I’ve really liked this particular Pokémon for … oh god, that’s scary, over 20 years. But I can say beyond a doubt, Pam Sellers made it the best-looking tattoo on my body, and what’s more, she did it on a whim with no prep time whatsoever.
It’s been less than a month, and I’ve already gotten a handful of compliments on it. Accompanied by the usual “where’d you get it done?” I’m happy to point anyone who asks to Sellers Ink, from hardcore ink-enthusiasts to the occasional hobbyist like myself.
Anyone with ink would tell you it’s hard to find an artist you trust. A talent in art can sometimes breed an unpleasant sense of superiority, and years in the business can make permanently changing your skin “just another day at the office.” It’s not easy to find a great tattoo artist who manages to subvert those pitfalls. I can say for certain that the artists in Sellers Ink do.
What’s more, the general friendly, goofy vibe of the team turned a bad day around for me. There may not have been a strong “why” or “where” to the fresh tattoo on my arm, but I’ll certainly recall the day I got it.
It was a good one.
Find Sellers Ink at 516 Morgnec Road, Chestertown, Md., and online at facebook.com/sellersink.
Bay to the Beach: Byways is a regular column in which we explore interesting places and projects on the Delmarva Peninsula. Videos and more photos at baytobaynews.com/bay-to-the-beach-byways