Southern Grace Tattoo Gallery owners look to make a lasting impression — literally

FRESH INK: Cartersville couple live out dreams with local tattoo shop

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As if their names didn't give it away, "D" and Santana Gossett aren't exactly your run-of-the-mill mom and pop business owners.

Whereas other local small businesses hold events to celebrate Easter, their shop holds sales to commemorate Friday the 13th. And while some retailers in Bartow line their walls with Van Gogh and Matisse prints, the walls of the Gossett family business feature artwork based on 1950s monster movies and those old Garbage Pail Kids trading cards.

But then again, Southern Grace Tattoo Gallery at 790 Burnt Hickory Road S.W., Suite B, in Cartersville isn't meant to be a "normal" workplace, practically (if not literally) by design. 

"I've always drawn, so it was sort of an instant gratification way of selling your art," said co-owner D, whose real first name is the decidedly less enigmatic: "Keith."

With 16 years of experience in the field, D, 46, is no Johnny Come-Lately to the tattoo industry. His spouse and business partner Santana (which is her real first name) is no amateur, either, having worked in the tattoo/piercing field for about 11 years.

"I always found it fascinating that you could wear pictures on skin," Santana, 38, said. "That you live and breathe and walk and carry your art with you throughout your life."

Southern Grace isn't the Gossetts' first time being tattooing entrepreneurs. In 2009 they opened Nosferatu Tattoo in Calhoun. After that shop closed, they plied their trade all over the country, including stops in Wyoming, Florida and Pennsylvania.

"We traveled a lot and we decided to come home," D said. "The kids were not wanting to move, so we opened up here."

The Gossetts both grew up in Bartow and attended Cass High School. They currently reside in Euharlee.

They've been wed for 17 years and have three children."We met through mutual friends," Santana said. "We got married six weeks later."

The Gossetts opened Southern Grace in 2015. Over the last three years D said the business has seen steady growth, with a particularly noticeable bump in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

"Sometimes we may only do a couple of people and sometimes we'll do 15 to 20," he said. "It just depends on the day."

With cable TV glutted with programs like "Ink Master," "Tattoo Fixers" and "Black Ink Crew," he said it's pretty much inarguable that tattooing — formally a fringe art form — has gone mainstream.

And he's not just getting customers from nearby places like Canton, Kennesaw and Hiram. He's getting them from all up and down the East Coast. 

"We have people travel down here from Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia," he said.

As for the most popular contemporary designs, he said basic script tattoos are in high demand. "A lot of people will come in and get a saying or a full quote," he said. 

More "neo-traditional-style stuff" is also coming into fashion, he added. "We get people wanting the wood print-style stuff, where it's just black line work."

Watercolor-style designs are frequently requested, too, Santana said. 

The shop does body piercings in addition to tattoos. Nose rings and nipple rings are their most popular selections. 

And yes, they do pierce just about everything else, if a customer demands it.

"It's about the same as it is with anything else," Santana described some of their more unorthodox assignments. "There's no judgment passed or anything like that. You just handle the procedure as professionally and appropriately as you can, because your client is already very nervous."

Still, there are some invasive piercings, such as horizontal tongue piercings, they won't do. Nor will they give their customers any tattoos with racist or gang-related overtones. 

They also have a policy in place to not tattoo a client's hands, throat or face unless he or she is at least 80 percent covered in tattoos already. "That way you're already established in where you've been working or what you're doing in life and my tattoos are not going to hinder what you're doing," D said. 

Indeed, a placard in front of the store lets customers know that some of those tattoos could jeopardize their job opportunities, particularly those with military aspirations.

Regarding safety regulations, D said that in addition to being licensed by the health department, his crew is CPR, first-aid and bloodborne pathogens certified. 

Counting themselves, the shop has four employees. D said an average work week is about 60-70 hours. "There are times you will not walk out of this place until the sun comes up," he said.

With technology progressing, Santana said the job has almost become a 24/7 gig. Even when they're not at the shop, she said they're still putting in plenty of work at home.

"It's very time-consuming. Obviously if we're not here and the doors aren't open we're not making money," she said. "Trying to juggle family versus your job can get very frustrating. Do you take a vacation or do you stay at work?"

As for additional revenue streams, D does art in more traditional platforms, like paper and canvas. Among other assignments, he's been commissioned to design the logos for a couple of different local sports teams. 

D also sells prints and custom-made tattoo equipment and arm rests at conventions, while Santana supplements their income with her handcrafted hair bows and crochet projects.

The Gossetts are currently working on launching their own clothing line — perhaps as a plan B in case automation someday disrupts the tattoo industry, too. 

"They're always trying to work something different and they're always coming out with something new, [such as] the technology we're using to actually do the applications," D said. "At some point, we'll probably be obsolete and it'll be a computer somewhere doing this on a plotter-type machine."

As for their own ink, D said he's collected about 50 different tattoos while Santana said she lost count years ago. Whereas D's favorites are his assortment of zombie tattoos, Santana said her favorites are a tattoo of a grasshopper on her arm and a pickle jar on her shoulder — both of which are loving homages to her grandmother.

"The most rewarding thing is we're doing what we love to do," she said. "And we're here to offer our community a service. That's why we moved back to Bartow County from Pennsylvania — we wanted to come back home."

With Pew Research Center data indicating at least 40 percent of millennials have one or more tattoos — and IBISWorld projecting an annual U.S. market revenue of $2 billion — the tattoo industry looks like it's only going to get more lucrative in the years ahead.

And as to what's driving that consumer demand, D offers a rather simple explanation. 

"I think it's just the fact you can express yourself through art on yourself and it lasts forever," he said. "It's the only thing you can take to the grave with you."