TAMPA — On busy Kennedy Boulevard across the street from the University of Tampa athletic fields, three tall black flags with “Tattoo” emblazoned on them flap in the wind outside of a nondescript building. It’s the only indication that inside the shop, one of the world’s most famous movie stars has realized his dream of bringing a tattoo clubhouse to life.
Once inside, the name is revealed: DC Society Ink. Set in bold block letters against a charcoal brick wall with red backlighting, the logo looks like the cover of a comic book. It’s fitting, since the shop is the brainchild of Marvel actor Dave Bautista.
Bautista, who has a house in the Tampa Bay area, is the star of the zombie heist hit Army of the Dead and the Oscar-winning sci-fi film Dune, not to mention his star-making turn in the Marvel universe as Drax the Destroyer, the lovably dense alien in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. But this recent venture hits closer to home.
He recently visited the shop while on a brief break back home in Tampa. Sporting a red Washington Nationals cap from his childhood hometown of Washington, D.C., he admits he is tired. He’s in the middle of an “exhausting” shoot in Atlanta for Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3, in what he has said is his last installment in the film franchise. He spends hours getting made up into the gray leathery skin of Drax, an alien covered in markings and tattoos, not unlike the former professional wrestler who plays him.
He will spend the rest of April wrapping up the movie, and also what sounds like a very funny Guardians Christmas special coming to the Disney+ streaming service later this year.
Then on May 2, he heads to Philadelphia to star in M. Night Shyamalan’s next film, Knock at the Cabin, another sign of his growing status as a respected performer in the entertainment industry. The lauded director praised Bautista, saying via Twitter, “You have shown strength not in the obvious ways but in choosing risky roles and making yourself vulnerable.”
So just as his acting career is really taking off, he opens a high-end tattoo studio in Tampa. It’s been a longtime dream.
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“I’m just the money guy,” he said, waving to the many architectural embellishments he dreamed up that took more than a year to put into a space that used to be a boxing gym. His partner in the enterprise is his personal tattoo artist John Kural, who has been operating in the Tampa Bay area for more than 25 years.
“This is completely personal for me. I don’t need this, my career is doing great, but this is like a clubhouse for me,” Bautista said. “I wanted to create an environment for people who want to get a tattoo but they don’t want to go into one of those tattoo parlors. It’s intimidating and scary and your average person is uncomfortable in that environment.”
They have brought in more than half a dozen highly regarded tattoo artists who fetch up to $300 per hour to create intricate skin designs. The name DC Society Ink comes from Bautista’s childhood home (and his motto “Dream Chaser”), and also their hope that they create a space where tattoo artists and people who love tattoos feel comfortable hanging out.
“We wanted to make it a ‘society’ in that we have a feeling of family, but also a higher class society,” Kural said. “We wanted to create an experience.”
Tattooing goes back centuries, and in the past few decades it has emerged from the shady image of outlaws and subculture to a mainstream form of self-expression. Roughly 30 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo, according to a poll by market researcher Ipsos, and that number climbs to 40 percent for those under 35. Bautista’s Avengers: Infinity War co-star Scarlett Johansson has nine tattoos, including a huge piece across her back with a lamb surrounded by roses.
Bautista’s tattoo shop has a steampunk vibe, with gleaming black terrazzo floors and industrial flourishes like exposed duct work and a chain-link fence offering a peep at the artists at work from the lobby. There are nods to the owner’s movie career with his movie posters along the walls, such as Blade Runner 2049 and the 2019 buddy action comedy Stuber.
It also has luxe touches, with oversized black velvet seating and customer consultation tables that are handmade slabs of knotty oak and cedar held up on cast-iron bases made of cogs and gears. A soundtrack plays hip-hop and rock, but you won’t hear that buzzing sound so readily associated with typical tattoo parlors. The tattoo machines are specially made to operate silently as tiny needles jab skin with ink, like mini sewing machines. Kural thinks the quiet is a good stress reducer.
Mia Lanz, 41, a Tampa fitness and life coach, was in the shop recently to have Kural continue work on her first multicolor series of images over the length of her right arm, called a “sleeve” in tattoo parlance. She will be needled over the course of four to six hours in multiple sessions.
“When people are younger and get tattoos they usually regret it,” Lanz said as Get Back, the hit song by rapper Ludacris, played over the shop’s speakers from her Apple Watch playlist. “In my case I’m a little older, and that’s when you know what you want.”
In an earlier session she had a vivid multicolored tiger tattooed on her lower arm, and Kural was adding a three-point crown to the tiger, a bright pink hibiscus and a hummingbird to the collage that ran from her shoulder to her wrist. Every image has meaning to Lanz, who projects herself as a fierce single mom of two “princes.”
“Some people hang their art on the wall and some people wear it,” Lanz said. “It’s like an expression of what they have been through.”
The artists at DC Society Ink do everything from vivid watercolor tattoos to time-consuming “dotwork” that uses a series of small spots to create a striking visual effect. Russian-born artist Julia Penza, who moved from fine art to creating delicate and intricate images on skin, is one of their most recent hires.
They’ve also enlisted Big Jay the Barber, whose real name is Justin McNab. He made his name helming Razorz Edge Barbershop, a favorite of WWE wrestlers and local celebrities. For DC Society Ink, he performs scalp micropigmentation (called SMP for short) on balding customers who get a close shave on the hair they do have. The barber then enhances the hairline using micro-needles to deposit pigment on the scalp.
“It’s a cosmetic tattoo that makes it look like you just got a fresh buzz cut,” McNab said as he patiently worked the head of Willie Cameron, a custom wheel and tire shop owner from Clearwater. It can take three to six hours over two or three sessions to slowly fade in a series of dots in a procedure that starts at $1,200.
“I was amazed to see after, what it comes out to be,” Cameron said. “I’m like, ‘Man, that looks just like hair.’”
Kural has been Bautista’s personal tattoo artist since 2006 and said he was “honored” to have been asked to join him in the enterprise. Bautista said it was a natural extension of their relationship and his circle of friends.
“This is a personal investment. It’s not going to be making me big money, I know that,” Bautista said. “But I have an investment in this because this is my community and this is what I love. These are my people.”