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These Six Tattoo Artists Are Changing St. Louis, One Body at a Time 

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click to enlarge "I try not to box myself into a corner," says Chelsea Holloway. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • "I try not to box myself into a corner," says Chelsea Holloway.

Chelsea Holloway

Earth Alchemy

For Chelsea Holloway, however, the "democratization of knowledge" has given her — and others — the opportunity to join a field that once was insular.

"I feel like the more open people are, the better people get, and the more chances minorities get to enter the field," she says. "The more it gives a level playing field so that you don't have to fit a specific white guy profile to be a successful artist."

Holloway, 33, certainly doesn't fit that profile herself. Like most other artists, she's collected tattoos for herself over the years. But as the mother of two children, she hasn't had much time to participate in some of the rites of passage of her trade, traveling all over the globe in pursuit of more styles and skin to put to ink. But that hasn't stopped her from applying her fine arts education to learn the form, producing excellent work, and — after a number of odd jobs and seven years of tattoo gigs — opening up her own shop last year.

Holloway, who grew up in St. Louis County, says she wanted to be a tattoo artist since she was sixteen — perhaps not coincidentally, her age when she got her first ink. "It was totally different," she says. "It was a street shop by a military base, where I picked some tribal [designs] off the wall."

Now she does her work in a much different way. Earth Alchemy Tattoo Collective, her shop on Cherokee Street, stands in sharp contrast to the darker environments of many street shops. It has a totally windowed storefront, soft pastel walls, vintage-looking boxes and framed artwork — what Holloway describes as a "very zen kind of atmosphere."

"It doesn't feel like you're walking into some place where all these super cool people are judging you," she says — an experience she says she's had walking into some parlors herself.

Earth Alchemy was born from Holloway's frustration with the standard tattoo establishment business structure, in which artists generally give a large cut (often around 50 percent) to an owner in exchange for space. She wanted to democratize: share resources, cut overhead costs and work independently, rather than artists giving a percentage to a shop owner. So she opened her "collective," a co-op shop where artists rent their own spaces and control their own business.

Their business model isn't the only thing that's untraditional. Earth Alchemy is one of just two shops in St. Louis that's run by and filled mostly with women. (The other, Lucky Cat Tattoo, opened just this year, staffed by three of St. Louis' most popular lady artists.)

The shop also has no flash, which means all the work is custom, and the artists don't have a stylistically specific framework. That gives them the freedom to explore different styles, different inks, different skins. "I try not to box myself into a corner," she says.

Many of the tattoos she's gotten are traditional, and she loves them. But as an artist, she finds the style limiting. "It's very much a boys' club sort of thing, the code. Traditional is where it all started so it's very important to them to hold onto that," she explains, adding, "And it is a great style." Especially for learning about what works and what doesn't.

Holloway more often works in thinner lines and softer colors, sometimes using a neo-traditional style that modernizes and adds dimension to the art. Her designs are recognizable by their incredibly clean, delicate linework. Some of the most striking are delicate flowers, bright faces, geometric designs washed in pastels.

As a newer shop owner and mother, she hasn't had the time to develop and explore as much as she'd like. But it's all part of a journey; the quest is endless. "I really feel like there's no ceiling as to how far you can take your art," she says.

Holloway says she'd like to create more tattoos she's really inspired by. She recalls being commissioned to design an "alien monster" — something she didn't think would excite her. But she started drawing and loved the experience of imagining the creature from nothing.

"It reminds me of being a kid and what inspired me to get into art in the first place," she says. "So far I haven't been able to use tattooing that way, but it's totally possible. I see artists doing it all the time." She says she hopes she'll be able to build her clientele toward that.

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