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

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click to enlarge Toph and Ty are the co-owners of Enigma Tattoos. "First time in the history of the world where an artist can maybe gain a little recognition before they're dead," says Ty. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Toph and Ty are the co-owners of Enigma Tattoos. "First time in the history of the world where an artist can maybe gain a little recognition before they're dead," says Ty.

Toph and Ty

Enigma Tattoos

For Toph and Ty, co-owners of a street shop on the Loop called Enigma Tattoos & Body Piercing, tattooing is a more pragmatic affair. Toph says, "We like to try and be able to accommodate everybody who talks through the door."

That doesn't always work out — they do get the occasional request that looks like something out of a "Top 10 Worst Tattoos" listicle, and as artists, they can't justify putting their names (and reputations) behind a hideous design, as less reputable shops sometimes do. "If it's gonna look like shit and my name's gonna be on it, I really don't want nothing to do with it," says Ty, the talker of the two.

The two became business owners just this year, when they bought the shop from its founder after each working there for a few years. A series of punk characters from The Simpsons taunt passers-by on Delmar. Ty plans to add a whole Fox-themed set of flash that includes characters from Bob's Burgers and Family Guy. Classic rock blares in the background.

Both began as fine artists in school — Toph, 38, playing with "a little bit of everything" and Ty, 31, progressing from oils to graffiti to tattooing, where he plans to remain for the rest of his career. (Those one-word names are stage names; in real life, they are Christopher McDermott and Tyler Acey, but use "Toph" and "Ty" for branding purposes.)

"Tattooing is the end-all-be-all," proclaims Ty. "First time in the history of the world where an artist can maybe gain a little recognition before they're dead. You gotta love that." Especially, he says, now that the medium is perceived as an "actual art form."

The shop walls are covered in a pastiche of cultural references — Ty has collected paintings and work by artists he likes, including Toph (who still dabbles in oil painting). The pair like their contractors to be artists in various media, not just ink on flesh. "Artist-owned shop, artist-rounded shop," says Ty. "We want to take care of the artists as much as the customers."

Their bodies of work differ. Toph works with portraits; Ty likes traditional work. They mix flash and custom, and they create all manner of tattoos in all manner of styles. Ty weaves sacred geometry into old flash and builds balanced designs in dotwork and linework, sometimes black and shading, sometimes colors. Toph likes photorealism, and some of his portraits look like they could be real. (Ty calls Toph "a computer scanner," but says he himself "won't touch a portrait.")

"All of our people got little different styles about them," says Ty. Enigma's other two artists like scripts, neo-traditional, and Japanese traditional. That diversity is an advantage, in some ways, over a specialty shop because if a returning client wants a different style tattoo, someone at Enigma is likely already an expert. No need to find a new shop.

"We try and work as a team overall, rather than just a bunch of guys doing their own thing," says Toph.

On the Loop, they field a mix of walk-ins and appointments, and although they do prefer appointments, all that foot traffic can be exciting. "It's not like you're working at a shop that's on an old country highway and there's a gas station up the road and just that mini-mall. Where, oh shit, you don't have a lot of real options on anything. Walk-in customers are gonna be slower and you won't have such a wide variety of art to choose from." In the Loop, Ty says, "You got all kinds of different skin, all kinds of different people, all kinds of different shit."

And Toph says the location has brought by far the best customers he's worked with: "They have good ideas, they have good attitudes." And that's what gets him excited — a flexible customer who will take his advice and let him do his job.

For Ty, the job has a simple appeal: It's somewhere he can be an artist in peace, sit there, and have people come to him because they like his work. "I just kinda do my own thing and try to make my customers happy," he says. "Just trying to make a living doing what I love."

"Yup. Story of our lives," adds Toph.

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