A sure sign that tattoos have gone mainstream came in 2011, when Mattel introduced a tattooed Barbie doll to little public comment. Tattoos are by now just as much a part of personal adornment as jewelry or any other accessory — so much so that even the word itself has become almost obsolete, replaced by the more prosaic “body art.” This is all good news for Kerry Burke, who owns the Hendersonville body-art studio Heart of Gold, and was able to move the business earlier this year from a tiny space far from downtown to a roomy new studio on 5th Avenue.
Burke attributes the broader acceptance of body art to the shifting boundaries of personal statement fostered by social media. “Everyone is sharing everything,” she explains. “You can create a Pinterest board of tattoos you never would have otherwise seen. I have a sense of a growing mass tolerance, and I think social media may be creating a space for it to be okay for people to look different.”
But for her, tattoos were never anything unusual, even as a child. “I grew up in the tattooed arms of my stepdad,” she says, “and have always been intrigued by the power of the images people choose.”
Reasons for self-adornment are “important and personal,” she adds. “I want my clients to leave feeling that their insides now better match their outsides.” (She relies on her clients’ personal histories and references when designing for them, although some clients bring their own designs which she then adapts.)
Burke’s speciality is blackwork, the tattoo equivalent of a black-and-white drawing. Her proprietary designs were initially inspired by the work of a group of male artists who specialized in so-called neo-tribal art forms derived from the traditions of indigenous peoples. “I loved the hardness and severity of the images,” she says. “The shapes seem to be meant for the body parts that they adorned, like some kind of tribal markings reborn from a past life. I wanted to tattoo like the guys.”
But she soon discovered her own symbolism in botanical designs. Now they’re a signature of her work and a means of rediscovering her own femininity. “The floral images come organically from me. They’re inspired by the connection I have with the women who seek me out,” she says.
Burke’s career began when she and her husband Derek Ian stopped in Taos, New Mexico, during a cross-country car trip. Liking the artistic and alternative lifestyle of the city, they settled in for a longer stay, and while there Burke met the well-known tattoo artist Missy Rhysing. She was taken on as Rhysing’s apprentice and began her education in body art, soon joined by her husband, who was drawn to body piercing and began his own apprenticeship.
Moving back east, the couple settled in Asheville and found work in a studio there. But the birth of their daughter Bella brought a desire to own their own studio and manage their own family time. Their first small space in Henderson County was on Chimney Rock Road, where Ian saw to the daily parenting duties as the business grew and other artists were taken on before the move downtown came along. The couple now work together at Heart of Gold, and are proud that they’re the only body artists in the Hendersonville area who are certified by the industry’s national body, the Association of Professional Piercers.
Tattoos have become so commonplace that it’s almost become an act of rebellion to not sport any, and that’s fine with Burke. “Not getting tattooed is as personal a choice as getting tattooed,” she says, “and making personal choices based on what others are doing is silly.” But the business is undoubtedly growing, with a jewelry line added to the studio’s offerings.
“I’m endlessly amazed by the primal urge to mark, decorate, and identify differently with our own skin. Humans have an innate ability to change, and I’m honored to be a part of that process.”