Throwing an Axe Into Expectations

Zombies led celebrated tattoo artist out of the theme park

“One, Two, Puppy’s Coming For You”
A small dog channels Freddy Krueger under the pen of Nick Mitchell.

Nick Mitchell’s bold, macabre creations have morphed a lot from his early days working as a caricature artist at Busch Gardens. Currently a tattoo artist based in Richmond, Virginia, Mitchell was attending art school in Tampa and wandering the halls when he saw an artist crafting exaggerated representations of people with a pen and paper.

“I’d never seen it done before, and it just seemed like this magic trick. This guy just had a marker and a pad of paper, and he was messing these people’s faces up. It was pretty incredible.”

Beside the man was a stack of applications for art students to draw caricatures at the popular theme park on Florida’s central Gulf Coast. Before he knew it, Mitchell had worked as a manager for a contracted company at Busch Gardens for seven years, drawing faces and airbrushing T- shirts — a great basis, he says, for his current skills, with a lot of what he did there transferring over to tattooing.

He now co-owns a company called Zombie Caricatures, drawing inspiration from the 1980s horror genre. When he was growing up, Mitchell’s uncle had a huge VHS horror library. “I’d just treat his collection like it was [the video store] Blockbuster. I’d show up, grab a couple movies, and go to my grandparents’ house and watch them there. I grew up with Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, all that stuff.”

Eventually, those influences bled over into his day job — and transitioning to zombies actually opened up a lot of possibilities.

“Working at the theme park, you’d get your drawings rejected every day. Inevitably, someone didn’t like their caricature. It was a part of the job, especially if you’re staying true to the art form and really pushing their features,” Mitchell explains. But when he started depicting people as zombies, the dynamic changed. “I could exaggerate and nobody cared — [I was] pretty much free to push the art form as much as I wanted. You do a couple wounds and throw an axe into somebody’s head, it’s not them anymore — there’s separation in their mind.” 

The zombie-themed art led to the tattoo industry, with Mitchell specializing in new school designs (cartoon, line work, with lots of color) and exaggerated portraiture. “The transition to tattooing was challenging, of course. There’s that fear that this is going to be on somebody forever and it’s permanent. Once you can move past that fear, you’re golden,” he says. “It’s just repetition and practice, and learning the medium.”

To keep it fresh, he draws inspiration from several different sources in and out of the tattoo industry: Salvador Dali, the caricature artist Sebastian Krüger, comic books, movies, and animation.

“Watching horror movies, it was fun as a kid, but I never dreamed I’d be drawing this stuff for a living. It’s nice to revisit that industry as an adult and be able to contribute.”

“Nick Mitchell Hates You: Caricature 101,” a drawing seminar, happens at Continuum Art NC (147 Suite C on 1st Ave. East, Hendersonville) on Wednesday, April 20, 11am-4pm. $100. Mitchell will focus on “exaggeration, likeness, relationship between features, and anatomy, with a little bit of a zombie twist.” (The event will also be streaming online.) For more information, call 828-435-3300 or see continuumartnc.com. Mitchell will also be Continuum’s  guest tattoo artist through April 23. Find the artist on Instagram at @nickmitchellhatesyou

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