Chemist by day, tattoo artist by night

Since Sam Kirby, a Carrboro resident, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in chemistry, he has been working in a lab in Raleigh that produces LED lights. But on nights and weekends he dives into his true passion—tattooing.

Fowler_tattoo1FINALJackson Phetxumphou, a former tattoo shop owner, said it is difficult to get an apprenticeship because many tattoo artists are unwilling to train new people.
Kirby said his love for drawing is what got him interested in tattooing.

“About four years ago, I had an opportunity to pick up a tattoo gun for the first time,” he said.

“I laid down a few lines on an orange peel and fell in love with the new challenge the gun presented.

Practice makes perfect

Kirby said he practices tattooing on things like pig ears, because they simulate the feel of human skin. He said he also occasionally practices on some of his close friends.

“Some of my friends have no problems letting me tattoo a new design on them,” he said. “They know what to expect, and it’s free.”

Jordan Eggen, a friend of Kirby, has served as a practice canvas for Kirby.

“I’ve known Sam since we were little kids, and he could always draw,” he said.

“I had no problem letting him do a few tattoos on me, because I knew they would look good.

Kirby said he doesn’t think people understand how hard tattooing is compared to just drawing or painting.

“First of all, you have to learn to be steady with a machine that weighs several pounds and is constantly vibrating,” he said.

Kirby expresses his passion for drawing and art with his tattoo gun and various inks. (Staff photo by Trey Fowler)
Sam Kirby expresses his passion for drawing and art with his tattoo gun and various inks. (Staff photo by Trey Fowler)

“Then, you have to figure out how you can apply your design to a canvas as complex as human skin.”

Kirby said since he devotes hours a week to developing his tattooing skills, people find it peculiar that he does not have a single tattoo himself.

“I love tattoos. I love artwork. I just haven’t found something I really want on my body for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’m sure I will someday.”

Breaking into the industry 

Kirby said although he knows it is difficult to get started in the industry, he hopes to get a part-time apprenticeship at a tattoo shop.

“Most shops aren’t doing apprenticeships, and even if you land one, you usually have to commit several years of regular labor before you start to actually learn the trade,” he said.

“Lots of the guys who’ve been around don’t have the time or the patience to train a new artist,” he said.

“There’s also always a lot of competition so some guys would prefer not to contribute to the number of trained artists in their area.”

Kirby said he plans to continue developing his science career and his career as a tattoo artist.

“I like my lab job, and I need money, but I love tattooing,” he said.

“I’m not sure it will ever be a career for me, but I expect it to always be a big part of my life.”

Edited by Kathryn Trogdon and Jasmin Singh

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Author of the article

Trey is a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill and writer-photographer for the Carrboro Commons.