A mid-tattoo Q&A with Tattoo Phoenix owner, artist Kevin Khu

By Courtney Triplett

When I walked into Tattoo Phoenix in Greensboro wearing my red high heels, I knew I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I had just come from a bridal shower for my high school best friend and was still dressed semi-formally. I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Realizing my awkwardness, I smiled politely at the receptionist and approached his desk.

        “Hi, um… is Kevin here? I’m interviewing him and hopefully shadowing him for a story today.”

Just like that, a head poked around the corner. It was Kevin, gloves on, wearing a glowing head lamp that reminded me of something a coal miner would wear.

        Hey… Courtney, right? Just give me 10 minutes; I’m finishing up a tattoo now.”

I walked across the waiting area and found a seat in a cushy armchair. I sat surrounded by five or six other people, mostly women, facing an enormous antique pool table. The table was offset by a large taxidermied wolf perched purposefully on top of some shelves; it looked ferocious and seemed to be staring right at me, teeth bared, as I nervously tapped my heels with anticipation.

The shop was on the small side and wasn’t flashy in any sense of the word. The furniture was clearly worn, and the waiting area almost had the feel it had been thrown together at the last minute. That was a part of its charm; the shop felt comfortable and easy rather than harsh and intimidating, like I’d imagine other shops could be.

I wasted time on my phone, checking social media and going over interview questions while I waited on Kevin to finish up. He had been working for almost six hours on an intricate pocket watch tattoo when I arrived at 4:30 p.m. After about 10 minutes, he emerged from the back room, looking worn but confident. He was tall, dressed casually in a pair of dark skinny jeans and a black T-shirt. He removed his helmet light, smoothed his black hair back into place with a stroke of his hand and broke into a huge smile.

        “It’s so cool that you want to interview me. That’s pretty crazy. I think that while we are interviewing I should give you a tattoo. Have you ever been tattooed while you interview?”

I let out a giggle. Of course I haven’t — but with the idea now in my head, how could I say no?

        “All right, let’s do it.”

I wanted a tiny tattoo, something small and simple and easily hidden. I picked out a picture of a sun from Google, and Kevin, eyeballing it a couple of times, sketched it perfectly onto some paper in less than a minute.

I’m extremely close with my younger sister Hannah, and we decided when she turned 18 that we would get matching tattoos. We chose  a moon and sun on the side of our heels — she was always the perfect balance for me, and I for her. She went ahead and got her moon tattoo months ago, and I was finally getting around to my end of the bargain… I couldn’t wait to surprise her.

Kevin motioned to me and I followed him to the small room in the back. The walls in the room were technicolor, covered in various paints and signed in Sharpie by hundreds of happy customers. There was a black leather chair meant for me to lie down on, and next to it, a small table filled with scary-looking equipment. I noticed the needle right away and felt queasy. I climbed up into the chair, took several deep breaths and removed my shoes.

        “So, how did you get into tattooing? Where did that stem from, and what inspired you to do this full-time?”

Kevin began wiping down my heel with alcohol and readying his equipment. I watched as he dipped the long needle in dark black ink.

        “Well, I never really grew up wanting to be a tattoo artist … it just kinda happened. I started hanging out at my brother-in-law’s shop in Greensboro, and he really encouraged me to pursue tattooing because I loved art so much and didn’t really have another job.

        “I usually drew all the time when I was at school, but my parents told me I should stop because drawing wouldn’t take me anywhere in life … and now here I am.”

He placed a piece of wax paper on my ankle for a few seconds and then pulled it off, leaving behind a tracing of my tiny tattoo. He looked up at me:

        You ready?”


I kept talking as he put on plastic gloves and loaded the needle into the gun, rambling out of sheer nerves at this point.

        “So, um… tell me about the shop. How long have you been an owner here?”

Kevin, head lamp now on, leaned over my ankle and began.

I cringed. Ow, this really hurt. I caught a glimpse of my blood and had to look away.

        “I have owned this place with my partner Kim since I was 17 years old. I’m 27 now if that tells you anything. I used to work in High Point … they’re like family to us, but they didn’t exactly treat us right as employees because of that. So we decided to open our own shop.”

I was taking deep breaths to deal with the pain. Kevin had to hold my foot steady with one hand as he tattooed with the other.

        So what is the most intricate tattoo you have ever done… And have you ever turned down a tattoo down because you couldn’t do it, or do you like the challenge?”

He chuckled.

        “Well of course you gotta’ turn down some people if you don’t know how to do something. But for me, I always know how to do it.

        “But to answer your first question, when I first started out, I did a Koi fish on someone’s ribs, and it was pretty intense. It took me about eight hours. I only charged her a little bit. Sometimes it’s not about the money; it’s about the challenge and the artwork.

As I was watching Kevin tattoo, I noticed that he didn’t have any tattoos at all, at least not that I could tell.

        “Kevin, do you have any tattoos?”

He laughed.

        “I knew you would ask. No, I don’t. Isn’t that funny, a tattoo artist that doesn’t have any tattoos?”

I asked him why that was, and he told me it was because he didn’t like needles, despite the fact he used them every single day of his career. He insists, however, that using needles and having them used on you is a completely different thing.

        You know that famous painter, da Vinci? Well, he painted things as a part of his art, but he never felt the need to paint himself, if that makes any sense. It’s much more about creating art for me.”

He turned the gun off and told me I was all done. Even though had it been less than five minutes, I breathed a sigh of relief that the pain was over. My tiny sun turned out exactly as I wanted it, and I smiled as Kevin blotted and bandaged my permanent souvenir.

        “This looks so good; thank you so much!”

I fished for my wallet inside of my purse, but when I found it, Kevin waved his hand, immediately dismissing it. He insisted on giving me the tattoo for free. I was taken aback by his generosity and thanked him again.

        Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you see yourself continuing to tattoo and own the shop?”

He paused at this question and began toying with his hair, clearly giving it some thought. After a few seconds, he nodded to himself and turned back to me.

        “I know I see myself tattooing. I never get bored with it. I get bored easily, but every tattoo and every person is different every day. I love that; I really do.”

I watched as his eyes sparkled with clear passion. His love for art was obvious and refreshing. Gathering my belongings, I had one final question for him.

        “What would you tell anyone who wanted to get into tattooing?”

He replied, “Just don’t give up if you want to be a tattoo artist. Pursue your dreams. If people put you down — and there’s a lot of people and even other artists that will put you down so that way you won’t achieve your goals — just don’t listen to them and keep doing what you’re doing.

“Just go for the gold … you never know — you could own your own shop or be famous one day. You could put a tattoo on Kendall Jenner or something. Just don’t give up.”

Edited by Danny Nett