Cody Abell’s path to tattoo

By Kenzie Cook

The sound of metal music reverberates through the small shop and mixes with the steady vibrating sounds of the tattoo gun. Conversation flows easily between the tattoo artist and his client.

The first customer I observe is one of Cody’s regulars, Logan. They are working on the almost-completed sleeve on Logan’s right arm. Logan’s girlfriend watches Cody work as he repeatedly pokes needles into her boyfriend’s skin. Prior to Logan’s arrival, Cody has spent close to two hours perfecting the stencils he created for the two new additions to the sleeve and cleaning up his area of the shop to health code standards.

“Do you watch combat movies?” Cody asks as he starts the needlework for a dagger that appears to be stabbing through Logan’s bicep. A discussion of Deadpool versus Spider-Man ensues, seeming to distract Logan from the pain.

Cody’s Path

Every tattoo artist has a different path he or she has taken into the profession, and Cody’s is by far the most interesting story I have heard. The main reason I find his story so intriguing is that he fell into the tattooing profession entirely by accident.

Cody did not have a normal childhood. By the time he reached the sixth grade, he had already been to 12 schools. His mother suffered from undiagnosed and untreated clinical issues, which led to her constantly lying, hurting people and running away from her problems. Once Cody was old enough to see her for who she truly was, problems began to arise between the two of them. The situation worsened when he interjected in a fight between her and her husband, which led to the state of Virginia filing assault charges against her.

By the time Cody had turned 18 and was preparing to graduate high school, his mother had given up on raising him. She and her husband moved away, leaving him alone in their home with only two months remaining on the lease. Luckily, the University of Virginia granted him a scholarship in theatrical arts, and friends’ families allowed him to bounce around their houses until he could move into the campus dorms.

While on campus, Cody had to find a job to pay for food and other necessities, so he became a receptionist for a local tattoo shop. Over the summer, the tattoo artists who worked there quit due to the questionable nature of the shop. The owner of the shop took it upon himself to teach Cody how to tattoo so the shop could stay in business. After his first few clients, he soon realized that the owner did not really know what he was doing when it came to teaching the art of tattooing, so he left to learn properly. He eventually dropped out of college, where he was studying marketing, to begin tattooing full time.

Now, nearly nine years later, he takes pride in his work and is not satisfied unless his customers are. He traces and retraces his artwork until it is practically flawless before putting it on his customers’ skin. He does not care how large or small each tattoo is. He wants each customer to love his work.

The walk

It is a long, chilly walk through the drizzling rain from Glenn’s Tattoo Service Inc. to Weaver Street Market. Cody takes this trip every day that he works, though the weather is not always this dreary.

“You’ve never been to the co-op?” he asks, incredulous. “I go here every day for a coffee and a water.”

Along the way, he recounts his first trip to the market last summer.

“My wife and I came down from Virginia to check out Glenn’s and decided to take a walk here. It was insanely hot and felt like the longest walk ever.”

Although he hated the heat, he does not seem to appreciate the cool rain either.

“If it’s raining when we head back, I’m not walking through it,” he said with a laugh. “I am not above ordering an Uber just to take me up a block.”

The Strongman

Aside from tattooing, Cody has a few side hobbies. He likes that the tattoo profession pays well enough for him to live his life exactly the way he wants to live it.

He has a personal coach and a dietician so he can train and build muscle for Strongman competitions. He won his first competition in October and qualified for the Nationals, which will take place in Las Vegas in November. He also is training for the North Carolina’s Strongest Man competition in May. These competitions do not pay whether you win or lose, and Cody recognizes that he would not be able to uphold his hobby if not for his successful job as a tattoo artist.

He also enjoys doing extreme activities, as long as he does not have to take a class or have a certification in order to do them. This fall, he plans to take his wife to Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Angels Landing is a large, steep rock formation that people hike with only a chain to keep them from plummeting to the ground 5,700 feet below.

The Ph.D. and the tattoo artist

Cody lights up when talking about his wife, who seems like his complete opposite. She has a Ph.D. in sociology and works as a data analyst for the state.

“I just thought of her as a friend because she is way too good for me. I mean, she’s got a Ph.D., what would she want with a guy with face tattoos?” He continues explaining that the two of them never actually dated. They just went straight from being friends to a short engagement and then got married in a courthouse after they moved to Durham.

Walk-ins welcome

People can request a tattoo on any part of the body. One of Cody’s walk-ins happened to want a tattoo of the UNC logo on his right butt cheek. His friend came for a much more reasonable location: his left foot. The two engaged in playful banter while the first tattoo was completed.

“How are you doing there, mate?” Eoin Buttanshall, the one waiting to have his foot tattoo done, asked.

“Not too bad,” Sam Sinclair replied with a red face.

“Can’t wait to see you with your ass out later.”

Eoin later explained that the two had made bets about tattoos surrounding the NCAA March Madness Championship game. They had bet that Carolina would lose, and since they lost the bet, they had to either get the symbol or “the ceiling is the roof” tattooed on themselves.

When getting a tattoo, I strongly suggest bringing a friend, even if it is just for moral support. Having a conversation with a person you are comfortable with serves as a solid distraction from the pain of needles constantly sticking into your skin.

Another set of friends came into the shop for a walk-in and had an entire conversation consisting of inside jokes that neither Cody nor I understood. Nevertheless, it did its job of distracting Maria Alvarez while she got a quote in French along her collarbone. Her friend Emily MacKillop’s tattoo idea was too intricate for a walk-in, so she had to make an appointment and leave a deposit.

When she came back the next day, Maria came with her and the same kind of conversation took place while she got her image of a moon inside a sun on her shoulder. Both girls were pleased with Cody’s work on their new ink.

“I love how it looks. He did a great job!” Emily said once her tattoo was finished.

The process

Wednesdays are generally slow days in the tattoo shop, so it is usually just Cody by himself or with one other tattoo artist. On both of the Wednesdays that I sat in on, Cody only had two appointments scheduled, with few walk-ins. In his free time, he works on sketches for upcoming tattoos and eats to fuel for his weight lifting.

Before each customer sits down for their new ink, Cody sets out the needles he will need and assembles his tattoo gun. He then sets out the required inks, covers everything at his station in plastic, sanitizes the chair that the customer will sit on and puts on his gloves. That is when the real fun begins.

Once the customer has signed the release form to allow Cody to tattoo them, they sit in the chair or lay on the table, depending on the placement of the tattoo. Cody asks if they are ready, the gun starts and there is no going back.

During the tattooing process, Cody continuously rubs petroleum jelly across the affected skin to keep it from tearing and scarring. He wipes away excess blood as he goes, completely unaffected by the bodily fluid.

Once the tattoo is finished, Cody covers it with more jelly and a wrap, takes the payment and sends them off with a card explaining how to properly take care of a new tattoo. The healing process takes up to four weeks and requires lots of care and protection from the sun and certain chemicals.


Although I did not receive my first tattoo from Cody, I did receive my favorite from him. All of the customers I spoke to shared my sentiment that Cody has amazing talent in the art of tattooing, despite that line of work not being his original career path. Cody has a special love for his work that leads to perfectionism, which results in near-perfect tattoos loved by all who receive them.

Edited by Samantha Miner