We're celebrating Women's History Month with a new blog series, Revolutionary Women in the Tattoo Industry. In this series, we'll be featuring interviews with trailblazing female tattoo artists and diving into the history of tattooing. This week we were honored and excited to interview tattoo artist and shop owner, Sunshine McCurry. Sunshine is passionate about tattoo education and the true art form that is tattooing.
How did you get into the tattoo industry? What was your background before becoming a tattoo artist?
When I started tattooing it was by total accident. I fell in love with a biker dude and I was tattooing in motorcycle clubs right out of college. When I was supposed to go back to college, I didn’t go back. I had a double major in English and history, a minor in art. I was a baker by trade. I fell into tattooing because I could sculpt and draw. When I started tattooing there were no laws. You had to wear gloves but people would reuse needles, run them through a dry heat sterilizer and sharpen them again. We tattooed in a mobile unit where we went from one place to the next. I fell in love with the freedom of that life. We would be invited to rallies and we’d get to tattoo there.
In 1992 the APT was formed and they started writing the tattoo laws in NC but they didn’t go through until 96. As of now, right now, tattoo laws have not been updated since 1992. I believe in NC we should have a higher standard for enforcing laws because a lot of people are tattooing from home.
What made you decide to open your tattoo shop?
Eventually, I set up a shop of my own because nobody would hire me. There were two shops near me and neither one would hire me because I was a female. Back then people wanted a male tattoo artist.
Biker dude and I ended up getting married, he had a motorcycle shop and I had a tattoo shop. We brought together our shops and called in Iron/Ink. About ten years ago we got divorced, he got Iron/Ink motorcycles, I got Iron/Ink tattoos. Now it’s called Sunshine’s Iron and Ink.
Tell us about your apprenticeship.
The man I learned to tattoo from was Smokey McCurry. He wanted a female apprentice, he thought they learned to tattoo faster and had more of an eye for detail. He saw what I could do as far as drawing and sculpting. I was working in a motorcycle shop on top of learning to tattoo.
What an accomplishment you’re particularly proud of?
I was the first person with a setup and a sterilized room, a cleanroom. I said come inspect me, I want my shop to be legal; that’s how I became the first person in western North Carolina to have a permit.
What’s your favorite part of tattoo history?
I love the circus aspect of tattoo history. As a kid I wanted to be an acrobat. When I started tattooing I was given a book, Tattooing A-Z, and it was all about Spaulding and Rogers, Paul Rogers. My first machines were Spaulding and Rogers machines. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandparents in Spindale, North Carolina. I was going through a bunch of tattoo historical archives and I found a picture of Paul Rogers doing a handstand, in downtown Spindale in the 1940s. I love the history of the circus people who were tattooed and the tattooed ladies. That was my first exposure to tattooing, through the circus. I love where we come from through the circus and tattooing. I do a lot of touch-ups for men that say “I got this tattoo years ago for fifty cents at the circus.”
Have you made a lot of friends in the tattoo industry? Can you tell us a particular story?
My mom ran a rental property and I was helping her clean out units, that’s where I found some tattoo magazines. I was flipping through one and found this guy wearing the same shirt I had. I took that as a sign. I called up Smokey and said okay I’ll learn to tattoo from you. Years later this man I saw in the magazine, I ran into at a tattoo convention. That man was Lyle Tuttle. We had the same shirt, the same socks, it was like we were kindred spirits. From then on anytime we were at a show, he’d come find me. He was cool. I have a lot of tattoo friends everywhere. I miss Lyle big time. I have a big portrait of him hanging in the lobby. Seeing him in that magazine in my shirt I took that as a sign saying you need to go try this. Here I am, all this time later.
Supplies have changed a lot, what’s a change that you feel has benefited you?
I wish supplies had not changed. I can produce more tattoos now with the iPad and computerized things. I use cartridges and rotary machines, but if supplies had never changed we would not have the giant influx and over-saturation we have now. If people still had to build their own needles, mix their own pigments (I have nothing against pre-dispersed pigments, I use them), and order powders - if it were still kept secret and held close to your heart, then tattooing wouldn’t be oversaturated like it is now. I like the idea of disposable stuff, we were the first shop to be all disposable. In the whole realm of things, I wish people still needed to make their own needles and pigments because there’d be more respect for the art. There'd be more respect for the beauty of tattooing instead of it being an industry. I hate that word, tattooing is a craft it’s something you make for someone for a lifetime.
What’s your experience been like with the NTA and APT?
NTA, to me, was more of a family. I love that they worked hand and hand with APT. They donated tons of products from the National Tattoo Company. They donated a lot of stuff to APT for teaching. I think continued education is an important part of tattooing, I think it should be required every year.
APT was a very big deal as far as health and safety, from my aspect. I learned a lot through their bloodborne pathogens class that I didn’t know, things that weren’t taught anywhere else at the time. They help formulate classes that help tattoo artists identify certain skin conditions. As tattoo artists, they helped make us better and they made us able to better protect our health.
Seeing as this is Women’s History Month, who is or who are influential women in your life?
My Grandma, Lela Harper, she was as influential as they come. She was the person who made me love, she worked hard. She lived through the great depression and world wars. She was phenomenal.
We talked about conventions earlier. I can remember going to conventions and there being one woman there, I saw Mary Skiver at a convention one time. She came up to me and she said welcome to the club, have you noticed we’re the only women here? I said oh I’ve noticed because they wouldn’t talk to me, they wouldn’t show me things.
Also, my Mom, she was fabulous. She told me I could do anything I wanted to do and be anything I wanted to be. Those are the best words anybody can give someone, is that you can be anything you want to be as long as you never give up. That’s what I’m trying to teach my daughter now.
Tune in next week to see which revolutionary woman we'll be featuring next for Women's History Month! For the full interview with Sunshine McCurry, check out our YouTube channel!