Byron Wallace has survived five divorces, two heart attacks and the humbling experience of giving his first tattoo an ugly rendition of a bat logo borrowed from a bottle of Bacardi rum.
Through it all, his love for his work has never wavered. And despite the adversity, Wallace has built a successful business in Warlocks Tattoo and Body Piercing, a shop on Raleighs Western Boulevard.
In 1991, Wallace opened the shop with $2,000 borrowed from a friend. He found a good bookkeeper and banker, and he learned that people especially co-workers and clients would be the key to his success.
Wallace, 58, cares so much for his customers that more than two years after he gave that first bat tattoo, he tracked down the client and fixed it for free. His attitude hasnt changed. At Warlocks, hes continually working the room, checking on customers and building relationships.
If a client isnt happy, its up to Wallace to make it right.
Anything that this shop puts out I dont care what artist does it it has my name on it, Wallace said. If they come back and the artist is gone, I still have to take care of it.
Because each client has different needs, Wallace hires artists with a variety of skill sets. They are all self-employed, get paid by their clients and make their own schedules. Wallace, whose shop looks more like a boutique than a tattoo parlor, rents out booths and offers them advice on how to run a business.
I try to teach most of them that they have to pay their taxes, said Wallace. The best thing they can do is go in and incorporate themselves to get better tax breaks. A couple of my guys are incorporated, so they do get a business lesson in here.
With ink from his shoulders to wrists, Wallace is a walking advertisement for his industry. He has to have a permit to operate, and Wake County performs yearly inspections on the artists. Above that, Wallace requires his staff to take annual first aid, CPR and bloodborne pathogen classes.
Youre traumatizing a body, Wallace said. So you need to know what happens if somebody falls out or passes out so you can revive them.
Even with a strong team, the responsibility of owning the shop is stressful. Wallace, whos now single, spends about 12 hours a day at work, time that has cost him five marriages.
I dont care what kind of business you own, Wallace said. The stress level is phenomenal when you are paying the bills.
That pressure also led to Wallaces two heart attacks and a wake-up call. He now has three stents and checks his cholesterol regularly. He has cut out junk food, smoking and long days, and makes time for exercise and rides on his motorcycle.
But Wallace has no plans to give up Warlocks any time soon.
All tattooers die in the chair, Wallace said. You basically get a mortality check, and Ive had two. And you start looking at other things. Theres more to life than just busting your (rear end) in this tattoo shop.