Two decades ago, Proton Tattoo made its mark in DeKalb, Illinois, laying the foundation for professional tattooing in a town where the art form was once illegal. Chris May, the owner, embarked on this journey with his childhood friend Jon Bowman. Their mission was an uphill battle as they navigated the intricacies of DeKalb’s city hall to establish a tattoo studio within city limits.
May reminisced about the challenging early days, saying, “One day, Jon and I were discussing opening up our place. It was illegal in DeKalb to tattoo professionally, so we started attending town hall meetings while having a small place in Cortland, maybe 800 square feet, and renovating it.” The duo juggled the renovation of their studio with relentless negotiations with the City of DeKalb.
“It was a good six months of working on the shop just worrying whether or not they’d say yes or no. One town hall meeting was like a flash parallel from ‘Footloose’ where the city gets together and is like, ‘I don’t want hookers and bikers in our town,’ and this one guy gets up, and he pulls his shirt off in the middle of the board meeting and shows his backpiece and says ‘does this look like the work of some biker?'” May recalled. Their persistence paid off as they successfully opened Proton Tattoo, bringing tattooing into the town and sparking a new era.
For Chris May, tattooing has been a lifelong passion he discovered as a teenager. His desire to turn his love for drawing and artistic talent into a profession led him on this remarkable journey. “I always had drawn all the pictures I got tattooed, and the guy who tattooed me always liked them. He said, ‘Oh, you should learn how to tattoo,’ I asked my mom if I could drop out of college and start tattooing. She thought it was perfect for me, and I got my first apprenticeship when I was 19; I was very fortunate to start so young,” May shared.
As Proton Tattoo gained recognition and popularity, May received an unexpected call from show producers. He was invited to participate in a reality competition series called “Ink Master,” featuring tattoo artists nationwide. May described the experience as bizarre and beneficial, providing unparalleled exposure for his work. “I was on that show for a few episodes, and that’s billions of dollars worth of advertising I didn’t have to pay for. They had our pictures up in Times Square and on buses,” he recounted.
May emphasized the importance of quality over price when it comes to tattoos. He cautioned against price shopping and highlighted that a higher price doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better outcome. With over two decades of experience in tattooing, May also acknowledged the physical toll it can take on an artist’s body. “I don’t think people realize how tough it can be on your life and body. It sucks to bend over eight hours a day for years and years and years. My eyes from just hyperfocusing all these years have weakened,” May revealed.
Despite the physical challenges, May remains committed to tattooing for as long as possible. He emphasized that mastering tattooing requires continuous learning and attention to detail. “If you care about tattooing, there are many things to learn. It requires much attention if you want to do it well,” he advised.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Proton Tattoo is hosting an open-to-the-public party on October 15th. The festivities will include tattooing sessions with a minimum price of $80 and the participation of guest artists. Attendees can look forward to a day filled with free prizes, a food truck, an art show, and live entertainment.
The evening will culminate with stand-up comedy performances, including one by Marz Timms, a seasoned comedian known for his work with the Chicago Bulls and appearances on Netflix shows and commercials. In addition to his tattooing and anniversary celebration, May is set to launch a YouTube series titled “WORMDRIVE” later this year. This choose-your-own-adventure sci-fi comedy show promises to be a unique and entertaining endeavor.