Tattoo artist, shop owner helps tell stories through skin and ink

Aug. 26—TUPELO — Let's start with the name, because of course there's a story there.

"Obviously, it's a reference to Merle Haggard," said Angela Cunningham, owner of Mama Tried Tattoo in Belden. "Great song, but it also kind of ties into the whole, 'I'm covered in tattoos, but Mama did the best she could' thing."

"Covered in tattoos" is certainly an apt description of Cunningham herself. Artwork crawls along her skin, rising over the neckline of her tank top and past the sleeves of her denim jacket. They illustrate the tops of her hands and peek through the holes in the knees of her jeans. Like most anyone who's been a student of the art form for any length of time, she is a living canvas.

Her shop, located just over the Tupelo line in a small commercial duplex on McCullough Drive, is clean and inviting. Framed artwork — a mix of pieces from herself and her fellow artists — covers the shop's walls. Otis Redding's "(Sitting' On) The Dock of the Bay" plays through speakers overhead.

Opened less than a year ago, Mama Tried doesn't quite have that lived-in feel just yet, but it's getting there. Cunningham has an apprentice and a small team of artists who've set up shop there. The business is growing.

"It's not over-saturated in this area yet," Cunningham said. "There are only a few shops that have been here forever. To kind of come in and corner this side of town is super cool."

The 33-year-old Minnesota native started working behind the desk of a tattoo shop 15 years ago. Cunningham loved the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the stories that emerged naturally in the environment. Eventually, she began apprenticing, and her love of tattoo art — steeped in history and tradition — grew deeper.

"I think it's really important for people to appreciate and understand (the history of tattooing)," she said. "Not just to come into it blindly, thinking they know everything. It's more given to them, which I think is cool."

As an art form, tattooing is unique. It often requires the artist to interpret their clients' desires in order to create personal and permanent works of art.

Because a tattoo is permanent, it can be especially difficult for young artists to get started.

That was certainly the case for Cunningham herself.

"For the first couple of years, there were nights when I'd cry myself to sleep over misspelled tattoos or backwards tattoos," she said.

But then, someone gave her a piece of advice she thinks about often: "If you stumble, make it part of the dance."

"I think about that all the time," she said. "We make mistakes all the time. If you know what you're doing, you can cover it. You can make it look purposeful."

As her skills grew, Cunningham bounced around from place to place, shop to shop. She moved to Northeast Mississippi after meeting her husband, a native of the area, online. She worked in shops in Saltillo and Tupelo before opening Mama Tried in December.

"It was just time to open my own spot and do my own thing," she said.

Therapy through art

There's so much more to tattooing than putting ink on skin. For many, a tattoo is a permanent denotation of a time in their lives — the beginning of a relationship, or the end of one; the loss of a family member; the memory of a beloved pet; a tribute to a longtime passion.

Tattooing is a process that can take hours ... even days ... and is often painful, both physically and emotionally. Cunningham believes part of her job is to be a sounding board for whatever her clients are going through. It's a humbling role she relishes.

"In my eyes, it takes a level of compassion," she said of her work. "People are coming to get tattoos because they've lost their 3-year-old kid to cancer or their dad just died the week before."

Normally somewhat introverted, Cunningham said her work allows her to open up emotionally to others in ways she normally wouldn't. It's an important part of the process.

"They're vulnerable, so I need to allow myself to also be vulnerable," she said. "I've shared a lot of things with clients that I don't necessarily share with everybody. And they've shared a lot of things with me. Some things that are heavy, and some things that are not what I agree with."

She grinned.

"But I can't judge," she said. "I have hand and neck tattoos."

If she's doing her job right, Cunningham believes her clients leave the shop happier. Not just because they have fresh ink to show off, but because a weight has been lifted.

"It's definitely a therapy session sometimes. But, I don't mind it; I appreciate it," she said. "If I can make someone's life a little better, why not?"

That, in turn, helps build the relationships that are crucial to the working tattoo artist. Cunningham has clients from her home in Minnesota who make the journey to Northeast Mississippi just to have her work on them. She thrives — financially and emotionally — on those relationships.

"I wouldn't trade them for anything," she said. "I want to get to know (my clients); I want to know about their lives, their upbringing. What got them here."

She affectionately referred to her clients as "walking billboards" for her work. Even if a piece she's created looks great, but she's rude while creating it, that client won't return and will likely tell others to get inked elsewhere.

"No matter how (bad) my day is, when I sit down and start tattooing, it's gone," she said. "I can't think of anything else besides who I'm tattooing and what I'm tattooing ... At that moment in time, nothing else exists. It's me, the client and what I'm doing."

Mama tried ... and succeeded

Let's get back to the name ... which, again, has a story. An ironic one, considering Cunningham's personal tattoo history.

Cunningham got her first tattoo at age 15. It was her mother — always supportive of her daughter's longtime love of creating art — who took her. She even helped her lie about her age to get the work done.

"It was such a different world, even then," Cunningham said of tattooing. "The dude who did my first tattoo had no shirt on — just a leather vest — and he was smoking a cigarette. His name was Viper."

Decades later, the image of who a tattoo artist is seems to have changed. Although still considered taboo by some, tattooing has noticeably gained more mainstream acceptance over the past few years.

It's a shift in the industry Cunningham both embraces and promotes.

"I want to break the stigma of (the tattoo shop) being a scary place to be," Cunningham said. "I want to create a family friendly environment; I want the grandmas and moms and the granddaughters to get matching tattoos."

Breaking that stigma is both important to Cunningham's chosen profession for obvious reasons, but it's also something she believes can benefit those who may be curious about being tattooed, but hesitant.

Think of each tattoo as a story, a chapter of its owner's life inked onto their skin. It's a time and a place and a memory. There's no shame there.

"Tomorrow's not promised," Cunningham said. "If I die next, and I'm covered in these tattoos, then, hell yeah. That's what I wanted."

She laughed.

"And if I'm 90 years old and getting my diaper changed," she said, "then that (nurse) can ask me about my stories."

And she'll have so many to tell, starting with the one about her mother.