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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

DeKalb’s first tattoo shop celebrates colorful history

Proton Tattoo, a tattoo shop for customers in downtown DeKalb, 125 S. Fourth St., sits on a cloudy day. Proton is celebrating 20 years in DeKalb on Oct. 15 with a free party open to the public. (Ryanne Sandifer | Northern Star)

Proton Tattoo established itself in DeKalb 20 years ago, laying the groundwork for tattooing in a town where tattooing was illegal. The owner, Chris May, started this business with his best friend Jon Bowman from elementary school. It was an arduous battle with the DeKalb city hall to try to establish a studio within city limits.

“One day, Jon and I were talking about opening up our own place. It was illegal in the city of DeKalb to tattoo professionally, so we started going to the town hall meetings while having a small place in Cortland, maybe 800 square feet, and renovating it,” May said. 

While May and Bowman were renovating their little studio, they fought relentlessly 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 are 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 said. 

May’s tattoo shop was a success and it brought business into the town. Tattooing was a passion May discovered when he was  a teenager and wanted to do something professionally with his love and talent for drawing.

“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,’ and 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 said. 

As Proton was becoming more successful, May got a call from show producers asking if he was interested in being in a series called “Ink Master” after being interviewed for another tattoo themed show a few months back. The show was going to be a reality competition series that featured artists from all over the country. 

“It was pretty bizarre because it was out of thin air. Doing the show, in hindsight really sucked, but on the side, it was still a really good opportunity that helped me out,” May said. “I was on that show for a few episodes, and that’s like billions of dollars worth of advertising I didn’t have to pay for. They had our pictures up in Times Square and on buses.” 

Many individuals already have preconceived notions about tattoos and tattoo artists that are simply not true. May warns against amateurs who price too high on tattoos that aren’t high quality work. 

“Many people price shop, and that’s not the best way to go about it. Just because it’s gonna be a high price doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out good,” May said. 

May has been tattooing for over 20 years and says that his work has caught up to him, physically. 

“I don’t think people realize how tough it can be on your life and body. It sucks to bend over for eight hours a day for years and years and years. My eyes from just hyperfocusing all these years have weakened,” May stated.  

May intends to tattoo for as long as he still can before his body eventually breaks down from exhaustion. 

“If you care about tattooing there’s a lot of things to learn about it. It requires a lot of attention if you want to do it well,” May expressed.  

Oct. 15 will be Proton Tattoo’s 20 year anniversary party which will be open to the public and free for anyone to attend. 

“We’re gonna be doing tattoos all day, our minimum will be $80. I’m gonna have two guest artists working with us that day as well as everyone who works here (at Proton),” May said. 

Proton will be giving out free prizes all day long and the party will have a food truck, art show and live entertainment for attendees to enjoy.

“I have three comedians, one of them, Marz Timms, is a true professional comedian. He used to be the hype man for the Chicago Bulls like before the Bulls games or during halftime he’d run the show. He’s been on a couple of Netflix shows and commercials so he’s been all over the place. The standup comedy will close out the evening,” May stated.

May is also releasing a YouTube series later this year on his YouTube channel called WORMDRIVE. The series has been in the making for three years. 

“We’re also making the world’s greatest comedy show. It’s gonna be a choose-your-own adventure sci-fi comedy show all made by hand with love,” May said. “It’s about two drunk dealers in space who are stupid. There’s aliens, robots, battles and all kinds of stuff.” 

The WORMDRIVE trailer can be viewed On May’s YouTube channel. For more information about Proton Tattoo and the artists, visit the Proton website.

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