Odd Jobs: My Life as a Tattoo Artist and Single Dad

by ParentCo. October 03, 2016

I love to learn people’s stories – to find out what brought them to all the moments in time that led to the present. As parents, I think it’s particularly important for us to listen to these stories as a way to understand each other.

Parenting is hard and we’re all trying to do the best for our families – including earning money to take care of ourselves and our children. This is the third in a three-part series (read part one and two to catch up!) that tells the story of parents with unique jobs – the kind that may make you wonder: How did they end up there and how does that work?

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”- Steven R. Covey

Eric Henshaw is listening to understand. His inner voice is loud. His teenage daughter gives him both noisy and quiet information to digest. His clients freely give him personal details over the sound of the tattoo gun. But the co-owner of Yankee Tattoo, a single father of one, will only reply after an attempt to understand what is being said.

He's a thoughtful, large, long-bearded man, who seems to quietly remind himself to pause before he speaks. With artwork permanently covering most of his exposed skin, Eric looks the exact opposite of most dads you see on the playground or at PTO meetings. But if your intent is to understand, if you really listen, you can’t help but be moved by his big laugh and the gushing pride he has for his daughter – or the lessons he's teaching her by learning them himself.

“I knew I would always be a non-traditional earner.”

Eric grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, taking the bus into Boston as a kid, sharpening his street smarts and gaining his sense of self. He realized pretty early on that he would be a “non-traditional earner.”

Eric’s parents divorced shortly after he was born. He lived with his dad for a few years while growing up, and it was his father, also a tattoo artist, who showed him how to turn his artwork into something that would last a lifetime. When Eric was 13, he placed his first tattoos on his father and uncle, but didn’t take on his father’s passion until later. After traveling and tattooing customers along “the circuit” from New England to Alaska, Bill Henshaw wanted to start a business. It was then that he asked his son for help.

In the fall of 1996, Eric moved to Burlington, Vermont to open a tattoo shop with his dad, Bald Bill. Twenty years later, Yankee Tattoo is more than a business. It's a sanctuary, a brick and mortar heartbeat; a well-loved and respected studio. For 14 years running, Yankee Tattoo has been named by fans and readers as Burlington’s best place to get body art in the coveted Seven Daysies awards.

Eric has always been artistic took several general art classes, but drawing is something that came easily. He transfers that ability onto his clients on a daily basis. Eric can tattoo one person all day or see several clients a day, depending on what his schedule holds and the amount of time he allots for time in the shop. His work extends beyond normal business hours, though. From client sketches to managing the shop’s supplies and employee payroll, Eric often feels the pinch of being a business owner and a parent.

He isn’t home at the same time every day. On some days, he needs to bring work home with him – and time off is rare. Providing a service means he needs to be available to his clients when it's convenient for them. “The tricky thing about this business and parenting and vacation is that when people have time off, that's when they want to get work done,” Eric explains. Holiday weekends, school breaks, and summer vacation months are busy times for Eric and unfortunately don’t allow him the luxury of spending as much time with his daughter as he would like when she is also out of school.

“You reap what you sow.”

Eric has been a single dad since his daughter, Lily, was three. For the last 13 years, the two of them have navigated life as an undeterred team, changing and growing individually, but always coming back together. While it can be hard to relate to a teenager, Eric and his daughter share a love of archery. When Lily was nine she and her dad were watching a reality show about marksmen and she was impressed with someone shooting a bow and arrow. Eric told her he could show her how to shoot and she didn’t believe him.

Eric’s dad had shown him how to shoot arrows, guns, and throw knives for accuracy, but Lily wanted proof. Eric was once a competitive rifle shooter, but he didn’t want to put a gun in a young child’s hands, so he took her to a local archery range.

Lily is now a nationally ranked archer and is a much better shot than her dad, but when asked if she will continue, he said he won’t push her. It’s something special that they share, and he has asked her to practice more, but it’s also something she needs to pursue in her own way. “I’m not going to lean on her,” he says.

She knows what effort will get her, but she needs to want it as much as he wants it for her.

“This job has shaped the way I parent. I've only had one kid. And I had an idea about the way parenting is supposed to be. Coming to the shop, and dealing with people every single day, really was a big motivator for me to I could yell at her, I could make her do this and that, I could do the 9 to 5 thing, but life isn’t about that. People can say no. People can not do something. We're all human beings, but you have to accept it. You reap what you sow.”

After 20 years of being a tattoo artist, he has heard many stories, some heartbreaking, some triumphant, and some that point blame to someone else. But Eric has listened and learned from these stories. He's taught his daughter that if she messes up, she is responsible for her actions and her decisions. “Accountability. You’re either going to do that and get that, or not do that and not get that. You have to be accountable to yourself. You do your best. We all do the best we can.”

He knows it's a tough lesson to teach, but hopes that someday she will understand and appreciate his words. He also knows that doing what he does for a living has taught his daughter that people can be judgmental. From a very young age, Lily saw the way people looked at her dad. He said it never changed who they are as a family, but illustrated a harsh truth that shouldn’t have to be learned.

"People expect people to look certain ways.”

When asked if Lily thinks what he does for a living is cool, Eric did not hesitate to say yes. He knows she's proud of him. And he knows she loves him. But he also knows that his status as a known and popular tattoo artist has a good and bad side. Some of Lily’s classmates think Eric is pretty awesome; the ones who don’t know him or her and choose not see beyond the long hair and tattoos will pick. “They’re kids. It doesn’t bother me,” Eric says.

But he knows it can affect his daughter. And he's given her the green light to stick up for herself. He taught her that she doesn’t need to feel defined by what other people think or say she is.

He admits that some teachers and parents have preconceived notions about what kind of dad he is or what home life is like for his daughter, but it’s another lesson he's absorbed and tried to teach to his daughter in a way that builds her up without letting down her faith in humanity.

“I kind of figured quite a while ago, not by accident, that people expect people to look certain ways. It doesn’t matter if I'm wearing a suit or a tie; there is a preconceived idea of what kind of person I am. There is always going to be those people who aren’t ever satisfied unless you're like them," Eric says.

Eric referenced the many times he's been in airports, on his way to teach classes about bloodborne pathogens and tattoo safety to other tattoo artists. When wearing a business suit or tie, he was often stopped, as if he was hiding something. So he got fed up and began to pack his suit, wearing jeans and t-shirts through security to give the TSA officers the image they wanted. He knew he was smart, professional, and had nothing to hide but he didn’t need clothing or anyone else to validate that.

He stopped traveling a few years ago after a couple of times he wished he had been home when his daughter needed him; nothing happened to cause major alarm, but they were scary reminders of the other stereotypes people place on him as a single dad.

“As a single parent, it is hard to leave your kid. It’s one of those sacrifices won’t see. In this day and age, it’s pretty rare for a dad to get full custody, so it may not really be true, but I’m never going to take that the risk. I was always concerned about that one thing happening, and somebody being like, ‘Nope,’ and that would be it. I would lose it if someone took my kid.”

The only thing Eric wants to lose is the stigma that seems to accompany tattoos and the people who wear them. But he quietly knows his role as the long-haired, tattooed artist, and single dad. And if your intent is to understand his role, he will speak of it loud and clear.

“The one good thing about this job is that we meet a ton of people, so we radically change their perception, fast. And then that gets around.”



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