It’s been a little over two years now since Keron McHugh opened The Cardinal Skin Art & Gallery along Fifth Street in downtown Mebane, adjacent to the Lofts at White Furniture and the Clay Street downtown district. The Grand Opening was held in October of 2017.
For McHugh, who grew up on the Orange County side of Mebane, getting to open a new studio in downtown Mebane was an opportunity to combine his love of skin art with other displays and gestures of visual arts and creativity in his hometown.
“I love the (Mebane) community,” McHugh said in a recent interview. “I love the other business owners down here. They’re so friendly, and very quick to offer any kind of help or advice. We work together so well. It’s like a big apartment building with a lot of families living together. It’s a great community of people.”
“Behind the desk up there is a World War I poster from my great-grandfather,” McHugh added. “We’ve lived out on this land for several generations, where my family is. We’re old Mebane. And I wanted to do a thing in this community to make my home place the headquarters of a quickly-growing arts and entertainment operation.”
Inside The Cardinal Skin Art & Studio, customers and guests find much more than a collection of tattoo chairs and mirrors. There is an eclectic range of artistic expressions all over the walls, giving the studio a rare charm. There are sofas surrounding the tattoo and piercing stations, providing guests a chance not only to get new work done on their bodies, but also to simply hang out in a fun, comfortable environment.
“I noticed that Mebane would be a great place for a centralized art hub,” McHugh said. “Which is also what we are in addition to being a tattoo studio. Local artists have put their stuff on the walls. We’re a gallery showing space.”
The Cardinal Skin Art & Tattoo is the headquarters for MUSE (Make, Unite, Share, Experience), a local organization that promotes arts in the region, and McHugh also hosts a mentoring program for local youth called Camp Keron, in which a dozen young people come by for mentoring, art therapy, homework help, to provide assistance cleaning up the studio, while also watching the day-to-day operations of the work inside the studio.
“We have a business meetings here, classes and functions. It (MUSE) has just grown,” McHugh indicated. “Tattoos and piercings are our main thing, but also we’re just interested in the arts in general. Anything we can do to help people experience the arts and participate in the arts, to feel the joy of creativity that we all feel here - we’re always looking for new ways to do that.”
“One of the things that seems to be typical of any type of economic expansion is the arts and entertainment industry will grow right along with it. That’s sort of your sign that there is a commercial revitalization of a town - that the place is growing,” McHugh added.
McHugh mentioned that 42 percent of current Americans have at least one tattoo. Half of those will get multiple tattoos, and a quarter of those will get continuously tattooed for the rest of their lives and add to them.
“We have a very strong demographic in Mebane,” he said. “There’s a lot of Mebane locals that come to us for their tattooing and piercing needs. But also people come from all over the state. All over the country. And three other continents now to get our tattoos. Our approach to art is a lot different. Our staff, we’re on the scientific forefront of tattooing. There’s a lot of information that had been passed down for years that just wasn’t correct. It was just an oral tradition of tattoos. But now that the tattoo industry has been growing, there’s a lot more research and development money. So we’re learning that a lot of the stuff people have been doing for a long time is not the best way to do it, and sometimes completely backwards.”
“One of the things that I like so much about tattooing is that it’s kind of a meeting place of arts and sciences,” McHugh added. “We’re doing an art. It’s a living, fluid thing. But also the nature of how we make these for people, it must be done in an exact way. The way we set up must be done in an exact way. The equipment we use must be exactly what we need for the occasion. When doing the tattoo, it must go into the third layer out of seven layers of skin. There’s a lot of exactness to it. To effortlessly combine something this artistic and free-flowing in a way with the utmost precision, it’s very interesting.”
There are four tattoo artists at The Cardinal Skin Art & Gallery, including McHugh, the owner and head artist. The other artists are Joshua Maggard, an award-winning artist with 20 years of tattooing experience, Rosemary Van Dyke, who has two years experience working at Cardinal Skin Art & Gallery, and Vincent Ventimiglia, who recently joined the team after moving to the area from Florida.
Lawrence Lutackas, the piercer at Cardinal Skin Art & Gallery, was a sonar technician on a nuclear submarine prior to making his way to downtown Mebane.
“He knows all about the precision necessary to modify someone’s body,” McHugh said of Lutackas.
Celeste Plummer, McHugh’s fiancee, has also joined the Cardinal Skin Art and Gallery crew, assisting the team with all areas of operations including event coordination, customer service, and day-to-day studio assistance.
“She (Plummer) came to work with me a little over a year ago to be our charities and events coordinator, as well as the behind the counter manager. She fills the gaps to help us do our jobs better, and to take care of our customers. I’m super grateful for her,” McHugh said of Plummer.
Cardinal Skin Art & Tattoo’s standard hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays from 2:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., and Sundays from 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.. Mondays and Tuesdays are appointment-only days at the studio.
“We usually wind up staying far later than that to make sure we can serve all of our clients,” McHugh added. “If anyone walks in, we want to get to know them and talk to them.”