Whitney Caskey graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Studio Art. It was her love of the arts that drew her to tattooing and ultimately her career at University Ink.
Article by April Clark Honaker | Photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Actor Johnny Depp has over 30 tattoos, including his mother’s name inside a heart, a flying sparrow to memorialize his character from Pirates of the Caribbean, and several that reference his Native American heritage. In an interview about his tattoos, Depp said, “My body is my journal, and my tattoos are my story.”
For many who adorn their bodies, tattoos are a reflection and a reminder of their identity, but people get tattoos for a variety of reasons. Some simply appreciate the art and want to decorate themselves in a way that sets them apart. Others quite literally enjoy the pain and the process.
Regardless of a person’s reasons for getting a tattoo, it’s a big decision. The process, which involves injecting ink into the skin with needles, is meant to create a work of art that lasts forever. Although tattoo removal services exist, the process can be even more painful and costly than getting a tattoo, and in some cases, it leaves clients mutilated.
Because tattoos are permanent, tattoo artist Whitney Caskey believes a person shouldn’t decide to get a tattoo on a whim. “Normally it’s best to have it in mind for a year,” she said, “especially if it’s your first.” This amount of time minimizes the chance of regret. Whitney said people who think about it for that long also sometimes realize that the tattoo they thought they wanted was really just a fad. Taking a year to mull over the decision gives them a chance to make sure the design they want is something they can be happy with long term.
Just as getting a tattoo is a serious decision, becoming a tattoo artist is an equally serious one. Although her interest in tattoos didn’t develop until after college, Whitney was always creative. Growing up in Quitman, Louisiana, she was the second of four children and was extremely introverted, so she sought out ways to express herself without talking. She continued to seek out creative activities and gained some recognition for her talent as she grew older. However, she didn’t realize that she was meant to be an artist until she was preparing for college.
Whitney was planning to major in medical technology and had applied for a scholarship offered by Haynes International. As part of the evaluation process, she was interviewed virtually by a panel of judges. One of the judges noticed that she had multiple art awards on her résumé and asked why she was planning to pursue medical technology instead of art. At the time, Whitney was caught off guard and didn’t have a good response. According to Whitney, the interview went horribly, but she needed to hear that question. It made her rethink her decision to major in medical technology. Instead, she decided to learn more about the field that had always interested her: art.
In 2011, Whitney graduated from Louisiana Tech University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art. Afterward, she decided to continue her studies in the field of photography and completed a second bachelor’s in 2014. Afterward, she decided to take some time to decide what type of work she wanted to pursue. In the interim, she decided to get some tattoos at University Ink in Ruston. Joey Bagwell was in the process of inking her second tattoo when he told her he thought she would make a good tattoo artist. Being a tattoo artist had never crossed her mind, and she initially found the thought of permanently marking someone’s body extremely intimidating. She was too terrified of messing up, so she continued contemplating what her next steps would be.
In the midst of her angst, one day Whitney found herself lying on the floor, pondering out loud about what to do with her life when her husband Andrew chimed in, “Taaattooooo!” He’d known about Joey’s suggestion and wholeheartedly believed in Whitney’s ability. Although her response in the moment was “I can’t do that,” Andrew continued to counter her doubt with encouragement until she started believing in herself. Whitney said she probably wouldn’t be a tattoo artist today if it weren’t for Andrew.
After overcoming her initial anxiety, Whitney’s curiosity set in, and she bought some used tattooing equipment. Unsure how to proceed, she went back to talk to Joey. Unfortunately, Joey deemed her machines unusable, but he was happy to bring her under his wing as an apprentice. After a few months of intensive drawing and tattooing fake skin, which she said is actually harder that tattooing real skin, Whitney was ready to apply her skills to a person. That day was March 5, 2015, and the design was a small crow placed in gap on a client that had come in to have Joey fill the gaps between his tattoos with hulk muscles. Because the client had so many tattoos already, Whitney felt better about testing her skills on him, but when it got to the point where shading was needed, she panicked and needed Joey to finish it.
She went through a brief period where she offered $20 tattoos, and the clients were okay with letting her practice. Those tattoos took a long time, but they turned out well, and she learned to manage her anxiety. One thing that helped a lot was realizing that her clients were usually more anxious than she was, and she was able to shift her mindset so that she could focus on making them less anxious. When they hear about the big, muscle-bound guy who came in and almost cried during a rib tattoo or the 18-year-old tough guy who started cussing and causing a scene, they usually feel better, she said.
Now, more than four years and many tattoos later, Whitney is confident in her abilities. “I’m glad I did it,” she said. To this day, she’s not made a mistake that wasn’t fixable. Given that she works from a stencil, mistakes are highly unlikely. They tend to happen only when no one sees a mistake in the stencil. Despite the fact that mistakes are unlikely, Whitney said she still has some fear of messing up. Making permanent marks on another person’s skin comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility. There is an expectation of perfection.
Whitney strives to meet that expectation and believes a certain level of fear is good in her profession. “I think those are the people who need to be tattooing—people who are terrified of messing up,” she said. “There are a lot of people who aren’t.” If a person isn’t worried about messing up, there’s nothing stopping them from doing it. In striving for perfection, Whitney has also learned a valuable lesson: “Always be happy with where you’re at and what you’ve accomplished so far because you’re never gonna get to a point where you’re like, ‘Yes, this is it! This is perfect!’” Accepting that perfection is an unreachable goal, she’s come to appreciate imperfection more. “I like things that aren’t exactly perfect, and I tattoo a lot of organic things. It’s the little flaws that make them unique. I think if one day tattoos are done by machines, I wouldn’t like them as much.” She would always choose a man-made tattoo over a machine-made tattoo, even if it wasn’t as precise.
Over time, Whitney has not only become more skillful in her art, but she’s also developed a unique style. “I’m constantly trying to get better and change the way I do things,” she said. Her designs tend to consist of clean outlines and a lot of precise, thin lines. She even creates detail and shading with lines. In this way, line work has become an integral part of her signature style. Although she said there isn’t anyone working in a similar style in north Louisiana, there are some artists she follows on Instagram whose work is reminiscent of her own—for example, Pony Reinhardt of New York City and Suflanda of the United Kingdom.
In addition to developing a style that is unique to this region, Whitney has grown more specific in the content of her work. Because she still lives in the same house she grew up in in Quitman, she has daily access to nature. Out in the yard or in the woods, she finds herself noticing little things most people don’t always pay attention to: insects, birds, and other animals, as well as flowers, berries, and other plants. These things find their way into her work. In fact, one of her favorite pieces is a half sleeve with florals and a bird. In general, her favorite pieces tend to be ones where the people really trusted her and let her do what she wanted. They might have had a specific subject in mind, but they were open to letting Whitney create the design totally on her own.
“When people try to micromanage, it doesn’t always turn out well,” she said. In the beginning, she would try to accommodate whatever a client might want, but now she’s had enough experience to know when something won’t look good or won’t hold up well. She’s also comfortable recommending other artists at University Ink if she feels they might be a better fit for a particular client. “There’s definitely a tattoo artist for whatever you want,” she said.
Having a distinctive style and knowing the type of work she wants to do has allowed Whitney to become more selective in her clients. In fact, for October Whitney decided to book appointments only for work she’s designed and drawn herself. So far, the response has been positive. Initially, Whitney was worried that being more selective would cause her to have fewer clients, but she said the opposite has actually been true. Instead, her selectivity and uniqueness have led clients to drive for hours to sit for one of her tattoos, but regardless of how far they drive, Whitney is always happy when she knows her clients are happy.
It’s a rewarding feeling just knowing they trust her enough and like her work enough to allow her to permanently mark their bodies. As a trained studio artist, Whitney said it always felt good when people liked her work enough to buy it and hang it on their wall. “But tattoos are next level,” she said. “They have to like it even more to put it on their skin.”
When the tattoo is finished, seeing the client’s reaction is one of the best parts. “Some people have really animated reactions and say it’s better than they imagined, or they post online, brag about it, and tell all their friends. That’s really nice,” she said. But one of the best feelings is when they come back and get more tattoos.
Whitney hopes that her work comes across as unique and creative, especially to this area, and she wants prospective clients to know that she is bringing all of her education and experience to the table when she designs a tattoo. “I’m attempting to come at it from an artistic standpoint,” she said, “to create something that means a lot to me—that has a soul.” She’s not interested in copying designs that people found elsewhere. Instead, she said, “I’d rather create something unique that means a lot to me and means a lot to them.”