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From spray paint to ink, a local tattoo artist shares his story

<p>Starr shows off his back tattoos.</p>

Starr shows off his back tattoos.

On the train tracks of Irvine, Kentucky, John Starr found his passion for art. At age 14, Starr and his friends would sneak under the cover of darkness to the tracks with nothing but spray paint cans and the desire to be carried to faraway places.

“It was more or less the adventure of it,” Starr said. “Hopping on trains, doing dumb stuff, seeing parts of the city no one else knows. You don’t see the highway from the billboard standpoint … you climb up on a billboard on I-75 during rush hour traffic and it’s a whole other view.”

Starr couldn’t remember when he first wanted to become a tattoo artist, but art was always ingrained in his upbringing. He came from a family of painters, hand letterers and hot rod pinstripers. However, unlike his family, Starr was drawn to tattooing because of its permanence and similarity to graffiti’s hard lines and bright colors.

“I was doing graffiti pretty heavily when I realized you can’t take a tattoo off the same way you can paint over graffiti,” Starr said.

Starr got his first tattoo when he was only 10 years old and his second when he was 16.

On the palm of his left hand, there’s a black dot that is so small it could be mistaken for a freckle. This dot is a memento of the first tattoo he ever gave.

“I remember being so nervous I dropped the machine and I caught it with my hand,” Starr said. “... [the dot has] been there for the past 13 years.”

Photo by Patrick Houlihan | The Miami Student
While giving his first tattoo, Starr dropped the machine, accidentally leaving a dot on his hand.

Starr said out of all the tattoos he’s done, he doesn’t have one favorite piece. However, he does have a favorite tattoo style — Japanese.

“If I could tattoo Japanese [tattoos] forever I would,” Starr said. “It’s a very bold, strong art just like American traditional [style].”

In April of last year, Starr became the owner of Uptown Tattoo, a quaint shop in Oxford, Ohio. He started working there in 2017 under a different owner who he later purchased the shop from. He said the freedom he has is his favorite part of the job.

“I don’t have a corporate office or establishment trying to tell you how to draw your artwork,” Starr said. “Freedom and … the bonds that you make … it’s not even like a job.”

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Shelby “Dippy” Curran, a tattoo artist at Uptown Tattoo, has been working with John for the past five years and was his apprentice for three of those years. Curran said Starr helped her become the woman she is today.

“Not that many people have thought that I was ever gonna do anything in life,” Curran said. “You know I was kind of like that kid … like ‘Oh yeah, you did bad in school.’ He gave me a chance to be my own person.”

Curran said she loves coming to work because everyone is always laughing and joking around. She said they share a wonderful give-and-take relationship.

“He’s very big on sharing knowledge and I’m really big on learning,” Curran said. “We all just have such a great dynamic.”

Luke Thomas, another tattoo artist, said Starr has mentored him for the seven years they have worked together. He said he loves coming to work every day and not knowing what Starr is going to do next.

“John is very spontaneous,” Thomas said. “You know one day, it’ll be like we’re all just hanging out doing real small walk-in tattoos for like-minded students and then the next day he’s doing a full-blown back piece.”

Photo by Patrick Houlihan | The Miami Student
Starr was drawn to tattooing because of its permanence and similarity to graffiti’s hard lines and bright colors.

Thomas said Starr pushes him to think about tattooing in new and creative ways and that he appreciates the knowledge Starr shares because it’s valuable to him.

“He does have more experience than me, by about 10 years,” Thomas said. “So, he’s just like my older brother … and it can get hectic at times, but you know how brothers are right?”

Chaz Phillips, a piercing apprentice, met Starr through Thomas in 2019 but only started working for him three months ago. Phillips, like Curran, also said he loves the atmosphere Starr has created and his empathy for people.

“It’s always a very easygoing environment,” Phillips said. “[It] doesn’t feel like work.”

Starr said his next project is changing the name of Uptown Tattoo to Seven Devils Tattoo Studio. He said the name is meant to reflect the seven artists and piercers who work there, including himself.