Before he became the owner of Hard Knox Tattoo in Mount Vernon, Tony Campise spent several years as a Navy veteran, bouncing between multiple jobs across the country.
“Tattooing for me has always been really therapeutic,” Campise said. “I’m locked in this tiny, little world … and I’ve never had that before with any other thing I ever did.”
Campise took over the tattoo shop in 2009, after the previous owner left when the business began to suffer. He renamed it Hard Knox Tattoo; the shop sits at the end of one block of shops on 33 Public Square. Many Kenyon students get tattoos at Hard Knox.
“We were originally tattooing off of old hardwood desks,” Campise said of his tight budget when he first started the business. “It was pretty rinky-dink.” But Campise reinvested all the money he made when he took over the business, enabling him to quickly improve the space. Today, it includes three tattoo stations at the front of the store and another room for appointments in the back.
Behind the front desk, a partition is adorned with awards and trophies from competitions customers have won with Campise’s designs. The wall on the other side is covered with mementos from Campise’s life, including the first one-dollar and two-dollar bills he ever earned and a stencil sketch for the first tattoo he ever did on a human being: himself.
Campise began tattooing in Medford, Ore. at a shop his hairdresser told him about. After a couple weeks of spending time at the shop every day, the artist working there started having Campise sweep the floor and do other tasks. One day, he handed Campise some money and told him to go buy paper towels, diapers and pig skin.
“I was like, ‘OK, paper towels for the shop, right, and diapers for your kids, OK, but why the pig skin?’” Campise said. “And he’s like, ‘You’re going to tattoo tonight.’” For his first tattoo, Campise copied the logo of an Incubus album, two koi fish intertwined in a yin-yang position. Although his mentor told him it didn’t look great, “I got a taste for it,” Campise said.
The man who trained him gave him some low-quality equipment and said, “Go practice on your friends at home,” according to Campise. It took him two hours to etch the outline for a pinup girl in a square on his thigh, one of the only places Campise could reach. It looks good when he sits, but when he stands up, the shape warps with the movement of his legs. “You can cover all of your mistakes with just some pants,” he said.
One thing Campise and his two tattoo artists, Justin and Gwen Crawford, have come to appreciate is finding a job that, no matter how taxing, they are passionate about.
“Justin was really nice,” said Zoe Engle ’20, who got a tattoo of an eye on her right rib cage and a lightning bolt on her back at Hard Knox during fall break last year.
Looking back at his experiences in the tattooing business, Campise said things have changed a lot. “When I first started tattooing, tattoos were this dangerous, scary thing … and nowadays it’s a lot nicer, and most tattoo shops are owned by guys with art degrees,” he said.
Campise often recommends that customers, especially college students, alter the location of a tattoo so it can be covered easily. “I want to make sure that ten years from now, you don’t come back all mad because I gave you this stupid tattoo,” he said.