For the first time in my journalism career, I let the subject of a story I was writing get the best of me, and I have no regrets.
It must have been the calming, welcoming environment that the ladies at Haylo Healing Arts Lounge are so deliberate about — or just the good vibes coming from Haylo's owner Hayley Moran during our interview — that made me blurt out the words before I could really think them through: "I kind of want to do this, too."
The "this" I was referring to was Haylo's Time Capsule Tattoo event, which had been a year in the making and was coming up just two days from when I sat with Moran on a couch in Haylo to chat about it. The idea behind Time Capsule Tattoos was that a client would fill out a brief questionnaire describing their feelings at the moment, then submit it to Haylo, where a tattoo artist wold design a tattoo based on those few words. Then, at a later date — a year, a few months, or in my case, two days — the client would come in and get the tattoo, only seeing it a few minutes before it becomes a permanent fixture on their skin.
Now here I was, suddenly placing myself into the middle of a story that I originally became interested in because I wasn't sure why anyone would do such a thing.
Hayley perked up with surprise and excitement when I expressed interest in participating — hell, I was surprised at myself, too — and said she thought one of Haylo's tattoo artists, Dani Blalock, might have some space open.
Hillary Heath, Haylo's resident yogi, social media guru and basic jack-of-all-non-tattooing-trades, heard me talking from behind her desk and let out a squeal of excitement at the developing revelation that I was now turning this into a first-person, participatory story. I was digging myself deeper here; shit was getting real.
We wrapped up our talk and I took a look at a portfolio of Dani's past work. It was then that I became convinced that I had made the right decision.
Blalock's art is a beautiful blend of grace and style with hints of a subtle darkness. After flipping through the book (shouts out to the person who got a tattoo of the old Morton's salt girl), I considered myself lucky to have fallen ass-backward into a situation in which an artist like Dani would be administering my first tattoo in just 48 hours.
The Time Capsule Tattoo seemed a perfect fit for the same reasons it could also be seen as a horrible decision. Throughout the span of my adulthood I've often pondered tattoos, coming up with ideas then shooting them down or finding some reason to not follow through. My indecisiveness was exacerbated by my need for control; not wanting to leave my potential skin art in someone else's hands but also not having the artistic talent to create something for myself.
This was my chance to let go of all that anxiety on relatively short notice and trust an amazing artist to take my words and just do her thing. What could go wrong, besides being forced to wear a $200 mistake for the rest of my life?
"I keep foreseeing these unique opportunities to invite people to think a little differently," Moran said of the Time Capsule idea. "I know by now my clientele really trusts me a lot; I could definitely get away with something like this and they might think it's exciting and different because nobody's doing that.
"At the same time, it's kind of the process that happens when you come to me for a custom piece anyway — we talk about stuff and the day of your tattoo that's when you kind of see what I did for you," she continued. "But [the Time Capsule event is] more in this kind of specific way that allows the people to be vulnerable and really trust their artist and trust this connection."
I returned to the office and took a look at the Time Capsule questionnaire. Two of Hayley's goals with this event were to freeze a moment in time that would have long-since passed by the time the client ever sees the design, while also highlighting the connection between Haylo's clients and the artists in the shop. I, on the other hand, had two days until I'd be getting my tat and wouldn't meet Dani until the day of, so with those previous points moot on my part, I looked for a way to make this experience personally significant.
I decided to offer my own take on the "Time Capsule" theme. The questionnaire asked what I wanted represented in the tattoo, and I said I wanted it to symbolize my passion for capturing moments in time through journalism — sharing stories of people doing cool things or giving a platform to those who need their stories told.
The form also asked for three adjectives I would use to describe myself that I wanted expressed in the art; I wrote curious, investigative and anxious. I noted that I'd rather the tattoo use symbols than words (words are my game; I can come up with those on my own) and that I was thinking the chest or right ribcage for location. And that was that. I sent Hillary the form and hoped this then-stranger Dani could work her magic for me.
One thing is clear as soon as you walk into Haylo: it's not your average tattoo parlor. Moran opened the lounge/tattoo studio/art gallery after leaving Fu's Custom Tattoos in NoDa just over two years ago. The former yoga studio still carries that energy from its past life, as Moran and her all-female staff have made the lounge a sort of meditative space. They host metaphysical workshops called spirit sessions and hold art gallery events to celebrate each equinox and solstice.
To hear the staff speak about the art of tattooing is to realize it's not just skin deep for them, but a spiritual experience, and the atmosphere in the shop lends itself to that.
"I really wanted it to be a comfortable environment, because it's a little bit of a stressful situation, communicating such deep, oftentimes emotional concepts to a potential stranger," Moran said. "I definitely wanted it all to be a little more serene. I had already been associated with the yoga community — folks who are really interested in self discovery and this journey and even using their bodies for some of that — so tattooing for me is like the yoga of body art."
The yoga connection is not just part of the building's past. Heath also teaches yoga in a separate but attached space next door.
"Yoga is about connecting with the greatness inside of you, and in that sense tattooing and yoga are very similar," Heath said. "It's just a different way of doing it, moving the body or getting something tattooed on you; how you breathe through it, how you really tap into yourself."
You can't write off what's happening at Haylo as a bunch of modern-day hippy chicks on a heady trip. That much was clear on Friday, March 24, the day of the Time Capsule tattoo event. The connection the clients felt with Hayley and the other tattoo artists in the shop was clear to the point where I could feel the familial bonds in the room. Folks were beaming with pride and appreciation as artists revealed their designs.
Alli Plyler drove from her home in Columbia, S.C., to get tattooed by Hayley, whom she had met at a Warrior Goddess training event at Haylo last summer and turned in her Time Capsule questionnaire soon thereafter. On Friday, Hayley revealed her design for Alli, in which pink and green leaves scale her right shin, with the word "be" above the flourishing foliage.
Plyler said she had asked that the tattoo represent growth, feminine strength, beauty and love.
"I have other tattoos, but this one is extremely symbolic to me because it was taken based on things that I had created and/or let go of in 2016. Hayley got it, she got it spot on," Plyler said. "I am just amazed. It's something that I'm going to be able to look at forever and it's going to be a constant source of inspiration."
Jodi Winterton, who's been under the needle of Hayley's Scribe Inline Tattoo Machine for a total of more than 30 hours, was on board with Time Capsule since its inception. It was during one of her six-hour tattoo sessions on Winterton's arm just over a year ago when Moran began telling her how she was brainstorming about an idea where she would design tattoos for clients based on some small amount of reference points then reveal them just before actually placing them.
"I was just like, 'I'm in,'" Winterton recalled on Friday after receiving her star-based tattoo, meant to represent the light at the end of what had been a dark year for her. "Whenever Hayley comes up with an idea, I'm in."
Moran has built such a loyal following because she cultivates relationships with each of her clients that go beyond a simple tattoo consultation or a session under the gun. It's something she's purposeful about, and was one of her main reasons for opening Haylo.
"I've always had more of an intrapersonal approach with my artwork, with the people, and I've really focused on creating something in recognition of this kind of soulful journey that they're going on," Moran said. "It's not just, 'Let me give you a snake and a dagger,' or whatever, or just that mark of mischief and rebellion, it's really that people want to commemorate their life story even. I was a little bit the odd woman out. I felt like it was really time to carve my own path and create this place that feels much more like my inner voice.
"[A tattoo parlor] is just an intimidating place to walk into and really kind of bare your soul to people who may or may not be interested. I think a lot of people find they can get a great tattoo but my artist maybe wasn't all that connected with me, and having that whole package really comes together here."
Speaking with some of Moran's clients on Friday, it's clear she's been successful in carrying out her goal.
"I've had a number of tattoos. I've gotten them done here and there, and there's very much a difference between a tattoo parlor and what she does here. Here it feels much more spiritual, you feel like she's actually engaged with her art. She almost feels more passionate about it, you can tell, than you do, if that's possible," Winterton said, laughing. "I've been tattooed by people that are very stand off-ish — quite frankly that are assholes — and I've had some perfectly friendly people, but it's just a different connection here."
The communal vibes are infectious in the best way, and each of the ladies on Moran's carefully selected staff share her focus on building relationships.
Blalock, who's been tattooing for three and a half years — one and a half of which at Haylo — said her experience there has changed the way she looks at her art form. She recalled the first time she visited the studio, when she immediately felt at home.
"Faces you've never seen before are just familiar, you feel that you've known these people forever, and my gut reaction was that this is where I needed to be," she said. "I can speak for all of us when I say that she has created an oasis for so many. Not only has tattooing become something totally other than work, but it has been transformed into something so much more than art for me."
While visiting Haylo on Wednesday, and then showing up for the event on Friday, there were good vibes felt by all, but it was that Thursday in between when the nerves showed up.
The comfort and confidence I had felt while flipping through Dani's portfolio seemed a distant memory. I tossed in my sheets that night, coming up with countless scenarios in which she might use some corny cliché in her design, thinking back on ways I could have been more clear about my wishes in the one measly sentence in which I was allowed to express them.
To say I was a bit of an emotional wreck when I arrived at Haylo on Friday is an understatement; I was one step from a full-on anxiety attack. But I played it cool as I finally got the chance to meet Dani, and braced myself as she prepared to show me her design.
What if I didn't like it? I couldn't tell her that, could I? I had already promised CL's social media following that we would live-stream the whole damn thing, I couldn't back out now if I wanted to.
As soon as she lifted the paper and revealed her design, I could feel all of my worries flush from my body. I finally saw first hand all that talk I had heard during the week about the emotional connections between Haylo's clients and tattoo artists. I felt the immediate need to hug Dani, and hug her tight.
She nailed it.
Dani had sketched a clock with roman numerals surrounding a watchful eye ready to record all that it sees. The hands of the clock were made of dip pens, with ink blotches and trees reminiscent of the forests of my New England childhood framing the edges. Lines of motion make for a foreboding sense of time passing quickly.
From there on out, the process was an easy one. People had been telling me for the last two days how bad a ribcage tattoo would hurt, and it certainly didn't feel great, but with the help of some breathing techniques from Hillary and the pressure of knowing my pale, shirtless self was being streamed on Facebook Live (12,000 views as I'm writing this) I was able to pull through without any problems.
I laid awkwardly for about two and a half hours before Dani had to stop, as her next Time Capsule appointment was arriving at 3 p.m. So I booked my return for late April, the soonest my healing process would allow me to get back under the gun, and will at that time sit for another hour or so to finish my first tattoo.
Speaking with Dani a few days after the event, she said she was mentally and artistically taxed by the event, but that in the end she realized how perfectly it summed up the mission that Hayley has followed since the day she opened Haylo.
"It really did stretch me a bit since I typically like to have a very thorough explanation of what my clients are going for, obviously, so that they will be pleased with the design. You know, it's only going to be on them forever. It was actually really amusing speaking to them and asking, 'Are you nervous? Cool, me too,'" she said.
"It was so special to witness the trust that they placed on us with such a small description to go off of. People come to us wanting to convey so many things, whether it's a passion, achievements, or even heartbreak. The art is really just the face of something that goes so much deeper and this project was the true expression of that."
As for me, I couldn't have been happier that I shot off my mouth and offered to join the parade of Time Capsule Tattooers without thinking it through, because what has thinking ever gotten me, anyway?
I'm already psyched to go see Dani again next month, mainly so we can start kicking around ideas for my next one.