Critter Swamp

From left, Ayden Love, Korie (not a tattoo artist), Terin J.D., and J. Avery are the three tattoo artists behind Critter Swamp Tattoo, which opened in August on Churton Street.

Ayden Love, Terin J.D., and J. Avery are hoping to leave their mark on downtown Hillsborough.

On August 1, when many businesses were struggling to to keep their doors open, the three friends and business partners put a sign outside their shop on Churton Street announcing its grand opening. Critter Swamp Tattoo was officially established and ready to shake up the small businesses scene in the historic district.

“Some of the restaurants brought meals to us while we were getting the space ready and that made us feel really welcome,” said Ayden. “We’ve also gotten some confused looks from passers-by, so I’m sure it’s a mixed bag.”

“It feels like it’s been really great,” J. Avery added. “The restaurants around us have been so kind and even many employees are getting tattooed here.”

Between the three of them, the owners of Critter Swamp have more than a decade of experience as tattoo artists. As with every artist, each has their own style.

“I’d say mine is most often categorized as fine-line botanical work,” Ayden said, “but I’m generally interested in anything that mimics woodcuts or other printmaking types, as well as images that focus more on magic and mysticism. I could draw flowers every day forever.”

“I would say my style influences are from Neo Traditional roots that have lead into my own unique style,” Terrin J.D. added. “I like to keep things playful, so I think that is seen in my work.”

“It’s one of my favorite things about Critter Swamp,” J. Avery said. “We all bring something different and unique to the table. I have no idea how to characterize my style, but I associate it with imagery that is a little freaky, a little grotesque, a little country, slimy, mutated, and oozy. I have a background in printmaking so all my work is heavy in fine line and detail.”

As for the name, Ayden said the three were having a hard time coming up with a one. They wrote down things things they liked and mixed and matched them until they found what fit.

“We just knew we didn’t want it to be something typical, since our shop doesn’t operate like most traditional tattoo shops,” she said. “I think we wanted something that would reference a sense of ‘otherness’ that we, as artists, felt in the tattoo industry. We had words like ‘monster’ and ‘mutant’ in the list but I think ‘critter’ seemed the most accessible. I personally just loved the idea of it being a swamp, since I grew up in one.”

Each artist is essentially a walking art gallery, with more tattoos than they can count. But all three have their favorite works they have done for other people.

“My favorites are definitely ones where the client and I really work together and collaborate on a meaningful piece,” J. Ayden said. “I really enjoy ‘piecing’ together work, so some of my favorite projects have been filling a large space with lots of little trinkets to create a larger ‘world.’ That’s kind of how I think about us: a conglomeration of lots of smaller ‘mes’ inside a big ‘ME.’”

“It’s really hard to choose my favorite,” Terin J.D. said. “I’m gonna say Korie’s (my partner) because it was a quarantine project. It definitely holds memory, too.”

“I have so many favorites it’s too hard to choose one,” Ayden said. “I love doing reproductions of Mucha, LGBTQ+ iconography, and the ones that stand out as really meaningful for the client.”

Even though Critter Swamp Tattoo has been open for only a month — and during a pandemic — the three say business has been surprisingly good, and each artist is staying busy.

Part of that can be attributed to a greater public acceptance of tattoos. But even though, overall, tattoos have become more commonplace, each artist said the industry is still stigmatized.

“We actually had several landlords deny us when we were originally searching for a space, just because it was a tattoo shop,” Avery recalled. “We were told directly they didn’t ‘like the image’ it would cast. One of them even mentioned bikers. I think it’s still hard for people to be seen and respected as artists when it’s on peoples skin.

“I have another job where I speak at academic medical conferences and I’m always concerned I’m eventually going to tip over the edge of ‘too tattooed’ and they won’t ask me back. But at this point I’d rather feel comfortable in my body than speak at a conference or pretend to be someone I’m not. l think there’s still a huge stigma, at least in the South,” she continued. “I’ve lived in bigger cities and kind of forgot that I look out of the ordinary as a tattooed person. Then I came back home to N.C. and it all came back. I regularly have people ask me things like ‘What do your parents think? They must be so ashamed,’ or say ‘you’ll regret that when you’re older,’ or ‘I could never do that because I have a job.’ All real quotes from strangers. And I’m, like, really lady no one asked you. I’m just trying to buy groceries.”

“It’s definitely changed a lot, but some of the degenerate reputation still peeps its ugly head out every now and again,” J. Avery added. “I think the smaller the town the more you stand out, but  Body Modification isn’t for anyone but the person who lives in that particular skin suit. What’s that thing they say? Just let yer freak flag fly?”

“I think that it was more fringe because a small population controlled tattooing,” Terin J.D. said. “Other communities are beginning to enter tattooing and we are just hitting a spot where many tattoo artists are realizing that everyone deserves representation in this industry, which changes culture and allows it to progress. When you allow others to tattoo you begin to eliminate that stereotype.” 

“The way ‘tattoo culture’ has traditionally worked in the U.S. has been full of a lot of terrible bias and gatekeeping,” Ayden went on. “It’s mostly a very straight, white, cis dude party. People of color, LGBTQ+ people, and women are all usually prevented from even entering the industry, and when they do make it in it’s usually because they fought incredibly hard and put up with a lot to get where they are. Since each of us has experienced that ‘outsider’ role, even within an outsider art form, we wanted a space in which we felt good, regardless of who we are or how we learned. A space that people like us could feel welcome; where a wider variety of artists could feel comfortable doing guest artist appointments and clientele could feel less intimidated from the start, more empowered in the process and less likely to experience something physically violating or inappropriate. Honestly I care more about creating a different world than I do about making money. I’m in this to change tattoo accessibility, and starting this shop with my friends felt like an amazing way to start that.”

During COVID times, the artists at Critter Swamp Tattoo are only working by appointment, but each of them say they’re looking forward to the day when they can offer walk-in times.

Ayden recommends researching the style of each artist before reaching out to make an appointment.

Critter Swamp Tattoo is at 107 N. Churton St. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can contact the store at (919) 903-3623. The website is www.critterswamp.com.