A new medium
Former tattooist keeps his art alive with wood burning

Morris News Service

AUGUSTA -- Burning the image of a fierce panther or a scantily clad woman on a piece of wood is how Don Inman reminisces about his former life as one of the city's busiest tattoo artists.

The 66-year-old Augusta native retired his needles and ink six years ago, but he keeps his art alive through a new medium: wood burning.

Instead of a buzzing tattoo machine, his brush is a hot wood-burning iron. Instead of flesh, his canvas is any scrap of wood he can lay his hands on.

The second-generation artist and former proprietor of Ted's Tattoo (the studio named after his father, also a tattooist) likes to recycle old lumber and salvage material such as cabinet doors. But he prefers old paneling above all else.

"I don't exactly know why," Inman says as he looks over the work in the backyard shop he built four years ago. "Maybe because it's thin and has a good grain. Maybe because it looks good on a wall."

But don't expect to see Inman's work hanging on too many walls other than his own. He hasn't sold many pieces.

Then again, he's not exactly marketing himself.

"People always ask me why I don't advertise. To be honest, I don't care if I sell any or not," he said. "I'd rather give one away to someone who appreciates it."

Inman's former studio, started by his father in 1941, was the first studio to receive a business license in Georgia and was a top tattoo destination during the 1960s and 1970s.

Back then, tattoos were not the mainstream phenomenon they are now.

His customers were mostly outlaw bikers, soldiers, roughnecks and topless dancers.

Sometimes he stayed up all night tattooing hoards of hell-raisers.

"There used to be a ton of biker gangs in this city," Inman recalled. "Some would come in [the studio] wearing pistols under each arm. . . . I miss tattooing sometimes, but I don't miss some of the people."

Inman took over the shop when his father died in 1971 and ran it until 1993.

He picked up his new hobby to beat the retirement doldrums, having experimented with a variety of mediums, including engraving Plexiglas with a tattoo machine and heavy-gauge needles.

Wood burning doesn't generate the kind of money that his former art form afforded, but it does keep him busy. And, he points out, it's not as expensive as some other hobbies.

"I wasn't about to take up golfing," he said.

Most of his wood art is reminiscent of the old-style tattoos he used to give. In fact, the wood panels adorning his shop are identical to the tattoo drawings that used to hang on his studio walls.

He's discovered wood burning can be just as demanding as tattooing. A mistake is permanent and must therefore be avoided. If an error is made, it must either be concealed or the whole image must be altered to accommodate it.

Still, in some ways, wood burning is much easier.

"The wood don't move, and it never says, 'Ouch, that hurts,' or 'I need a break,' Inman said.

Source: Florida Times-Union 2/28/1999