The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday June 25th

Ascension Tattoo is oldest parlor in Chapel Hill

Mike Wheeler, an artist at Ascension Tattoo on Franklin Street, prepares tattoo stencils.
Buy Photos Mike Wheeler, an artist at Ascension Tattoo on Franklin Street, prepares tattoo stencils.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized a tattoo designed by Meghan Thayer. The tattoo was of a blue heron. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

Mike Wheeler learned to tattoo by doing what he calls ripping up his friends.

“That’s kind of the way it works — you watch a lot, hang out, clean a lot and then start doing some bad tattoos,” Wheeler said, laughing.

But that was in his apprentice days more than 10 years ago. Now, he’s the newest artist at the oldest tattoo shop around.

Ascension Tattoo occupies a small, inconspicuous entrance on Franklin Street, but once inside, its artists and newly renovated space are anything but forgettable.

The tattoo parlor — originally known as Tar Heel Tattoo — is the oldest in Chapel Hill but has undergone some big changes since its move to a new location at 405 W. Franklin St. about a year ago, owner Meghan Thayer said.

“This location has made a lot of difference for us,” Thayer said.

“We’re a lot more visible. I feel like we’re a good fit here with CD Alley and Hazmat and lots of good places to eat. I really am very fortunate and thankful that we landed here.”

Ascension has since welcomed Wheeler to its team and completed renovations, including improvements to the building, fresh paint and new decorations.

“We did (renovations) in December for the New Year and the setup is a lot more spacious,” Thayer said.

“Everyone has been super receptive to it.”

Wheeler said learning the tattoo trade is a continuous process.

“It’s something that takes years and years, just like anything else,” Wheeler said.

Through his years of experience, Wheeler has developed his own artistic style.

He said he enjoys drawing traditional, Americana-style tattoos, but that he has done all kinds of tattoos for others, depending on the vision of the customer.

“Having a specialty is a luxury that some artists can afford and some can’t,” he said.

“You’ve got to be able to do it all and be flexible.”

Wheeler said part of his development as an artist comes from getting his own tattoos, like the detailed lantern that takes up a significant portion of his tattoo sleeve on his arm.

“I’ll travel to go get tattooed by different artists because it’s a learning experience,” he said.

“Seeing what they’re going to do helps me in my craft, and I get a cool tattoo out of it.”

Getting a tattoo is an interactive experience — not only is it a learning process for artists, but also for clients.

Thayer said a big part of her job at Ascension Tattoo is to help clients translate their ideas into tattoos that will withstand the test of time.

“Not every single idea that everyone comes in with is easily translatable into a tattoo — images that aren’t large enough or that aren’t necessarily the right style for a tattoo,” she said.

“Part of our job is helping them realize we can take an idea or a concept and turn it into what will make a good tattoo that is going to last — that’s going to look good in five or 10 years. It’s an education process.”

That process allows Thayer to create unique custom pieces, like one featuring a blue heron that she designed for her friend, Belinda Lashea, that won Lashea a trip to Alaska through a photo contest.

“You can tell her the energy and essence of what you want, and she will draw it for you,” Lashea said.

“It’s a back-and-forth process, and when it comes out, it’s amazing how it captures exactly what you had in mind. I’m covered in tattoos, but her pieces are spiritual and that’s her true strength.”

Lashea said Thayer is a hard worker who can make anything happen — be it repairs in the store or balancing her personal and professional life.

“She is a business woman and an artist, a single mom and one of my best friends. If she wants it done, it will happen. She has an uncanny ability to manifest anything that she wants to happen in her life.”

“Even just being in her shop, you can see she’s making things happen and tearing down walls,” Lashea said.

“That’s her blood, sweat and tears in there.”

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