When James Lomax moved to Arlington from California more than 22 years ago, he never envisioned opening his own tattoo studio. Lomax, who goes by OG Poppy among his fellow tattoo artists, recalled coming to North Texas and trying to find a shop to fit his Afro-conscious or Afro-centric tattoo style.
“A lot of shops were more cliqued up back then, and they weren’t really hiring Black artists, so I was kind of underground for a while,” Lomax said.
He met his future business partner, Mike Montgomery, while doing tattoos out of the back of his wife’s salon. With lines for Lomax’s tattoos going out the door, Montgomery’s wife suggested the two open their own tattoo business together.
“If you would have asked me back then, I was like, I don’t even want to do the shop thing, but I was kind of forced into it. It’s been a blessing ever since.”
Now, more than two decades later, Lomax and Montgomery have transitioned through their original store front and two others and now operate Da Kandy Shop Tattoo Studio on South Cooper Street in Arlington. The shop sees about 200 customers per week, between tattoo designs and piercings, and it just won the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Readers’ Choice vote for best place to get a tattoo in the Fort Worth area.
The Star-Telegram started out with 38 reader-nominated tattoo shops in Tarrant County, then did four rounds of voting to narrow the list.
Lomax said what sets Da Kandy Shop apart is its versatility, meaning guests can come in and get whatever design they want for fairly inexpensive. The shop does everything from portraits to traditional bold lines and bright colors to an anime fad that’s been popular recently.
Montgomery said he thinks the shop has a large following because it doesn’t have a minimum price customers must spend during visits. Da Kandy Shop goes as low as $10 for tattoos and $1 for piercings depending on the size and has specials on certain days, Montgomery said.
Da Kandy Shop employs about 25 artists across day and night shifts, including six female artists. Lomax said the average tattoo can take one to four hours or more, depending on the art.
Lomax said he became a tattoo artist because he was always the kid drawing in the back of the classroom. When his step-father, also a drawer, was sent to prison, he would send letters to Lomax’s mother full of script lettering and drawings of teddy bears with hearts.
“His love letters to my mom are what inspired me the most to transfer that into my tattoos,” Lomax said. “Even today, I still do pieces like a teddy bear with a hat or a heart smoking a cigar — pieces with an emotional attachment to them.”
Co-owners Will Carter and Yovi Valentin crossed paths while working at other tattoo shops in Fort Worth and decided to open their own, named after their contrasting personalities. Carter described himself as energetic and full of emotions, while Valentin described himself as mellow and calm.
“We came up with the name Khaotic Zen, because we liked the play on words,” Valentin said. “They’re opposites but it works, like us. We have a nice balance.”
Carter and Valentin both recalled struggling with academics but always loving art, creating and drawing. Valentin’s aunt encouraged him to pursue a full-time career in tattoo design while Carter’s younger brother was the first to pique his interest.
“I can see how it makes other people feel,” said Valentin, while talking about why he loves being a tattoo artist. “Everyone’s super excited when they get a new, fresh, nice-looking tattoo. It really boosts their self esteem and adds positivity to their life.”
Meanwhile, Carter said he still doesn’t strictly consider himself a tattoo artist, per se.
“I’m an artist who happens to do tattoos and fortunately became good at it,” Carter said. “I still take time out to draw for myself all the time. At least once a week, I try to dedicate at least five or six hours to drawing.”
Khaotic Zen’s growth is just beginning, according to the co-owners. In late September, Khaotic Zen will be at Cowtown Comic Con to give tattoos and piercings on site at the two-day convention.
Prather graduated from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, with a degree in illustration. After trying different paths, including freelance illustration, design and storyboards, he fell back into his original high school dream of being a tattoo artist.
During his nine years in the tattoo business, Prather has developed a large clientele list, which allows him to work by himself and operate on his own schedule. He relies mostly on word-of-mouth referrals and said he has developed a strong, local community.
“Coming from an illustration background, my tattoos carry a distinctive flair over what’s normally seen in tattoo art,” Prather said. “In recent years, I’ve focused on freehanding my work, meaning drawing directly on the skin for best fit and composition. By doing this, my style has been more uniquely defined as tattoos that only come from me.”
In addition to tattooing, Prather recently created a cover for Fort Worth Magazine and interior illustrations for two issues. He’s also completed several murals and paintings for local bands and bars.
Studio Black, on Williams Road in Benbrook, ranked fourth in votes. The owner is Michael Gordon, who was convicted on federal drug trafficking charges in Fort Worth years ago. Gordon refined his drawing skills and tattooed inside prison for almost a decade.
“Upon my return home, it was very important to me to come home and be an example of someone who changed,” Gordon said. “I wanted to have a positive impact on my community and show that we are not defined by our past but rather how we overcome and progress into the future.”
Gordon said he hopes to convey to others every day that it’s never too late to make some changes and chase their dreams.
Hannah Bratcher owns fifth-place winner, Ink by Hann, also on Williams Road in Benbrook. Bratcher, who rents a room from Gordon, started tattooing shortly after the start of the COVID pandemic. She defines her style with a focus on realism, butterflies and florals.
Though Bratcher always had an interest in tattoos, she never thought it would become her lifestyle. Three months into tattooing, she quit her full-time job to focus on her business.
MORE: Check out winners of Star-Telegram Readers’ Choice in 2022: