While most folks know the outdated image of a tattoo parlor as a hangout for bikers, punk rockers and other reprobates is bogus, anyone who still is confused about how much heart and soul the tattoo scene has should stop by a Tattoo Charlie’s on Sunday to see one of Louisville’s oldest shops throw the seventh annual Tattoos Against Cancer.
This event has raised tons of money over the years — according to owner Buddy Wheeler, in the last six years, they’ve raised $45,000. This year he hopes to make it an even $50K.
Insider sat down with Wheeler over breakfast to get the lowdown on the event, find out how it got started, what it’s like growing up in the tattoo business, and what eager tattoo enthusiasts should expect on Sunday.
Wheeler is the son of Charlie Wheeler, who first opened Tattoo Charlie’s in the early ’70s.
“My dad started the business in 1973, and I started working with him in ’96 — did a tattoo apprenticeship, a body piercing apprenticeship, did those steadily for about 10 years. And then when he passed in ’07, I took over running the day-to-day business,” said Wheeler.
He was moved to start the Tattoos Against Cancer event because of a friendship.
“A couple of years after my dad passed, his best friend Jerry, his daughter had leukemia. I had wondered about a way to help her foundation — she had started a foundation to help kids going through treatment,” said Wheeler.
Sarah Meghan Steinberg was in her early 20s when she was diagnosed with leukemia. She wanted to help make a difference in the lives of other cancer patients, especially kids. So she started Meghan’s Mountain, a foundation that been able to do an amazing amount of good.
Meghan’s Mountain is different from many cancer foundations in that they focus on patients instead of research.
Wheeler shared a partial list of things they’ve done here in town: “Putting in video game systems so the kids have something to do while they are going through chemo; putting in TVs with DVD players so the kids would have something to focus on; painting the walls so they weren’t just cold, sterile hospital walls but actually fun and kid-friendly.”
The foundation helped in more utilitarian ways as well. Kids needing treatment are often from outside the Louisville area, so their parents have to bring them here to get treatment.
“They don’t have access to a steady place to stay or laundry facilities, so a lot of parents where having to leave their kids for hours at a time to walk down Broadway to go to the laundry mat,” he explained.
Steinberg and the foundation changed that, working with the hospital to allocate space, then paying for everything including plumbing, as well as washers and dryers, to put a special oncology unit laundry mat in place, so parents wouldn’t have to leave their sick kids all alone.
Steinberg sadly is no longer with us. Though she beat her cancer into remission once, she was diagnosed again a few years later. The second round of treatment and sickness was too much for her body, and she died in 2016. Her foundation lives on, thanks to generous folks like Wheeler and all the Tattoo Charlie’s artists.
“I donate the studio, all of the business fees, the credit card processing, all the supplies — everything,” said Wheeler. “My artists all supply their time and their talent for a day.”
On Sunday, Nov. 12, visitors can choose a tattoo from a flash sheet, which is about 20 pre-drawn designs. The designs include ribbons and semicolons in different shapes and styles, and guests can have them done in any color the artists have available.
“The minimum donation is $30, but most people donate more, because 100 percent of the money goes to charity,” he said. “There are a lot of events where half goes to charity. We do 100 percent.”
As you might imagine, the popularity of the event is immense.
“We open at 9 a.m. technically, usually we try to open a little bit early,” said Wheeler. “Last year when I got there at 7 a.m., there were about 60 people out front … people really feel good about where their money is going.”
Wheeler also encourages people to give a donation to Mehgan’s Mountain whether they get a tattoo or not. Though he donates the materials and his time, he gives all the credit to Steinberg and how she has touched people all over America and as far away as Africa.
“It’s absolutely inspiring,” he said. “How she gave of herself to others, even while she was going through treatment, she still pushed to help other people.”
There are two Tattoo Charlie’s locations in Louisville (7904 Preston Hwy. and 7640 Dixie Hwy.) and one in Lexington (470 New Circle Road).