Tattoo artist profits from penitentiary
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
“Prison saved my life,” says Marcus “Big Penn” Samuel, owner of Penitentiary Tattoos on Detroit’s east side. Life hasn’t been easy for the self-made entrepreneur. His mother was neglectful and struggled with substance abuse. She kept Samuel away from his father for the first decade of his life. When he was 10 years old, the state put him and his siblings into foster care. Two years later, luckily, Samuel’s father tracked him and his siblings down and got them out of foster care. At the time, Samuel’s father had a lucrative security company. The preteen’s life changed overnight. His new home was everything he had ever dreamed of — jacuzzi included.
But his life would change again when he was 19. His girlfriend called him frantically one evening, telling Samuel she had been raped by her stepfather. Samuel rushed to her aid. Arriving at her home Samuel’s love and concern for his girlfriend turned to rage. He shot the stepfather point-blank in the head.
According to Samuel, during the murder investigation, his girlfriend denied her stepfather had abused her in any way. She claimed to have no idea why Samuel shot the man. Samuel was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
It was in prison, however, that Samuel began to discover himself. As a child, he had loved to draw. In elementary school, some of his artwork attracted the attention of the principal who believed the drawings of football players were forged. Samuel’s mother was called to join the budding artist in the principal’s office. The principal of the school made Samuel draw right there. “I had it to scale, detailed. They couldn’t believe I could draw something like that,” Samuel remembers. “(The principal) kept it and hung it up because he was so embarrassed.” After two years in prison (what prisoners call being “two-years out), Samuel says family visits and care packages dropped off. That’s when he became determined to turn his life around and use the time in prison to develop a talent he could use when he got out. He revived his art career and learned to give tattoos. He made his own tattoo machine. “We took the motor out of a tape player and hooked it up to ink pens,” he said. Then we would take some guitar strings and sharpen them up and tattoo with that.”
His “prisonpreneurship (see James Clingman’s Dec. 8 article in the Michigan Citizen)” was profitable. Samuel was able to earn enough money in prison to pay off a female friend’s student loans, he says.
Eventually, his ex-girlfriend came clean about her stepfather’s abuse in letters she sent to Samuel in prison. Using her letters, he successfully appealed the length of his sentence, which was reduced to 10 years. He was released in 2007.
According to a 2003 Urban Institute Reentry Roundtable Discussion Paper, “Eighteen Employment Barriers Facing Ex-Offenders,” only 30-35 percent of ex-convicts are employed. John Schmitt and Kris Warner’s Nov. 2010 study “Ex-offenders and the Labor Market” estimates that in 2008 there were between 12 and 14 million ex-offenders of working age. Combining those statistics means there are almost 9 million unemployed ex-offenders in the United States. To put that number in perspective, only 10 American states have populations higher than nine million.
Samuel’s options were limited. Not only are businesses reluctant to hire convicted felons, but Samuel’s intimidating physique added to the erroneous perception he was dangerous, he says. Eventually, he went to a welding plant, where he promised to work for free to prove himself. After two weeks of showing up and working hard every day, the management offered him a job. He saved his welding money and bought a tax-auctioned house. There he began tattooing people in his kitchen in his free time until his business was big enough to operate full time. Now, Samuel owns two state-licensed tattoo shops. Tattooing has exploded in popularity ever since the debut of the television show “Miami Ink.” A 2010 Pew Research Center Study “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next” confirms their popularity. According to the study 38 percent of 18-29-year-olds have tattoos, as do 32 percent of people 30-45, compared to marginal numbers of people over 45 with ink. Along with the boom in the industry, comes an increase in competition Samuel says. “A lot of shops are closing now because people are getting tattoos from people who do them in houses. You can find anyone tattooing anywhere now — in the barbershops, and you can even turn in your bottles at the grocery store and see a guy next to the Coinstar … doing tattoos,” he jokes. In order to stay in business, Samuel has to compete with the artists doing home tattoos — artists without insurance, building overhead, license fees and so on. He said he learned some of his business tactics from the movie “American Gangster.” “Things (the main character) did in there — he was on the dope level though — I took on the business level and decided to cut out the middle man. Normally, if I go buy a tongue ring from a shop it’s going to cost me $10 and then I have to put $25 piercings on the marquee just to make some money. Now I go get all my own supplies from where the supply stores get them from. So I can do a piercing for $10 because it only costs me 16 cents.”
Knowing firsthand how hard it is to secure employment with a record, Samuels makes it a point to hire ex-convicts. He says employers should take a chance hiring people who were incarcerated. “I’ve been in prison with a lot of people who really, really deserve to be there and a lot of people who didn’t. Just get to know somebody … don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Ralph has been working at Penitentiary Tattoos for a little over a year. He got into tattoos in high school, earning an internship with skill he demonstrated in his drawings. He, too, was sidetracked. After Ralph was released, Samuel saw his work on Facebook and invited him to come work at the shop. Starting work at Penitentiary Tattoos, “My whole life turned around,” Ralph says. “My name was elevated so I had no other choice than to go a positive way. My love for tattoos grew. At first, I was just in it for the money, now I do it for the passion.”
Samuel’s experiences have taught him much he wants to pass on to younger artists like Ralph and to young men and women in general. He advises young artists to: “Know your craft. Don’t just be satisfied with putting ink in people’s skin. Know why it’s going in there, know how deep to go in there, know what happens if you don’t clean a person’s skin off first. Get in there.” Samuel has educated himself about blood-borne pathogen and microbial diseases to maintain a clean hygienic shop. He has even taken CPR classes to be prepared for an emergency.
Samuel wants young people to know they won’t be able to work forever and can’t count on having a pension or social security, they have to begin building wealth. “We got to get where we have some kind of residual income coming in, some kind of early retirement, because we’re not going to be able to do it when we’re 70 or 80 years old. My belief is work hard as hell right now and do all that travelling and get on a boat when you’re old and all that,” he says.
Samuel, now a father of two daughters, also speaks to school children, including students at his own alma mater Denby High School, about his experiences and life’s harder realities. “Look at the board games like Life and Monopoly; these are children’s games and they all include jail. Whether you’re just visiting or you lose three turns, why is this a part of life?” he questions. “Kids need to know the reality. You could lose your turn; not collect $200. Don’t look down on me. I’m going to get out and get my turns back. Give me the dice. I’m ready for another shot.” Samuel worries that kids are taught to be employees and not owners — butchers and not owners of the meat market. He encourages young people to dream as big as possible.
“My wife is begging me to take a vacation,” said Samuel, “but I don’t want to leave, because it was like I was on ‘vacation’ for ten years. I’m playing catch-up. I want to get it.”
Penitentiary Tattoos, home of the “$20 tattoo,” is located at 10380 Gratiot Ave, Detroit with a second location at W. Seven Mile and Evergreen. For more information, call: 313.469.9008. Join the shop’s more than 35,000 Instagram followers @pentatts.