Like countless young women across the country, Courtney Spencer was a teenager when she got her first tattoo. She graduated from high school and “ran right to the tattoo studio” with her best friend to get matching fairy lower-back tats. And like thousands before her, the then-18-year-old proceeded to hide her rebellion from her mother.
Mom found out. And she was furious, as you might imagine, but not for the reason you’d expect: She wanted Courtney’s brother to give her the tattoo.
In Las Vegas’ Studio 21 Tattoo Gallery—otherwise known as the Spencer family business—Courtney’s recollection sparks a playful family argument. It starts with a discussion of how close Courtney’s brother had been to starting his apprenticeship. And it ends with Dad making a pronouncement about tramp stamps (he got one because nobody else would). They talk over each other and for each other. And the result is a happy chaos that makes you wish you were part of their very exclusive club.
Father (Charlie) and son (Austin) both tattoo. Daughter (Courtney) runs the front counter and manages the seven tattooists’ schedules. Mom (Becki) handles the business and graphic-design side. While your last name may never be Spencer, you can get a contact high by visiting the gallery (either for a tattoo or for one of its many art events). Or, if the fates roll a certain way, check your local TV listings. The tug between their All-American, middle-class family togetherness, their edgy profession and their comic verbal sparring give them the aura of celebrities who just haven’t become famous yet. Like meeting the staff of Gold & Silver Pawn Shop before Pawn Stars premiered.
Indeed, the Spencers have turned down plenty of offers for reality TV shows in their nine years of operation. Austin, the one who stands out as the most ambitious, says he’d entertain the possibility on the condition that the show respects their integrity as artists and business people. None of that stirring up fake drama. The Spencers have a shop to run, one that focuses on bringing the advantages of the corporate business world—high customer service, clear communication and cleanliness—to the formerly dicey realm of tattooing.
But sometimes the characters of the shadowy world come to them: “When I was in corporate [ad agencies], I worked with the same people, same socioeconomic level,” says Becki, who didn’t get her first tattoo until she was in her 40s. “When I started working here, it was truly an eye opener. We just tattooed people from all over the world, and everything from high-priority-security military to, you know, the prostitute that works down the street.”
But like television’s snappy endings where problems are resolved in 30 minutes or less, everything seems to turn out well for these representatives of the new American dream. They’ve overcome the stresses of working creatively together. They’ve learned mutual understanding from interactions with the city’s unsavory characters. They relieve stress through weekly dinners out and family vacations to tropical islands. Courtney’s small fairy has grown into a large back piece. They’ve grown artistically and economically, having moved to a larger and more prominent location. And they’ve done it all through good, old-fashioned hard work. Now that’s family values.