Smile Politely

Celebrating C-U Life: Jason Dunavan

Reality television has a way of portraying regular life as something out of a soap opera. Some shows make tattoo shops out to be drama-filled discussions between artists … and heartfelt conversations between artists and clients over the meaning behind a tattoo. Skip to 5 Star Tattoo and you’ll find something a bit more realistic. Quoting one of the shop’s talented artists: “I don’t ask why they’re getting the tattoo.” I had to laugh when he said it, but to Jason Dunavan the focus for him is the art behind the tattoo.

Dunavan’s early years were spent in Danville. Today he calls Champaign his home. His father is a machine mechanic and his mother is an art teacher. That could be where he gets his artistic talent from. One thing is clear, Dunavan has talent. He didn’t start out as a tattoo artist, though. He first worked at a radio station. Eventually moving on, he began work at a tattoo shop. After five years of piercing apprenticeship, Dunvan worked his way up to doing tattoos. He jokes about the first tattoo he drew for a customer. He doesn’t regard it as his best work by far, but the client definitely did. It was a heart with spokes, drawn on the back of a guy’s neck. Even though Dunavan wasn’t thrilled about it, the client loved it and has never altered it.

Each artist has his or her own style. At 5 Star Tattoo, where Dunavan works, there are four artists with four distinctive styles of tattoo artistry. Dunavan likes to watch other artists from all over to see their styles. He uses their styles for inspiration as he continues to perfect his own style. Dunavan likes tattoos that can capture the imagination. A chance meeting with an artist in North Carolina gave him unforgettable inspiration. Matt Moore, a painter, has a great mixed media art that captures the observer right away. Tattoos can have the same effect.

Considering the human body as a canvas, Dunavan has definitely been hard at work filling his own. He doesn’t have an exact number to offer for the number of tattoos he has, but he guesses it’s probably over 100: “I have a lot of little tattoos.” His first tattoo was a peace sign on his left hand. It’s changed over the years, though. It evolved into a bomb, but that eventually got lost in the work that now covers his entire hand. In his collection of little tattoos are ones he received from the 2004-2005 University of Illinois Men’s Basketball team. After giving the players tattoos he allowed them the chance to leave their mark on him with some small tattoos. But that’s not so unusual. The relationship between artist and client is pretty significant, as it is one that relies on some serious trust. The client puts faith in the artist to give him a tattoo he will love forever. Some people only put that type of trust in family and friends.

Even with the best artist and design, the initial reaction to a tattoo can be like the one you might have to a new haircut: it can take a few days to get used to it. Some clients go into the tattoo experience not 100% sure of what to expect. They may not know their own thresholds for pain. They may not fully appreciate that it’s permanent. But Dunavan hasn’t had an unhappy client, yet. He has clients that come back to him for all their subsequent tattoos. One stereotype of tattoos is that they’re addictive, and people usually end up with several. There’s some truth to that. Dunavan states that people with tattoos either have one or three or more. And people with only two? Dunavan jokes that they’re usually thinking about their third.

Tattoos once seemed to be only for sailors and bikers, not the sweet girl next door. Dunavan believes that tattoos are much less taboo, but more people might have them if the working world didn’t frown upon them so much. The tattoo industry is obviously one that doesn’t discourage having a body covered with tattoos. A tattoo artist’s ink can be a way to promote tattoos to clients. Promotion is a big part of the work that goes into being a tattoo artist. Dunavan is usually out four to five days a week to promote his business. He’s even established his own night at Memphis On Main that includes free bacon. Not your normal bar food, but really, who doesn’t love bacon? He also had a party at Soma recently to celebrate his birthday. Even then he had a chance to talk about his work. Dunavan jokes that artists always get asked about their tattoos, but he treats it as an opportunity to promote his work.

While his busy schedule may make it hard to date, he always has time for his three kids. He smiles when he talks about how his daughter, who’s 16, has ventured into the fun, teenage mall dates. His seventeen-year-old son is figuring things out for the future, while his eight-year-old son is into video games. Dunavan recently took a break from owning his own tattoo shop to spend time on the other things in his life that he loves, like spending time with his kids. He also travels when he can. His favorite destination is North Carolina. He has a best friend there, but also loves the atmosphere. He specifically loves going to Charlotte. The weather is gorgeous and the city has lots of tattooed people. Comparing Charlotte to Champaign, I ask how the two tattoo scenes measure up to each other. Dunavan believes the tattoo scene depends on how artists in the city promote themselves. And there’s more that can be promoted when it comes to tattoos these days.

The ink being used in tattoos now is more vibrant and can create a better quality design. Even the piercing industry has evolved as dermals are part of the scene now. He hopes both continue to grow and change. Dunavan says he’s in the industry for life. He loves the art. He even paints at home to continually improve his own artistic style. There are many outlets to draw artistic inspiration from, which includes music. As he tattoos a panther on a client, there’s heavy metal blasting in the background. Dunavan likes all types of music, except one. He’s not a huge fan of country. I ask if he has any music in his collection that someone might not expect like … Justin Bieber. “No,” he replies. No Justin Bieber. But he does occasionally rock a Justin Bieber hoodie. He adds that he likes fun music and most recently has had Carly Rae Jepsen spinning. For a moment it was hard to picture Dunavan singing along to “Call Me Maybe,” since he described his signature tattoo style as dark and evil. But after hearing about his other experiences, clearly there’s a fun, lighter side to the artist. One experience he mentions, however, did take a walk on the darker side.

In 2008, Dunavan’s work drew national attention as a result of the shooting that occurred at Northern Illinois University. The shooter, Steven Kazmierczak, had been in Dunavan’s shop about a month prior to the tragic event to get a tattoo. In the aftermath, the tattoo offered a glimpse into the mind of Kazmierczak. Dunavan who was initially proud of the tattoo he created, had displayed it in his shop. But he eventually took it down. He even had to close down business, as the media attention was too much. As a result of this unexpected connection, Dunavan gave tattoos to the two sisters of Kazmierczak. He also gave them the photo he took of their brother’s tattoo. Despite the tragedy that occurred, in the end he was able to use his art to help with the family’s healing process.

Good or bad, Jason Dunavan’s experiences as an artist have been ones he’s loved, and it shows in his dedication to his craft. He continually strives to offer his clients unique pieces of art that they will enjoy for life. And even though his art may not hang in a famous museum, it is nonetheless priceless and meaningful to his clients.


Photo by Kara Steirman.

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