From nurse to body piercer to tattoo artist to small business owner: Clarissa Wills has had a career as unusual and colorful as a sleeve tattoo. And she owes her success to the many regulars who return to her often.
Wills , who owns the tattoo parlor Beauty Marks with her husband, Dale, first got into body piercing 14 years ago when she and her friend, a fellow nurse, "were getting our first piercings and stuff, and we thought, 'We're inside bodies all the time. We could do this for a living.' "
She explained that becoming a certified tattoo artist or body piercer, requires an apprenticeship in the trade at a licensed shop. She said she's always been artistic, "but I wasn't raised in an era like now, where everything is tattoos. So I got into it a little later on in the game."
The studio in the yellow house on Savannah Highway offers full body piercing and tattooing services in facilities fully regulated and approved by the health department.
The building was designed by her husband, who was in construction after his time in the Marine Corps. He said the couple has tried to make their space "a soccer mom refuge" so that people can come in if they want something done discreetly, "and nobody needs to know about it. They can get their tattoo or piercing and be on their way."
Though Sheryl Glover, 45, is not a Beauty Marks regular herself -- she got her very first tattoo there Saturday afternoon -- but she's part of a family of regulars.
Her daughter Ashley, who accompanied her on the inking excursion, said her husband has gotten two from Beauty Marks, while her future brother-in-law has "quite a few." She said she's planning to come back in a couple of weeks to get a tattoo of her newborn daughter's name.
Glover said she's been thinking about getting a tattoo forever. A Beaufort native who's now a Baltimore nurse, she came home to visit her kids and "decided to do it." Wills designed a Tinkerbell and tattooed it on Glover's calf because, Glover said, she loves the Peter Pan fairy and has "pretty much all my life," adding that many of her uniforms "have Tinkerbell all over them."
When asked if her co-workers and friends would be surprised when she came back with a large tattoo, she laughed and said, "I had been saying for years I was going to get one. Nobody believed I was going to get it. Now I've got one, and they're really not going to believe I got one this size!"
Dawn and Randy Walz befriended the Willses five years ago, soon after moving to Beaufort from Cherry Point, N.C., in 2005.
Dawn says Wills has been the artist for most of her tattoos, which she's obtained in the last few years.
She got her first, a butterfly, when she was 29. "
I thought long and hard about it because it is permanent," she said. "Not everybody (thinks hard about it). But you need to unless you want to go through the expense and the pain of having it removed."
All of Dawn's tattoos are in places on her body where she can show them off or cover them, depending on the situation. She works for an oral surgeon and said, "You can't see any of mine while I'm at work. My boss is okay with the tattoos and stuff, but there is still that stigma out there for some people."
Her biggest piece will likely grow even larger over time. She and Wills worked to design a lower back piece that reflected Dawn's feeling of connection to Asian culture. "I wanted the cherry blossoms, so I told Clarissa exactly what I wanted, and she drew up a couple different things."
Later, Dawn had Japanese kanji characters tattooed along her spine. She explained that their meanings are " 'sunrise' for my name, 'wicked,' 'woman,' 'strength' and 'beauty.' "
When asked about future work on the piece, she replied that eventually she's "looking at doing cherry blossom branches -- like a tree almost -- to connect the bottom one and have them going through the tattoo itself and having different cherry blossoms going through it."
She estimated that the work she's considering would take two long sessions, "depending on how long I could sit through it. Some areas are a little more tender than others."
One of the things that keeps her coming back to Wills, she said, apart from her artistic ability, "is her very soft hand" with the tattoo needle.
She added that her husband, Randy, "can sit longer through tattoos than I can."
Over the years, Randy has had work done by seven different artists in California, Texas, North Carolina, the Philippines and Okinawa, Japan, and has concluded that the amount of pain "all depends on the artist. Some are better than others with their technique. Clarissa's really good."
He said he actually fell asleep twice while Wills inked two large pieces on his upper arms: his family crest and a yin-yang with a dragon.
Randy said he got his first tattoo "because I was in the military, and I just wanted to get a tattoo."
His most recent body art acquisition by Wills is a wrist tattoo of his deceased brother's badge. On his other inside wrist, he plans to get the kanji symbol for "brother."
He explained that he "had four brothers and one's not here," so he plans to "get a stencil and kind of do a black-and-grey wash to symbolize my three brothers who are here and the one who's not. ... That's the type of thought you have to put into it."
Dawn stressed that every tattoo "needs to mean something to you." She said she wasn't necessarily inspired by her husband's tattoos -- when they got married he "only had a couple" -- but had been thinking that she wanted one "for awhile and then one day it was just, 'I'm going to do it.' " Randy was in Japan "and he called me and said he wanted to get another tattoo, and I thought, 'Well, fine. I'm getting mine.' "
That was in North Carolina, where she said she did a lot of research to find an artist she liked.
"Most of the tattoo artists coming on to the market now have art degrees," she said, "so you can expect to get something really good."