Appalachia has many scars. The people there have been battered by coal mines, narrow mountain roads, and cancer. It’s apparent to any outsider, as it was to me during a 2018 visit, that luck and good fortune have not been on the side of the mountain towns that dot maps of Eastern Kentucky, but people like Draven Scott Gayheart are working to change those circumstances.
I did not expect to meet Gayheart during my brief to Hazard, Kentucky, but that is how small towns, especially those weary of strangers, function. One evening, I found myself in the backroom of Appalachian Apparel Co. talking to the owner, Joey McKenney, about health and cancer when he admitted to searching my Instagram feed before I arrived–to learn a bit more about the New Yorker who chose to spend a week before Christmas in a town of 5,000 strangers. Through my feed, McKenney learned that I underwent a double mastectomy and got a tattoo to commemorate the experience. Within seconds of sharing his discovery, McKenney called his friend and tattoo artist, who wound up being Gayheart, asking him to stop by to meet me.
Gayheart was two weeks away from opening his own tattoo shop after an abrupt departure from a nearby shop. While many middle-of-the-night job changes result from nefarious activity on an employee’s part, Gayheart’s behavior was anything but. He wanted to donate tattoos to clients wishing to cover up scars, using his own time, and his boss wouldn’t allow it. But scar cover-ups are the tattoos that give Gayheart the most joy, so he found a vacant building on Main Street and opened within a month.
“You get an extreme amount of satisfaction when you do a fresh tattoo on someone… when you see the look on their face and they’re pleased with what they have. [But] the highest level of satisfaction you can get, in my opinion as [an artist], is when they are reminded of a bad time associated with a scar and you can hide that for them.”
He and the two artists working with him, Brad Combs and Will Hurt, have been completely booked since Lost Gypsy Tattoo opened on January 2, 2019. The shop does not solely focus on scar cover-ups, but the reason for offering them is reflected in every aspect of the design and hospitality at Lost Gypsy Tattoo. “I know for a lot of people, especially first-timers, coming to a tattoo shop can be extremely intimidating,” says Gayheart. In other shops, the front windows are blacked out, making the space uninviting. “Ours are wide open. You can see inside the shop before you ever walk through the door. People can see everything in here and it appears we’re having a good time… That energy hits you immediately and you feel welcome when you come in here.”
Putting people at ease–both in his shop and in their own skin–is what drove Gayheart to use tattoos as a fresh start for clients who had been scarred somehow. His first scar client was a woman who nearly lost her leg in an accident and for five years hid the scar that ran from her hip to knee under pants and long skirts. The tattoo cover-up took 16 hours of needle time to make something she felt so insecure about into something she was proud of.
Since the first time Gayheart met his now-wife, Amanda, she made sure to hide the scar and recess in her bicep from him on their dates. She sat on the opposite side of him so he couldn’t see it and tugged at her shirt sleeve, conscious of the permanent reminder of being diagnosed with myosarcoma, a malignant muscle tumor, 22 years ago. After seeing the relief Gayheart’s tattoo gave this other woman, she asked her husband for her own.
With each cover up, Gayheart utilizes divots and raised skin from scarring to create depth in the design and strategically uses darker inks in areas where depth already exists. The size of the tattoo depends on the size of the scar and level of damage to the skin, but is generally double in size of the area to be covered. Unless the client requests otherwise, he tries to design a tattoo on the smallest scale possible, to minimize both cost and pain. “When you’re working on damaged tissue, the majority of the time it’s numb. [Other times] the nerve-endings are crossed, damaged, or miswired and pain travels through the whole body. You can be getting tattooed on your leg and feel it in your shoulder when that happens.”
Gayheart was recently contacted by the Southeast Kentucky Human Trafficking Task Force after the story of his wife’s tattoo made local news. The organization was searching for a local artist who could cover up scars from trafficking survivors who “typically have scars from physical abuse or tattoos that show ownership” from their captors. With this project in mind, Gayheart is focused on keeping his shop as warm and safe an environment as possible. He installed privacy screens that can cover the front windows, in case one of these survivors needs that extra level of security, and offers to tattoo them on the days the shop is closed if someone prefers. “Those days I’d be able to come in here on my own to do those types of tattoos in a completely friendly, non-hostile environment so they’re a little more comfortable knowing that the general public won’t be coming in and out during that time, asking questions and seeing who they are.”
He hopes to make the top floor of Lost Gypsy’s building an apartment for visiting artists and, maybe one day, folks traveling to get one of Gayheart’s cover-ups. In the meantime, he is working with local businesses to provide discounted accommodations to these clients. The biggest hurdle is making people aware this service is available. “A lot of people have [scars] and they think there’s nothing that can be done with them… and this is the best it’s ever going to look and they don’t know there’s an option to go one step further to completely hide it.”
The pain of getting one these tattoos is miniscule when compared to what some of his clients have endured. In a small corner of Appalachia, where residents are accustomed to pain–and overcoming it–, Gayheart is helping people reclaim their bodies with his art.