Johnny Battles has been getting his ink since before he could drive a car, Michelle Jewell since before she could rent one, but both put their designs on display for all to see. And they’re not done yet on their lifelong art project.
Apparently, almost everything that’s been written about Sweeteeth Chocolate mentions the fact that its founder, Johnny Battles, has a crap-ton of tattoos. They’re all over his body, from the palm of his hand to his neck to plenty of places that no one can see, including Battles himself. “You’ll never read an article about Sweeteeth or me that doesn’t have the word tattoo in it somewhere,” he points out. “It’s almost like a novelty, this character of my business. It almost makes people want the chocolate more because they expect me to make it less.” We’re hoping he doesn’t take too much offense to this piece, though, since it has nothing to do with his killer Sea is for Caramel bar.
LOST IN TRANSLATION. Battles started getting tattooed when he was 15. To put it as nicely as possible, he wasn’t very smart about it — he got a kanji that didn’t translate into anything. In fact, Battles pretty much regrets most of the tats he got while under the age of 20. He’s already covered up three of the first five (including a tramp stamp). “The quality is terrible,” he explains. “The subject matter is stupid. [It’s] the subject matter of an Alabama-raised, 15-year-old child who wanted to get tattooed because his granddad had a pinup on his arm.”
DEVELOPING TRUST. Battles has been going to the same tattoo artist, Zack Spurlock, for the last seven years, traveling to Savannah and sitting for nine hours at a time. The guy is one of Battles’ closest friends, but since they’re both busy small-business owners, they only get to see each other when Battles is getting inked. “It’s almost like therapy,” he says of when they get together. Battles trusts Spurlock completely. “This guy has gotten to know me, my personality,” he says. “He knows what I’m doing in my personal life and things like that, so he creates this tattoo imagery that really responds to that, and then he knows my body and the shape of it, so the tattoo itself is made for my body.” Which is why Battles didn’t mind lying completely naked on a massage table to get the full-body-length ancient Chinese dragon his artist made especially for him.
NO TOUCHING. Not surprisingly, Battles gets stopped fairly frequently and asked about his tattoos, something he’s not crazy about. “It’s just kind of invasive. It’s just kind of annoying, because it’s so superficial,” he says. “It’s not like, hey, what’s up, what’s your name? They touch you and stuff. That’s annoying, and they seem to think you’re their visual property. They don’t mean any harm by it, but I’m a real boy, and the comparisons they make are really weird.”
GETTING FADED. You know that thing practical people always say about tattoos? “Oh man, that looks cool now, but it’s going to look terrible when you’re old.” They may have a point, but Battles is actually stoked at the prospect. “When I see old man pictures, like of my granddad, they’re all shitty and faded and they just look like their skin is all bruised up,” he says. “That’s why I get tattooed now, so I can look cool when I’m 80.”
WORDS OF ADVICE. “What I tell my nieces and nephews … I’m just like, don’t get your hands, don’t get your neck tattooed,” he says. “For one, it makes you highly unemployable.” And having such visible tattoos takes something away from the art form. “Now it’s kind of like everybody’s got them. … It used to be this thing, these badges, this secret club, and I kind of want the secret club mentality to come back.”
Michelle Jewell was a late bloomer. The illustrator and toymaker behind the whimsical stuffed animals of Finkelstein’s Center — which you can find at Mac and Murphy, Mixson, and other small stores across the country — didn’t get her first tattoo until she was 24 years old. But maybe that’s a good thing. “If I had started when I was younger, I would have made worse decisions,” she points out. Back then, it was illegal to get tattoos in South Carolina, so she had to travel out of state to get a group of clouds on her back, which eventually turned into a scene representing the sky, the land, and the sea. It’s been about 10 years since then, and now her ink count comes in at 13.
RIGHTY. Currently, Jewell’s right arm is clustered with bold black lines, but the left is blank — for now. She plans to fill in the right arm some more, but she doesn’t want to take away from the individual pieces. “I don’t want it to be a mess of stuff that you take a while to tell what it is,” she says. And since she has no plans to stop getting tattoos, once that happens, she’ll move on to the left arm.
CRANIUM. Jewell’s tattoos are a mixture of pieces she wanted instantly and other designs that she considered for some time. One of her favorites is a mustachioed human-octopus hybrid holding an ax and wearing suspenders. But her dream tattoo is a big ol’ skull, a plan she’s had since high school. She recently settled for a little skull near her hand, but she still really wants a big one. “They’re just badass,” she says. “I think they’re cool looking.”
MONOCHROMATICITY. As an artist herself, Jewell has drawn some of her tattoos, including an intentionally faded blue whale you can see when she curves her arm out. It’s one of the few spots of color on her arm, since she isn’t big on vivid hues. She doesn’t really use color in her own illustrations, and she doesn’t wear a lot of it either. But she is a fan of crisp, clean black lines with occasional, muted pops, like red suspenders or a yellow shirt or an aqua tail.
ASTROLOGY. One of Jewell’s most recent acquisitions, a Capricornis, or sea goat, is only a few weeks old and serves as a tribute to her grandfather. “I went through a list of his hobbies and a laundry list of who he was,” she says, but nothing stuck out, so she went with his astrological sign of Capricorn. The design comes from Urania’s Mirror, a box set of constellation cards made in 1825. Jewell had the work done at Iron Lotus, a place she swears by. Her grandfather’s name is also inked right nearby. Of all of Jewell’s tattoos, these are the only two with a personal connection attached to them.
THE COVER UP. As a creative, Jewell doesn’t feel the need to conceal her body art in most situations. Her customers are typically in her age group, so they’re less skeptical about doing business with a tattooed lady. “I never feel like it’s an issue,” she says. “I think it kind of makes sense with what I do, because I’m an illustrator and an artist. They see an artist and they’re not that surprised.” But if she’s going to church with her husband’s parents, she’ll pay more attention to her wardrobe choices. “I won’t wear something quite as revealing if it could make my grandma uncomfortable,” she says.