The Instagram page of Bensalem-based tattoo artist Joe Thomas is quite a sight to behold. Boasting 16.5 thousand followers, it’s chock-full of intricately-detailed surrealism work, from scenery and pet portraits to a horror leg sleeve featuring Ghostface, Michael Myers and The Nun.
But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Thomas got used to hearing the word “no” during his early years hitting the pavement as an aspiring tattooist. However, he didn’t let rejection stop him. Now, clients — including some high-profile celebrities, athletes and politicians — from over 10 countries and 180 cities are walking around with Thomas’ work on their bodies for life.
Currently, Thomas is celebrating a decade of honing his craft, as well as the five-year anniversary of Philly Joe Tattoo Studio, located in the Village Center Shopping Center at 2369 Bristol Road.
And he couldn’t be more grateful.
“It’s definitely shocking to me because time goes so fast,” he told The Times. “Seeing my growth as a person and a business owner, as well as a leader, is amazing because you never know what the future may hold for you.”
It may be hard to believe given his success, but Thomas didn’t grow up with aspirations of becoming a tattoo artist. He always enjoyed art and completed a number of murals around Philadelphia, but never did he think about making a transition from buildings to skin.
That all changed at the age of 21, on the heels of three years spent in prison followed by house arrest and probation. The eldest son of a single mother trying to make ends meet for her four kids, Thomas explained that he used to do whatever he could to help out, which ultimately got him into trouble with the law.
During his time behind bars, Thomas learned the concept of a vision board and goal-setting, and vowed to get himself on a better track upon his release. However, it was a surprise gift from his brother — a tattoo kit from Amazon — that truly set his new life path into motion.
“When I came home from seeing my probation officer, the tattoo kit was on my bed. I looked at it as a sign,” he said. “When I was arrested, I did art for many people, who encouraged me to tattoo, but I always said, ‘No, I’m not writing on people’s bodies.’ But when I came home, I felt like God was saying, ‘No, this is for you.’ ”
The first three years of Thomas’ newfound mission to become a tattoo artist were far from easy. He approached shop after shop asking to be taken on as a rookie, but each declined. Thomas even tried to learn from YouTube tutorials, but to no avail. So, he changed tact.
“What I used to do is walk into tattoo shops in Philadelphia that I admired or wanted to be a part of, and just hang out with them. Even offered to take out trash or help them out in any kind of way with no charge, so that I could just pick their brains and learn,” he said. “I didn’t care if I walked into a room and it was full of veterans. I minded my manners, I stayed humble, kept my composure. But I stood tall, and that intimidated a lot of people because it was showing no fear. I was very fearless and relentless.”
Despite three years of rejection and judgment, all while welcoming a daughter and getting into a car accident that he wasn’t supposed to survive, Thomas continued to push through until his fourth year. This was when things began to take a turn for the better. Not only was a shop finally willing to take him on, he also enjoyed his first-ever flight to participate in his first tattoo competition in Chicago.
“I don’t think anyone who wore my shoes would’ve actually continued. You don’t see results overnight,” he said. “Those three years were the hardest, but I’m happy that I went through them. It made me appreciate that art is on people’s bodies for the rest of their life, and if the artist isn’t honoring that, then they don’t reach that level of being a professional tattoo artist.”
Things got difficult again when Thomas made the decision to open his own studio. He was excited about the prospect, but was completely unfamiliar with the process. Thomas recalled how he drove around spotting “for rent” signs on commercial storefronts, reached out to the landlords and was turned down dozens of times. Thomas, a self-described positive person, was at his wits’ end and almost threw in the towel.
Thankfully, the mother of his daughter helped him remember all the times he was told “no” when he was starting as an artist, and how he came out on the other side. He knew she was right, and kept pushing forward.
A stroke of luck came in 2019 when he was introduced by a friend to the landlord of a complex in Bensalem off of Street Road. This time, Thomas was ready, and officially opened the doors to the first location of Philly Joe Tattoo Studio, an 800-square-foot space.
Immediately, as a new business owner, Thomas immersed himself in the Bensalem community and began networking with Women’s Animal Center, for which he continues to host an annual charity event.
“That first year was nothing but giving. I invested in my business, I invested in myself, I invested in the community to let them know, ‘Hey, I’m here, but not just here to take from y’all. I’m here to give, but also teach and inspire,’ ” said Thomas, who added that, as a young African American man, he did experience some discrimination. “But that didn’t stop me. That didn’t make me say, ‘Oh, the world is cruel and ugly.’ It just made me say, ‘Hey, it’s just not this time and it’s not these people.’ ”
Difficulties struck once again in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses. Thomas had just dedicated his entire life’s savings into the store’s renovation and paperwork, and didn’t qualify for any financial relief during that time. He was nervous and unsure about the fate of Philly Joe Tattoo Studio, and feared that all of his hard work was for nothing.
Yet his fear was for naught, with tattoo shops eventually given the green light to reopen. His clientele boomed post-pandemic, so much so that he was able to upgrade to a larger facility: the studio’s current home in the Village Center Shopping Center.
“When I landed there, I felt more alive about being in business because I learned from COVID. I came from a little spot to here,” he said. “It made me feel like I was in my next journey, my next chapter.”
Thomas has an extremely dedicated set of clients, many of whom have stuck by him for the past decade. He proudly shared that some fly into Bensalem from different states and countries, or drive a massive amount of hours to sit in his chair. It’s a dedication that means the world to him.
“I just had a guy a couple of weeks ago, he drove 13 hours from Tennessee just to stick with me for two days of work, and 10 hours each session,” said Thomas.
While he’s capable of tattooing in any style, he prefers and specializes in the type of hyper-surrealism that makes it appear as though the piece is going to jump off the client’s skin. This style, explained Thomas, is achieved with a high contrast between lights and darks, and not rushing himself.
“The type of work that you see on my Instagram, there are some tattoo artists out there that can do these jobs in a shorter time frame. What takes me 10 hours might take someone five hours, but there are pros and cons to both,” he said. “Quality level is the biggest thing to me. I always told myself, in order for me to be this artist that I want to be, or want people to see me as, I have to stand out from others. That comes with discipline. If I did the piece in five hours, it would be mediocre. If I gave it another five hours, it would be extraordinary.”
Plus, Thomas makes sure to exercise frequently, which prevents him from experiencing back pain during those lengthy sessions.
Given his line of work, it’s often that Thomas is asked general questions about the art of tattooing. How does he know how far into the skin to go? How does he do shading and line work? In order to answer some of these inquiries and give people the chance to experience the work of a tattoo artist first hand, Thomas launched in 2020 Tattooing with a Twist. Guided by an instructor from start to finish, attendees are able to complete a canvas, all while enjoying entertainment, beverages and more.
“Now you know what the artist felt and went through when they tattooed you,” he said. “And it makes customers also respect the art because now you get to choose your artist correctly. I’ve had too many tattoos that were horrible that I had to cover, and I want to prevent people from making those mistakes again.”
Right now, after years of trials and tribulations, Thomas is in a good spot. He’s running a thriving shop, is participating in the forthcoming Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Festival and is working on two initiatives that he feels passionate about: getting tattoo lessons into colleges and prisons.
Regarding the latter, he said, “I’m working on building a program where I can actually have a tutorial for these types of tattoo artists that are in prison, that I’ll be able to share my knowledge with to help some that will be relieved to come home, to get jobs being a tattoo artist. Or those who are serving a life sentence that prevents them from coming out, they will still have access to these types of programs.”
Thomas hopes that, if such an initiative comes to fruition, it prevents the next generation of aspiring tattoo artists from having to struggle and constantly hear “no.” They’ll already have basic skills and can, hopefully, avoid three years of rejection.
For anyone looking to eventually achieve Thomas’ level of acclaim, he advised them to take a hard look at who they are, what they want and why they want it.
“Don’t pursue it because someone said, ‘I think this is for you.’ Don’t pursue it because you saw the rewards that someone else reaped. Don’t pursue it because you can see the glamorous life out of it without accepting the troubles that come with it,” he said. “Stay humble, pray and never ever quit. Even if it don’t work today, it don’t work tomorrow, it don’t work next year. Never quit. If you know this is what you want, do it.”
A decade later, this is still what Thomas wants to do.
And in case he ever forgets just how far he’s come, he still has that Amazon tattoo kit as a reminder.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org