At first glance upon walking into Terry Merritt’s office, it would be easy to think you’re in one of the thousands of tattoo shops that dot America these days.
The artist, known as Dr. T, surely displays all the iconic knickknacks associated with the art form.
Tattoo magazines featuring his work on the cover line the walls. Awards gleaned from competitions abound. The familiar staccato sound of the tattoo machine permeates the air. Books of line drawings are scattered around.
Just your average tattoo artist, right?
Not in the least.
Forget, for a minute, the fact that both of his arms and legs are liberally covered in age-old ink. Forget the long hair and the photos of women proudly displaying ink scattered around the shop.
Talk to him for even a second and you will begin to realize that you’re not talking to the average guy about getting a little ink.
A quick look around with a discerning eye and you will know it for sure.
Bibles are prevalent throughout his office. One’s on Merritt’s desk. More line his bookshelves. Books for studying scripture fill bookcases above the desk. Gospel quotes adorn the walls. Look closer at his ink and you will see religious icons embedded in his skin forever.
Ask him about blending tattoos and the love of God and he’s liable to throw out a big word or two.
“I personally don’t believe there’s a dichotomy between religion and tattoos,” he said. “I feel like tattoos are an outward representation of an inward perspective.”
While some ministers or denominations preach against the practice, Merritt said that to his way of thinking, careful study of the Bible doesn’t yield any guidelines one way or the other.
And he’s quick to quote scripture from memory to back up his claim.
“Some churches will use the scripture Leviticus 19:28 to preach against tattoos,” he said. “But they leave out an important part: ‘You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
“They always leave out the ‘for the dead’ part, and I personally don’t have a conflict between my beliefs and what I do for a living as long as I don’t misrepresent God with my art work.”
So don’t go to him if you want him to tattoo “666” on you, and don’t ask him for a pentagram, a pentacle or a memorial for the dead. “I won’t do them,” he said.
Not wanting to cause controversy over his personal beliefs, Merritt displayed that characteristic “live and let live” attitude.
“But that’s up to the individual artist, I just wouldn’t want to have to answer for that choice,” he said.
A Long History
Merritt has been inking residents of Mount Airy and Surry County for more than two decades, and he has no plans to stop now, especially after the arduous time he had getting started in the first place.
“I began tattooing after apprenticing in Richmond, Va., at Way Cool Tattoos,” he said. “I came back to Mount Airy and was told I couldn’t open a shop here.”
After spending what he called a “ton of money” on lawyers, he discovered that it wasn’t an actual ordinance banning the practice in the city, rather was the personal decision of the then-police chief.
“I finally received my $25 business license in October 1991,” he said. “It cost me $7,500 in attorney’s fees for a $25 business license.”
Merritt said he brought the city “into the 20th century, kicking and screaming.”
“And 21 years later, by the grace of God, we’re still here,” he said. “I was the first tattoo artist in Surry County and Mount Airy that received a license to operate.”
Since that time, his work has been featured on the cover of dozens of tattoo magazines, he’s been featured in 42 publications and has won numerous accolades for his talent in competition.
And his work can be found on pretty much every strata of society.
“These days, one out of every six people have ink,” he said. “I’ve tattooed all social spheres in Surry County, from judges to criminals, from doctors to mill workers.”
So has the social stigma associated with ink faded over the years?
“No. It hasn’t gone away,” Merritt said. “It’s drastically waned over the years, but it hasn’t gone away.”
If you’re thinking about getting some custom ink, the artist has some advice for first-timers.
“Choose wisely,” he said. “Make your choice based on tomorrow rather than today.”
But don’t expect to get any ink on Tuesday morning because he’s otherwise engaged.
“I teach scripture at the Cloud 9 coffee house on Tuesdays at 10 a.m.,” he said. “And I teach the Word. The Word is what the church is supposed to be built on, and by the grace of God, my heart has been opened to his Word.”
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.