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Getting to Know Kyle Dunbar

Former Ink Mastercontestant Kyle Dunbar has packed up his tattoo equipment and hit the road looking for adventure. With his family in tow, Dunbar will be traveling the country and trying to make a living as a roving tattoo artist. Over the past few months Dunbar has shared his tales of the road with us here on Part 1.Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.Part 5.Part 6.Part 7. While you've gotten to know Kyle through all of those posts, his personality oozes out of his writing, he wanted to take a little time to formally introduce himself and explain where he came from.

Who am I? My name is Kyle Dunbar.

I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. I have one brother. My mother and father were devoted Christians and my brother and I were raised in the church. My father was a Canadian and my mother was from the United States (I still have a hard time accepting people from the United States calling themselves Americans and not recognizing that Canada is part of the North American continent as well). My parents dreamed that my brother and I would be missionaries spreading the word of Christ. We are both tattooists.

When I was ten my father had an epileptic seizure in the bathtub and died. I woke up that morning and heard my mother wailing over his lifeless body. It felt like a dream. I couldn't imagine that something so serious was actually happening. My dad was dead and all I was worried about was that I was going to be made fun of at school for the patches on my jeans again. My brother and I had been made fun of for being poor but I was also made fun of for being a goody good, and for being smart. I didn't mind being made fun of for being smart or a Christian, they both held a value that most ridicule, but for me they just seemed to strengthen. I didn't even mind being poor, but I must have been waking up to the girls around me cause for the first time ever I was worrying about how I looked. Recently a classmate began making fun of me for the patches sewn into my jeans. He got other kids to join in with him. I was ashamed.

My family believed in the laying on of hands and the healing of the sick through God’s anointing, a belief I recently found was mostly my father’s but my mother followed his religious guidance. What all that meant is my friends didn't want to go to church with us. People there were weird. They danced in the aisles and prayed out loud in what they called tongues, but it was gibberish to my friends. I never knew my dad better than any other 10-year-old knows their father. I knew he had a titanium plate in his head from a hiking accident in the mountains of western Canada when he was young. But I had no idea just how rough his life was growing up. After the accident he had serious brain injuries that kept him in and out of treatments and institutions for years. The medicines they had at the time had major side effects, so he grew to hate them. I'm sure that's the biggest reason why he would stop taking them. He had stopped taking his medications again some short time before he died. At the time we also couldn't continue paying his life insurance and it had lapsed.

I had a lot of faith in my beliefs. I remember praying with my dad for his healing. But he died leaving us alone and even poorer. My faith in God died then as well. Even if he was real he seemed more like a dick than a benevolent creator, and I looked forward to telling him that.


The next few weeks I came around to realizing that my father wasn't going to get up and that life would never be as it was, or as I imagined it was to be. After his funeral I became introverted and numbed myself to life by becoming absorbed in television. Father had thrown away our TV when it broke and never replaced it. He called it a boob-tube and a devil-box. After he died we moved into a house near our grandmother’s. We had three channels and I used them up.

When I wasn't watching TV or doing my homework (another great distraction) I began huffing gas with some local delinquents. Huffing gas lead to drinking, then to pot and then to harder drugs. By the time I was 16 I was up for any drug available. Trouble followed and not to long after legal trouble did as well and I was forced to attend Narcotics Anonymous. I quit my destructive behavior after we made timelines of our life and drug use. With it I realized I was hiding from the pain, like a little bitch. I never let myself mourn after my dad's death. I know it doesn't work for everybody like this but I quit after that realization. For several years, at least. I never had to go to another drug class again but I did start getting into the expensive drugs some years later. That lasted until I saw they were getting in the way of learning to tattoo.

I got my first tattoo at 13 while doing LSD. It read "I RULE" on my shoulder. The tattoo was done by a friend with a sewing needle and neither the tattoo nor I ruled. I was a goofy looking kid with nappy curls in my hair and a lot of baby weight on my body. I was ashamed of the tattoo and hid it constantly. Later I found that my earlier mistakes in tattoos would help me empathize with clients that needed cover ups.

I had been skilled at drawing since I was young. I always said I wanted to be an artist when people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up. My mother would always remind me that art could be hard to make a living at and suggest I learn a skilled trade. Even as a high school senior I never saw tattoos as art, more like something you were ashamed of. By now my mother's common sense had become a law by its repetition. Although I was very smart and tested well she was afraid of encouraging a job in art. She would tell me to draw as a hobby, only after I had a secure future. As graduation approached it seemed right to listen to an Army recruiter and learn a profession while serving. I tested in the 91st percentile for the ASVAB (Editor’s Note: The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is the test people take before joining the armed forces. It’s basically the SAT for the military.) Which I knew must be good by the way every recruiter would widen their eyes and exclaim "you can do anything you want soldier, anything!" But when I went to swear in, where we got our physicals and picked our job of study, the guy who helps you figure out what you’re going to do said the usual, "you can do whatever you want" before explaining "the army is the biggest branch of the armed services. Any career you want to do in your future we have it and if not we have something to train you for it." For the first time ever it felt as though I had an open future, a future that wasn't limited by my economic class. I knew right away what I wanted, "I want to be an artist," I said DAMN that felt so good!

Kyle and his son with a snowman they built in Florida.

Kyle and his son with a snowman they built in Florida.

Unfortunately that feeling didn't last because the recruiter looked at me to see if I was fucking with him. I lessened my smile so he could see I was serious. He stared at his computer screen for a minute then he said, "like computers?" "No," I replied. "Like art—drawing, pen and pencil, I don't paint but I'd love to learn." He again looked at his screen and paused before typing. "Yeah," he said. "You see, the Army doesn't really have any art programs."

Suddenly the biggest employer argument seemed to have a hole. "Well, what about the army's advertisements, maybe....." I asked. "No we outsource those," he cut me off. Then continued as he looked at his screen, “It says here you’re in wrestling? How ya like practice?"

I began wrestling after a fight I had with a senior when I was a sophomore. He beat me bloody and knocked one of my front teeth out, but I followed him to his class hitting him with what strength I had left. He later told me he was astonished by my resilience. He told me he didn't want to hit my face any more cause it was too soft. Just after the swelling and bruises healed from our first fight I found his house and challenged him again. He beat me real good again in his front yard. That's when I found out he was a state champion wrestler. He invited me to join and I did. I loved it.

Anyways, the recruiter must have seen that in my file and went with it. "Ya like crawling around in the mud? You could drive a tank and you get your own M16!" My spirit sunk and that day I left as the smartest person in the infantry. As the time to graduate came closer I started realizing how foolish I was in signing up. But I had a plan. One day I answered the phone and it was my recruiter on the other end. "You got your bags packed! " "No" "Well ya better get started not much time left," he said. "You guys don't take people who don't graduate high school, right?" I asked. "Well, of course not, but you just have a little more than a week left, right?” he asked. "No," I told him. "I dropped out three days ago." "WHAT?! YOU’RE THROWING YOUR LIFE AWAY!” he screamed. "Well, about that," I replied smartly. "I was watching this movie called Saving Private Ryan and I remember a scene where soldiers were running over another soldier’s body that was face down in a pool of his own blood, and I thought, I wonder what he scored on the ASVAB." Click.

I didn't find my career in the army but they did help me figure out just how badly I wanted to be an artist. After not graduating I got a job trimming trees. I cleaned people’s yards of the branches the trimmers would throw down. I was just a grunt but I was learning a skilled trade. Later I learned carpentry as well. I also learned drywall, hanging, muddying and sanding. Not to mention framing and roofing as well. And I even learned the higher skilled job of finish carpentry. Although my mom liked my work and I, after a few years, had started my own business, I felt like something just wasn't right.

A friend began getting tattooed at a new shop in town. He used to tattoo himself but wasn't very good, but his friends at the new shop were good. He talked me into getting tattooed from them. I got one and for the first time I saw that tattooing was and could be art. I stopped getting tattooed and started buying equipment. Once I had the tattooing and sterilization equipment I tattooed myself and any one foolish enough to let me try. I sucked, but I never gave up. Each failure became a question and each question eventually became a success.

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At the time my girlfriend was very self-conscious and didn't like me tattooing girls. She never offered encouragement but instead bitched a lot. I started getting the hang of tattooing and she bitched even more. My business was starting to do really well. I could see for the first time ever that I was going to make money. The summer was coming and that meant roofs and siding needed to be done. So, true to form, I quit.

I started tattooing full time. My girlfriend left me and took my dog. I couldn't afford my apartment, or car; I had even sold my truck and all my tools. I had nothing but tattooing and I still sucked at it. I could only get jobs in the ghetto but it didn't matter, I knew tattooing could take me anywhere I wanted and provide me with a means to get anything I needed. I hadn't drawn for all the years between high school and getting my first tattoo. I didn't even draw my senior year. It seemed to have no point if I wasn't going to be able to use drawing to provide for myself. My greatest struggle had always been figuring out what I wanted to draw. If it wasn't for an assignment or a friend’s request I never had an idea of what to do. In this regard tattoos are perfect. I provide the technical ability and my client provides the idea or inspiration.

All my skilled trades paid off. When I had to build my own shop I had already built four others. Shop owners would hire me as a tattooist under the assumption that I would construct their shop so I could work there. Every time I was fired shortly after the construction was finished. At the time I was far better at building than tattooing. I eventually opened my own shop and the practice paid off. People tell me I'm amazing, I appreciate their sentiment but I never believe them. I know so many better tattooists than myself and I feel if I believed my clients compliments I would stop improving.

I am getting really tired of writing this “me me me” stuff so I'm going to just finish with this thought: I never really started to do good tattoos until I owned my own shop and started traveling.