NewsLocal News


World traveling tattoo artist, Thu Le, spends time in Billings honing his craft

Posted at 7:00 PM, Jun 29, 2024

BILLINGS — In May, Thu Le, a tattoo artist with Nashville, Tennessee origins, spent time in residency as a guest artist at Forget Me Not Tattoo in Billings.

“I think I was one of the Miami Ink Generation, which is probably pretty hated in our industry now because we believe the tattoo shows ruined tattooing a bit," said Le, who has been, at the time of publishing, tattoing for 18 years.

Long recognized as an Americana symbol of the alternative stray, tattooing has in many ways been accepted by the mainstream. Tattoo culture remains, however, a society of artistic wizards with their own set of private sophistications.

“(Tattooing is) almost like a spiritual thing to me," said Whitney Donohue, owner of Forget Me Not, "It’s just like – the oldest club.”

According to 24 year tattoo artist and machinist Damon Burns, while the trade's technology may have changed, skin has not — similarly, many of the customs of the trade, like traveling to tattoo, have also not disappeared.

“Tattoo culture, way back in the day, when you talk about the 1920’s — they were actually started in the carnivals," said Le, "It was always transient.”

While tattooers are still traveling for work, many said the nomadic element of the job is now an opportunity to learn from other artists.

"Each city is its own tattoo kingdom, like medieval kingdom," said Le, "Being able to travel and guest, and being accepted into someone’s home was like a big deal.”

He said when he began as an apprentice, acceptance was not as accessible as it now is; though he estimates one in five tattoo shops remains a front for criminal activity.

“The first week that I got in, they took me out back, and they were like, ‘show us some martial arts,’ and they punched me in the face until I freakin’ cried," said Le.

He said thankfully there are shops like Donohue's where he can find family and a sense of belonging to practice his passion.

"I wouldn’t be here without her," said Le, "It’s really amazing to meet people who have struggled really hard to get respect, especially women, in the industry.”