Carly Benjamin is a rare hybrid of customer service-minded beauty professional and visual artist with a style of her own; one which she holds to whether she's working with canvas and paint or skin and ink. Whether you're sitting at her hair station at Kane & Co., or reviewing tattoo designs with her at Dark Matter Collective, Carly wants your experience to be transformative. She wants you to love the end result. But she also knows you've come to her because she has a particular viewpoint and style. She knows who she is, what she offers, (and what doesn't), and her whimsical minimalist style happens to be très au courant.  Oh, and did I mention, she's the only female tattoo artist in Champaign-Urbana.  

Benjamin was generous enough to invite me over to Dark Matter Collective for a tour and a chat. We talked about her journey into the local tattoo culture, how her style came to be, and what it means to participate in the creation of permanent body art. 

Smile Politely: When did you get your first tattoo? Can you describe it?

Carly Benjamin: I got it on my 18th birthday in Chicago. It’s an old style font that says “one fifty two.” It’s a reference to a band I used to like as a teenager.

SP: You're also a visual artist. What inspired you to move from paper and canvas to the human body?

Benjamin: I personally love collecting tattoos myself. In the last few years friends kept asking me to design tattoos for them so I decided I should just learn to do it! 

Editor's note:  The tattoos featured in the top photo are examples of Benjamin's early work which she often practiced on herself.  

A sample of Benjamin's own tattoos, which clearly reflect her preference for clear, black line art and a lighthearted take on what constitutes appropriative tattoo subject matter (Hint: you don't always have to go for the "big" symbols. Maybe find the joy in every objects that speak to you). 


Note the light shading in this skull. Benjamin tells how she had to talk the artist into stopping here. Even then her preference for minimalism was strong. She would have preferred no shading at all. 

SP: What's the process of becoming a tattoo artist? What are the steps?

Benjamin: There are lot of different approaches to becoming a tattoo artist. The law varies state to state on licensing and permits. But really the hard part if finding a shop and established artist that’s willing you take you in as an apprentice.

SP: How would you describe your tattoo style? Is it, or, how is it, related to your other visual art?

Benjamin: My tattoo style is clean line black tattoos. It’s very reflective of my painting and drawing style so moving into a new medium feels really natural. Some artists see them as "undone," because they don't have color or shading. {But}, I'm very attracted to tattoos that look like stamps. They also don't need to be touched up as much as they age.  


Benjamin often draws out new designs on her iPad. See above and below for a variety of her designs. 

SP: What's the best part of being a tattoo artist? What are some of the biggest challenges?

Benjamin:  I love being a part of such a big day for people and making it fun and relaxed. Some of the biggest challenges are staying true to my style and having really good communication with the clients.

SP: You are currently the only female tattoo artist in town. I'm not sure if this isn't both a point of pride and a sad reminder of gender inequity. What are your thoughts about it?

Benjamin: The industry is most definitely male-dominated, and in smaller communities even more so. To my knowledge I’m the only licensed female tattoo artist working out of a shop in town. I’m happy to be here for the community that’s ready for a fresh experience.

SP: What are the advantages of being a woman when you're a tattoo artist? What might draw someone to your chair rather than a different artist or studio? 

Benjamin: It’s vulnerable getting tattooed and my years of working behind the chair as a hairstylist has given me a skill set to make people feel comfortable.

SP: You are a woman of many talents: a visual artist, a hair stylist and colorist, and now a tattoo artist. What do you think is the through line between them? 

Benjamin: I think the connection between the mediums is wanting to be engaged with the audience/clients.

SP: What inspires you?

Benjamin: Being radical with my life, using art as a form of activism.


Benjamin sets up for an upcoming client appointment. While she trained on the more traditional (and large, heavy) equipment, she now prefers a more ergonomic, lighter tool. 

SP:  Body art has been and continues to be having a big moment. Why do think that is? What it is that continues to drive it? 

Benjamin: It’s so permanent in an ever changing world. I think it helps with a sense of control in this chaotic life.

SP: What can someone expect in a session with you? What might be different in that experience than with other local artists?

Benjamin: I enjoy being present with my clients and making the experience special. I’m truly honored (when I'm chosen) to put a permanent mark on people.

We ended by talking about the continued growth of body art, and how more and more people are inspired to seek it out as a form of self-expression.

Benjamin observed that "here in America it started with the military and the Navy, or even prison culture." Now she sees surgeons and engineers with tattoos. She sees tattoos as vehicles for healing and reflection. Providing an opportunity to mark changes in our lives in a way that we "can reflect on years later, in a way that you can't with anything else. The ideas behind them continue to grow and change."


Not ready to make a permanent commitment, but still want to own a piece of Benjamin's tattoo art? The artist offers a variety of stickers for sale at Dark Matter Collective. 

Follow Carly Benjamin on Instagram, or find her at Dark Matter Collective

Her visual art is currently on display at Analog, as part of the current CUDO Post-It Show.

Photos by Debra Domal