Wichita Tattoo artist Shaila Roach works on a client.
Shaila Roach considers most of her clients personal friends. Most are repeat customers who return to mark events in their lives with art on their bodies. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Imagine the perfect TV family, only the parents are 1980s metalheads, divorced, struggling financially and otherwise, and everyone is covered in tattoos, including grandpa. 

That is the family Shaila Roach grew up in: An unconventional but unconditionally loving family that defies expectation of what that’s supposed to look like.

Today her family looks like this, too: Shaila is the successful Wichita tattoo artist married to Zack, the medically sidelined former touring musician who now repairs guitars. Both of them are adorned in countless tattoos. 

They have two kids — an eighth-grader who gets upset when mom tattoos his teachers, and a second-grader who finds joy in making maps on Minecraft because he is obsessed with the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

In this family, eccentricity is the norm — a wellspring of creation that manifests as music and tattoo art. 

“Artists are all a little bit eccentric,” Shaila says. “When you throw tattooing into it, you get into a LOT of ego. Because you have to be a little bit egotistical about your art to think you can put it on a person and they are going to die with it.”

Tattoos were a family tradition not a career path for Wichita tattoo artist

Shaila Roach didn’t set out to be a tattoo artist. The tattoo artists she knew were egotistical jerks and she didn’t want to be that. She didn’t want to go to college either, but when she graduated from Goddard High School in 2005 she knew she had to do something. But what?

Like so many of us, her life path was shaped by where she started. 

Her parents were childhood sweethearts who didn’t finish high school, though her mom later got a GED. They married, had Shaila, then divorced before she turned 1. Both eventually married other people, then divorced again, and then started hanging out together and became close friends. Their lives were marked by struggles they wanted their daughter to avoid. 

“My mom busted butt to raise me,” Shaila says. “She was a single mom. My dad wasn’t around much at the time. He kinda popped in and out. He and I are really close now. We have a great relationship, but it wasn’t really like that when I was a kid. It wasn’t bad, he was just not there.”

Shaila’s parents and the other adults in her life told her she needed to go to college if she wanted a decent life. She didn’t want to go to college but considered art school. 

“It wasn’t that I was heavy into art,” Shaila says. She just thought if she had to go to college, art school could be something she wouldn’t hate.

She was a creative kid, always drawing, painting, doodling. Her dad was a musician and her mom worked a good-paying job at Cessna for 30 years that allowed her to collect art. And both parents covered their bodies with tattoos. 

Shaila wanted tattoos, too, and began asking for them at age 14. Her mom finally relented and signed consent forms to allow Shaila to get a tattoo at 17 — a couple of colorful sparrows on her chest. “And then I started getting tattooed as much as I could. I was already pretty significantly tattooed before I graduated high school.”

So she considered going to Kansas City Art Institute or the University of Kansas, which both offered the chance to leave town. “I kind of just wanted to leave Wichita, and not because it was particularly bad, I just hadn’t been anywhere.”

But she didn’t end up doing either. 

Surrounded by addiction, she considers addiction counseling

“I just kept hearing how you can’t make any money when you are an artist,” she says. “So I got talked out of that, and then I did end up going to school for addictions counseling. So completely out of left field.”

Except it wasn’t. 

“A  really large amount of my family members either have been very severely addicted to something — mostly opioids,” Shaila says. “The pill epidemic hit my family super hard.” She doesn’t want to discuss specifics other than to say she had some traumatic experiences growing up, but thankfully no one died and everyone has gotten to a better place since. 

Addiction recovery is something she says she remains passionate about. But she found it hard to fit into her program at Butler Community College, where most of her classmates were older, returning students with personal addiction experience, which she didn’t have. “It was really hard to get people to take me seriously,” she says.

Shaila says she also felt she wasn’t getting the college experience she’d seen on television — “Saved by the Bell” was her favorite show as a kid — so she transferred to Wichita State, briefly choosing a major only because she believed it would lead to a great salary — computer database administration. “And of course I hated that.”

Shaila pauses her story to make sure it’s understood she is not motivated only by money, “but it’s always been in my brain that I didn’t want to struggle. Because I watched my mom do that, and my dad has struggled his entire life, and I’m like, I’m not doing that.”

A job at a Wichita tattoo shop suddenly becomes a career

In addition to pursuing school, Shaila worked, as she had since she was 15. Her first job was at Burger King, then Walmart and Kmart. She managed a Goodwill store for two years. Then her mom hooked her up with a job working for Dennis McPhail, the tattoo artist who gave 17-year-old Shaila her first tattoos. 

Shaila’s mom was a longtime client of McPhail’s studio, Artist at Large in Wellington, Kansas, before he moved his shop to Wichita in 2004. “They were looking for someone to work the counter, book appointments, sweep and clean,” Shaila says. She started there in 2007, her first job in a tattoo shop, earning 10% of what the tattooers and the piercers took in for each customer.

That turned out to be a great deal of money. Shaila says she was often taking home $400 to $500 a day. She quickly figured out she didn’t need college — and an unplanned pregnancy sealed the deal to quit. Her oldest son, Cain, was born in 2008.

“I’m making way more money right now doing this job that I like in a tattoo shop, that everybody thinks is cool, so I think, ‘Why don’t I just do this forever?’”

She spent six years happily working the counter, managing inventory, sanitation and helping people decide what kind of tattoo they want.

“Somebody would walk in saying, ‘I want to get a dolphin tattoo,’ and I say, ‘OK, here is a sheet with 20 dolphins on it, which one do you like?’ and they would go, ‘This one.’ ‘OK, where are you going to put it? Lower back? Cool, It’s going to be 200 bucks.’”

For years McPhail said she should be a tattoo artist herself. “And I said no because I worked with some difficult people. Tattoo people, we are not easy to work with. … Every tattooer I ever met was an asshole, and I don’t want to be that person.”

Then came the day when Shaila arrived at work to discover all the tattoo artists had left to work at another shop. “It’s either start tattooing or find another job, and I was not going to find a job that was paying me what I was making.” 

So she reluctantly began an apprenticeship to learn the trade. “And then three months later I was tattooing full time.” 

A year after that, she left Artist at Large and moved next door to Hell Bomb Tattoo, where she’s one of five full-time tattoo artists. She’s been there 10 years and grown her client list to the point she has a yearlong wait list. She’s frequently booked solid, five days a week, 10 hours a day. To keep some control over her life, she never books more than two months at a time.

Tattoo artist Shaila Roach stands in front of Hell Bomb Tattoo.
Shaila Roach is a hugely popular tattoo artist in Wichita who over 10 years built her client base at Hell Bomb Tattoo to the point she has a yearlong wait list. She says inking on the tattoos is really secondary to her job, which involves helping people process large events in their lives behind the images they choose. “Sometimes my clients have four-hour sessions. I can learn a person’s entire family history in four hours.” (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Tattoos can cause pain, but they can also ease it

What she does for clients goes so far beyond inking an image on their bodies. It wasn’t long before Shaila recognized she had realized both her goals of becoming both an artist and a counselor.

“I get to spend a lot of time with my clients. Sometimes my clients have four-hour sessions. I can learn a person’s entire family history in four hours.” 

Many of those life stories involve trauma. “I feel extremely prepared for it. I do,” she says.  “Because I do like hearing about people’s lives and I like hearing their stories whether they are good stories, bad stories or whatever.” 

Behind every tattoo is a story — and she’s heard thousands. 

Women feel compelled to share their birth stories. “So they sit down and they are nervous, (asking) ‘Like how bad is this going to hurt? Am I going to be able to do this? I had two kids naturally.’ I go to humor a lot to make people calm down, so I say, ‘Oh no, I’d much rather have a baby. For sure. That’s way easier.’” 

The actual answer? Getting a tattoo hurts, though how much depends on how large it is and where it’s placed on the body.  

Shaila admits she hates getting tattooed. Her first experience, “I cried the whole time, didn’t want to finish it, couldn’t deal with the pain, but loved it when it was over.” And that’s how it is for most people, she says. 

People come with something they want more than they want to avoid pain. And it often involves a story that is already painful. 

“I’ve heard so many stories, any possible loss you can imagine. Kids, parents, best friends, whoever, awful, awful stuff. People battling diseases and getting a commemorative tattoo because they beat it, and getting a memorial for someone who died.”

But she only cried once while giving a tattoo – for a man in his 70s who said he’d never had a tattoo, didn’t like them, didn’t like when his kids or grandkids got them, but he was ready for one now. Shaila gave the man the only tattoo he could ever imagine getting — a reproduction of a paw print from his 14-year-old dog who just died. The man wanted his dog’s paw print next to his heart. 

“And he was showing me pictures of his dog and I don’t know why, but literally I had to take a breather before my next client,” Shaila recalls.

Memorial tattoos are common — and easily recognized even when someone doesn’t explicitly say that’s what they are getting it for or who died. 

“You can usually tell if it is a memorial because typically there is a birth date and a death date, or the images are angel wings or something with a little halo, you can usually tell.”

And though Shaila avoids invasive questions, she will make sure someone who appears to want a memorial tattoo in a visible place has thought it through. 

She asks: “Is this something you want to be publicly visible? Because whether you know it right now or not, people are going to want to talk about it. People are going to bring it up. Is that something you want to talk to the guy in line at QuikTrip about? Because if not, we need to put this somewhere else.”

Permanent makeup brings in a nontraditional clientele to Wichita tattoo shop

In addition to traditional tattoos, Shaila also does permanent makeup – inking on permanent eyeliner, brows and lip color. That brings her a lot of atypical tattoo clients. 

“There is something so funny to me about a sweet little old lady coming into a place called Hell Bomb and getting her face tattooed, knowing damn well if her daughter or granddaughter looked like me, or her grandson brought home a girl who looked like me, she would lose her s—.”

Permanent makeup can be for vanity but it can also serve a serious purpose for people with medical conditions. Shaila says she has “trich” clients — people dealing with trichotillomania, a compulsive hair-pulling disorder, who can restore their appearance this way.

Permanent makeup also offers powerful possibilities for breast cancer survivors. Shaila recently completed training in areola tattooing so she can draw lifelike ones on reconstructed breasts, “because not everybody wants to put a flower where their nipple was.” Areola tattoos can also help transgender people looking to feminize or masculinize their appearance. 

“Tattooing encompasses so much,” Shaila says. “There are so many reasons that a person can get tattooed. I also have several clients who book intentionally to get tattooed instead of self-harming. Because it sets off that same kind of endorphin for them, but they feel like it is more productive and they get something out of it.”

Dealing with the broad range of clients can be intense. “You have these highs and lows,” Shaila says. In a single day she might help a cancer survivor or a transgender person get that tattoo that marks the end of a major emotional journey for them, “… and then two hours later I’m tattooing a toaster on some guy’s butt.” 

OK, she admits she’s never actually done that — but would if asked. “I tattooed a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew on a girl like three weeks ago.”

Shaila says no one can shock her with their stories or their requests. “I’ve seen a lot of weird. I’ve heard a lot of weird.” 

If you come in wanting a tattoo on your arm of two lesbians engaging in a sex act while being beamed up by a UFO, she’s got you. An image of a baby’s head crowning during birth, encircled by flowers? Yeah, OK.

But don’t bore her. Don’t even try to ask for a black silhouette of a tree encircling your arm – one of the hottest current trends, she says. 

That is a thing I tell people I am out of. ‘Oh I’m out of that, sorry. Sold the last one.’ Because it is so boring, I can’t do it.”

When your clients are friends, what does your family think?

But again, Shaila says her work really isn’t about the tattoos themselves. “If I see on the schedule, ‘Ooh, that person has a really cool idea,’ I can’t wait to do it. But that happens less often than me just me being really excited to see one of my clients.”

It was her husband who pointed out that she’s always talking about her friends coming in to get tattooed. “Is everybody you tattoo your friend now?” he asked her.

“These are people my husband has never met but he’s heard all about them. He knows what they like, what they get, who their kids are, and I am like, ‘Yes, they are my friend now because I have been tattooing them for so long.’”

Husband Zack, like Shaila’s father, is a metalhead musician covered in tattoos. Like Shaila’s parents, Shaila and Zack were childhood sweethearts before Shaila met, married and divorced her first child’s father, whom she remains on great terms with.

Zack has stayed present for his children. He stopped touring when their child together was born in 2015, not wanting to miss a moment. Instead he launched a nonprofit in 2016 called Free Music ICT, providing free guitar lessons to area children.  

“And then he also developed a program where he would go into schools that weren’t getting as much money,” Shaila says. “We would collect donations, then put together a kit of guitars so we could teach an entire class… and he would go in and teach the music teacher how to properly teach kids of whatever age since a lot of music teachers don’t have that hands-on experience.”

Zack did that for three years until he developed a chronic illness, ulcerative colitis. He switched to repairing guitars at home for Midwest Percussion. The flexibility of that job has allowed space for him to get surgeries and medical treatments. 

“It’s been awesome because he can work and if he can’t, it’s fine,” Shaila says. His being home also allowed Zack to homeschool their two boys during the pandemic.

Those boys — Cain, 14, and Ramsey, 8 — are talented musicians and artists in their own right, notably bright and creative like their parents.

Ramsey enjoys building maps using the Minecraft game and has taken to teaching himself languages like Russian, Chinese and Latin. Upon visiting the space race exhibit at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas, he began belting out the Soviet national anthem.

And Cain? “He’s a fantastic artist. Way better than me,” Shaila says. 

But Cain may mark the end of a family line that goes back at least as far as Shaila’s maternal grandfather. He served in the U.S. Navy and was covered in sailor tattoos. 

“Right now he thinks tattoos are lame and boring,” Shaila said of Cain. “He hates when I tattoo his teachers. Hates it. He’s been mad to me about that since kindergarten. I try to support teachers. They get big-time discounts from me. But he gets so mad at me.” 

Shaila says Cain recently came home from school complaining that he had seen one of his teachers in the hallway, sporting a new tattoo. “She was just fine without a tattoo,” he told his mom. 

Is this what passes for rebellion in this eccentric, creative family? 

Shaila isn’t sure but mentions Cain came home the first week of school announcing he’d joined his middle school’s prayer club, a surprising but supported choice in this family of atheists. With a twinkle in her eye, Shaila quips, “Why couldn’t he just try weed like a normal teenager?”

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...