Tattoo parlors and strip clubs. They’re military town staples that, to this day, hold a footprint in Fayetteville.
And you can’t talk about this town’s long history in ink without talking about Bill Claydon, whose first shop here was beside the notorious Rick’s Lounge on Hay Street.
This weekend, Bill Claydon’s Tattoo World will be represented at the All-American Tattoo Convention at the Crown Complex, along with ink artists from all over the planet.
Don’t be surprised if you see some of those visiting artists in Claydon’s chair.
The true craftspeople who appreciate the past might want their own reminder of it.
“Most of my tattooing will be on other tattoo artists that just want a little piece of history,” Claydon says. “That flatters me.
“It’s not because I’m great or anything, I’ve just been in it a long time,” he adds.
That’s a modest statement.
Claydon’s legacy dates to the 1940s in Oceanside, California, where his father, retired Marine Buzz Claydon, set up shop, inspired by the likes of Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins and his bold, iconic style.
The younger Claydon cut his teeth in the shop, situated near Camp Pendleton, starting with a “devil dog” chewing a cigar on his father’s arm, then a half-dollar sized rose on a friend who just happened to be hanging out.
Claydon was 13.
That same year, he had his name written on his skin. But that wasn’t his first tattoo.
“I was sitting in my dad’s tattoo shop. I was 5 years old. I says, ‘I want a big Indian,’ and I stuck my arm out,” Claydon says.
“So, back then, the needles weren’t changed. We would clean them in the machine and they would sit in a tube of alcohol.
“He just grabbed one of those real quick before I chickened out, and he hit me with it.
“He wound up putting a B on me, for Bill.
“Well, I scrubbed and scrubbed and it never came out.
“That was my first one.”
Today, Claydon only has a few spots on his body that aren’t inked.
“I’m 71 and I still want to get tattooed,” he says. “I wish sometimes that I didn’t have the ones that I have, so I’d have more room.”
He learned from greats like Ed Hardy and Lyle Tuttle. His chest, sides and right forearm bear Hardy’s signature designs: a furrow-browed tiger, a fanged ape, a massive elephant with raised trunk and curled tusk.
Hardy blended Japanese form and American style in his creations and then licensed them for a clothing line that became wildly fashionable. Claydon carries the art on this flesh, a long-sleeved scar-and-stain tribute to the evolution of tattoo.
He’s Fayetteville’s favorite celebrity, and he has the plaque in his booth to prove it. His history here goes back 33 years.
In 1986, Fayetteville’s downtown streets were lined with promises of adult entertainment, none looming larger than Rick’s Lounge. Tucked beside that red neon and the large marquee was Lou’s Tattoos.
Claydon was in his late 30s. He already had more than two decades of experience in ink.
He’d worked on the Alaska pipeline, unloaded shrimp boats a mile from the Arctic Ocean. He held a day job in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and went to work with the tattoo gun in evenings.
“It was the only thing I knew,” Claydon says from his parlor on Yadkin Road, noting the inevitability of his fate.
He’d been in Florida 10 years when he bought the shop on Hay Street, saying he’d had enough of the heat, the traffic.
Four months into the gig at Lou’s, Rick’s Lounge caught fire and Claydon decided to move to Bragg Boulevard.
He had a few shops there and then built Tattoo World at its current location in 1992.
The next year, Jason Bullington came to work for Claydon.
He’s still there.
“I should be retired, but that doesn’t happen in this business,” Bullington says.
By the time he started working at Tattoo World, Claydon already had a huge reputation.
“When I was a kid, Bill was the one that everybody talked about,” Bullington says.
He was around for peak popularity, when the shop was full of people eager to get an ink stamp from Fayetteville’s legendary tattoo artist’s parlor. The work was different then.
“When I came in, you had to be a craftsman,” Bullington says. “You had to make all your stuff.
“You had to know all the mechanics of how it worked. You had to make the needles, you had to make the ink, you had to make everything.
“We were so busy back then, we’d have to stay up all night making needles for the next day.”
Claydon thinks his most popular tattoo over the years has been some variation of the Tasmanian Devil. He’s also done a lot of tribal art on ladies’ lower backs. And roses.
He had a huge selection of the classics: dragons, panthers, flaming 8-balls.
“I felt like a drug dealer,” Claydon says of his bustling days in the 1990s.
“It was so busy. We had fun. Now, everybody comes in with their phone.”
Claydon’s most recent tattoo came from a convention in Brussels.
“There’s a different style out there now and it intrigues me,” he says.
A blue-based leopard on the back of his right hand shows the realistic look that is popular today. It flows from his Ed Hardy tiger, which is more exaggerated and colorful, and the two are connected by a Japanese wave tattoo in the style of Hokusai.
Claydon mists his hand with alcohol and points out the thin, white whiskers on his newest tattoo. He doesn’t think they will hold up.
“The ink will close up,” he says.
The artist who gave him the tattoo doesn’t have the benefit of experience that Claydon has.
Some of us see the past in tattoos, but he can see their future.
Tattoos are reminders of moments, Claydon says, but that’s not why he gets them.
“It’s like music. You know how that is. You hear a song and you go back in time.
“My tattoos are related to a moment and I’ve traveled for most of them.”
The canvas of Claydon’s own skin isn’t his only reminder of a long history.
He remembers tattooing a friend when they were both in high school.
“I just saw him when I was in California,” Claydon says.
“Believe it or not, his grandson is stationed here and he came in and got a little Hot Stuff from me, just like his dad’s.”
Claydon pulled out his phone and showed a tattoo of a little diapered devil done in shaded black.
“We tattooed your mom,” is on the Tattoo World logo stickers at the store’s front counter.
Claydon’s history in Fayetteville has spanned generations.
His daughter, Samantha, is an artist at Tattoo World.
He talks about taking an Airstream across the country, tattooing out of it or sitting in at other shops.
He moves his hands as he speaks, but gracefully, like an orchestra’s conductor. His name is written in neon above his seat. His walls are lined with awards and images of his years and years of work.
A lifetime achievement award is in the form of a metal American flag. It was from Fayetteville’s first All-American Tattoo Convention in 2017.
“We used to be like rock stars,” Claydon says. “Every town you go into, they’re all over the place now.”
“We’ve had a good run.”