Sub Rosa Studios may be located on a charming stretch of Christiansburg’s Main Street, but the studio draws customers from all over the New River Valley — a fact that readers made clear when voting Sub Rosa “Best Place to Get Tattooed” in the 2022 Best of Blacksburg poll. Walk into the shop on any given day, and from the welcoming vibe and eye-catching artwork, it’s immediately apparent why Sub Rosa is so popular, offering a combination of talented artists and a genuine desire to educate that makes for a truly unique experience.
As tattoo artist David Wicks explained, it’s not just the talent that makes it special — it’s the people. “As a collective, we work together,” Wicks said, emphasizing the tight bond among Sub Rosa’s staff. It’s common to see staffers joking among one another and tackling difficult pieces together, creating an easy rapport that makes clients, too, feel at home.
In many shops, artists might operate under the mindset of working to individually be the best or do the most tattoos — but at Sub Rosa, artists work as a team to collectively ensure an enjoyable experience and beautiful end product for every client. This could entail anything from referring a customer wanting a particular style to a coworker to supporting former staffers in their ventures after leaving Sub Rosa. According to Wicks, this spirit of collaboration drives everything his colleagues do, even on difficult days. “Just to work with each other (and) inspire each other every day, that’s super important,” he said. “It makes us want to come in every day, it makes us want to be here, having that support and that support system.”
When Sub Rosa opened in 2016, the initial goal was simple: offer high-quality tattoos and piercing services to the New River Valley community. But as Sub Rosa’s staff and clientele have expanded, so has the studio’s mission. Now, according to Wicks, Sub Rosa also aims to provide a safe haven for artists, bringing in new talent to join seasoned veterans on staff. Wicks, for example, has been with the studio from the start and brought over 30 years of experience to the table. “I did everything I could to be an artist every day, even after coming home, working a long day (as) an engineer,” he said when asked about the beginning of his career. “Back then, I started drafting stuff — using a ruler and a pencil, it drove me nuts — so being able to break out and be an ‘artist’ artist was something that made me happy.”
The biggest difference between the tattoo industry of the 1990s and the tattoo industry of 2022, Wicks explained, is the internet. “Social media and the internet really changed the game in tattooing; it really opened it up a lot,” he said.
With instant access to millions of tattoo ideas ranging in styles, quality and size, social media reshaped the way artists like Wicks had to work — and the challenges they had to face in explaining possible tattoo options to clients. “Styles and custom work (are) in the forefront of it rather than walk-ins,” Wicks said. “You see these (Pinterest) tattoos when they’re these little tattoos that are really cute and they’re really small, but people don’t really know the real thing about tattoos and how they age. Tattoos have a shelf life, and the smaller it goes, the less detail you should have, and how the tattoo is made is super important. It’s gonna change the shelf life of your tattoo, how long it’s gonna look good and how long it’s gonna last, you know, looking that new look.”
As with any major change, the advent of the internet brought both its upsides and downsides to the industry. Social media allows shops of all sizes to advertise to a larger audience — a significant difference from the tattoo magazines and in-shop portfolios that previously served as potential clients’ only options to view an artist’s work.
The ability to quickly search up possible tattoos, however, can pose its own kind of problem. “The internet has (changed the industry) but it’s also made it difficult,” Wicks said. “It’s changed it in a bad way, in a way, because a lot of people are seeing these people with these tattoos on their face, and they’re really tiny, and you see the tattoos of the writing above the eyebrows, and it’s really tiny and … you see these guys from World War I with these tattoos on their arm that are blobs of ink because they’re so small and that’s what’s gonna happen to those tattoos. And it’s really because the internet doesn’t explain that, you know, you see it (and think), ‘Ooh, that looks so cool.’”
When clients request tattoos that may not age well, the artists at Sub Rosa value being honest and realistic about a client’s expectations. For this team, it isn’t just about what you walk out the door with after your tattoo is done — they care about how you’ll live with the tattoo they’ve created long after their work is finished. “I’ll look at (some people) right in the face and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t a good idea,’” Wicks said. “‘I know it looks good online and you see a million people with these things, but at the end of the day … this is what the shelf life’s gonna end up being with this tattoo. And you’re gonna end up being disappointed and we’re gonna be sad for you because you’re gonna be upset with us.’”
If the idea of getting something permanently inked on your body sounds scary, the staff at Sub Rosa understand — and they’re here to help. When thinking about tattoo ideas, Wicks highlighted the importance of carefully considering the longevity of the design and how it might represent you as a person over the years. “It’s not a pair of shoes,” he said. “It’s not a brand-new blouse. It’s something that’s gonna go out of style and it’s gonna still be there.”
For many potential clients, it isn’t the idea of permanence that’s frightening — it’s the worry of being judged by others. Sub Rosa’s team works to challenge these stereotypes through education and honest conversation. “A tattoo doesn’t define a person,” Wicks said. “Getting a tattoo or having a tattoo doesn’t define you … And that’s the one misconception I want people to understand is just because you have full sleeves doesn’t mean you can’t be the mayor, or the brain surgeon, or a lawyer or the judge … I’ve tattooed all peoples and people in all walks of life.”
Those who aren’t interested in tattoos and simply want to better understand the industry are equally welcome at Sub Rosa. “Even if you’re not getting a tattoo, you’re not gonna get a tattoo done, or you never want a tattoo done but you’re really curious about it, you wanna come in and know about it, there’s not one artist here that wouldn’t be willing to sit down and talk to you and explain to you about that,” Wicks said.
Although Sub Rosa won for “Best Place to Get Tattooed,” the shop’s piercing services are equally stellar. Kari Monaco has worked as Sub Rosa’s piercer since March 2018, but their expertise makes it feel as though they’ve been piercing far longer than that. Monaco offers an expansive array of piercings, high-quality and reasonably-priced jewelry and anodizing options to allow clients to customize a piece to almost any color. More importantly, getting a piercing at Sub Rosa isn’t just an in-and-out, meaningless operation — it’s an experience. Monaco draws clients in with witty humor, easy conversation and endless patience, providing thorough explanations of aftercare procedures and constantly researching new techniques and discoveries in the industry.
Like Wicks, Monaco didn’t go straight into piercing, originally balancing a variety of jobs that included working behind the counter at various studios. She came to Sub Rosa after one of the studio’s owners came into Monaco’s job at Panera and offered her a spot at the shop. “They said they needed help here, so I started working counter for a little while, being almost shop manager — cleaning the shop, booking appointments, checking people out, going over aftercare if need be, that kind of stuff,” they said.
Watching happy clients discover themselves through body modifications prompted Monaco to begin a career as a piercer herself. “I was always interested in piercings, having them myself, but also seeing people come in and out with stuff that really helped their confidence — I wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
In Monaco’s time at Sub Rosa, they’ve cultivated a tight bond with clients of all kinds, though students comprise their main clientele.
“I’ve had clients ranging from 16 — my oldest client was probably 80 years old,” Monaco said. “The majority of my clientele are definitely college kids — people who are really learning about themselves. When you start college and those young adult years, you’re really starting to learn about yourself and figuring out not only who you wanna be, but how you wanna look.”
Both Wicks and Monaco emphasized the idea of the Sub Rosa family: the concept that any client immediately becomes part of the team in their own way. Making clients feel like they’re family is a crucial part of the Sub Rosa experience, too. Staff are eager to talk through the tattooing process with potential customers and happily provide their contact information for clients to message them with questions and concerns. “I think Sub Rosa is kind of special in the way where we try to be a really inclusive space for people; we try to be a really safe space for people,” Monaco said. “And I don’t think we really have that old-school tattoo shop vibe. We may have flash on the walls and that kind of stuff, but we really try to be a lot more welcoming and we try to let people know that we’re not only here to help, but if you walk through this door, you’re gonna become part of the Sub Rosa family as well.”
As with tattoos, it’s important to have realistic expectations when considering getting pierced. Not every piercing is suited for every person’s anatomy — but Monaco encourages clients to not let this deter them from coming in for a piercing. As a professional piercer, they can offer an expert opinion on clients’ ear anatomy and what piercings are safe to perform. “Just because not every piercing works for everybody doesn’t mean that there’s not a piercing for everybody,” Monaco said. “That’s what I’m here for. I’m here to tell you what’s safe, and I’m here to just work alongside you and figure out what is gonna work best for you.”
Sub Rosa’s location, situated between Virginia Tech and Radford, allows artists plenty of opportunities to work with students from both universities. “I think I’m in a really cool position, since we’re around a couple colleges, where I get to watch clients grow,” Monaco said. “I’m growing as well, but I get to see people get really awesome collections of piercings. I’ve watched students start school and graduate. I think my favorite experience is growing alongside the community here.”
The New River Valley’s tight-knit small business community has also benefited the studio. “It can really push you and drive you, and the community is tight,” Wicks said. “From one end of the spectrum to the other, I’ve seen just incredible people do incredible things with their business here.”
Though body modifications can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision, every tattoo and piercing given at Sub Rosa is done with a profound appreciation for the deeper meaning behind them. For Monaco, piercings are an important act of self-empowerment and self-expression. “I think just taking your own body and making it what you want is the biggest part, because we’re all living in the same world, but we’re all having separate experiences, and I think piercings can really help reflect that,” she said. “I think you can build on yourself and really turn yourself into who you want to be but also, in turn, make yourself feel like who you really are.”
Wicks chose to focus on the memories a tattoo can carry when asked about what makes tattooing special. “The moments,” he said. “I have tattoos on me that are older than you … and those mean a lot to me. Some of them are done by guys who have passed away by now, they’re gone, they’re never coming back, they’re never gonna do another tattoo again. And the times I get them done and where I was when I had them done. It’s like a timeline; it’s like a little scrapbook.”
Most of all, Wicks and Monaco expressed their gratitude to Sub Rosa’s supporters.
“I know that Virginia Tech (and the Collegiate Times) are based in Blacksburg,” Monaco said, “and even though there’s other shops that are literally walking distance from y’all, I think it’s super, super incredible that everybody still took us into account, and I think that just reflects how much we love doing what we do here and how much we love supporting and being a part of this community.”
Sub Rosa Studios is located at 41 W Main St. in Christiansburg, Virginia. They can be found online at @subrosastudiosva on Instagram and under Sub Rosa Studios Va on Facebook. The shop is open from 12 to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Call ahead or message for artist availability for walk-ins.
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