The streets of Chicago are no joke when you are in “survival mode.” No one knows this better than South Side natives Ryan Henry and Van Johnson.
Henry is the owner of 9Mag, a popular tattoo boutique in the Pilsen neighborhood, and shares the spotlight with his co-workers casted in VH1’s hit reality series “Black Ink Chicago.”
The longest running reality show based in Chicago, the show debuted its third season in early July.
Both Henry and Johnson have been long-time friends sharing a bond that began when the two connected through the art of tattooing at a favorite barbershop hangout.
One of the few Black tattoo artists making house calls, Johnson set up a temporary booth at the barbershop, working non-stop on neighborhood clients while Henry observed in fascination.
“My biggest influence came from Van [Johnson]. In 2008, I had just been laid off from my last job as a train conductor from Union Pacific. It was either go back to robbing, selling drugs or do something different. I had always been an artist. Van and I came up on the same side and would meet up at the same barber shop on 86th and Hermitage. Everybody used to go at that point; Van was tattooing for a month.”
Finding refuge in tattooing, Johnson had found a legitimate way to provide for his family. He would come into the barbershop where clients could get tattoos. Henry said, “He was the only one tattooing in that area. Some of the people were coming and saying, ‘My man Van did this.’”
Having lost his job, Henry was struggling to make end’s meet and did not want to fall into the bad habits of the streets. “I was at a point that I was broke. I got inspired by what he was doing. Van at that point was very cocky about it. People who was tatting in the beginning were very confident,” he said.
Watching Johnson until the wee hours of the night, Henry studied him and listened to his stories of how he got started.
Johnson graduated from Calumet High School and went on to attend Northern Illinois but soon found himself in trouble with the law. He was sent off to serve time at the DeKalb County Jail. His life began to shift, spending time inside the confines of the correctional system—he was determined not to succumb back to that life. While taking different odd jobs here and there, he entered a field that he rarely saw people who looked like him work in.
“Even before I started to tattoo, it wasn’t that many known Black tattoo artists. I didn’t teach myself, I had a mentor who showed me how to become skilled. He taught me how to do folks,” he said. “It was a point at my life where I wanted to design clothes and shoes back in the day. That’s what I was doing for a certain period of time for about five years. Before that I was on a rocky path committing burglaries and other crime. That led me to doing something after I got a felony and it was hard to get a job—a stable job to take care of my family. I wanted to do something with my God-given ability and he gave me the notion to do tattoos.”
Both men found themselves at a crossroads with deep choices to make. Determined to try his hand at tattooing, Henry borrowed the money from his sister to purchase a tattoo kit.
He recollects, “I asked my sister to give me the money to get it; she said only if I would do it ‘the right way.’ She died a week later and I promised her I would do this. I said I probably had never kept a promise on anything I’ve done so let me stick to doing this. I’ve been doing it ever since.” That family tragedy that gripped the Chicago news headlines for months involved the murder of his sister Nova and her baby daughter, both who were killed by her ex-boyfriend.
Henry has kept that promise ever since.
In 2014, 9Mag opened its doors catering to a select clientele of followers. Coming off the success of VH1’s “Black Ink New York,” producers secured the interest of Henry and his staff’s work environment and personal life on display for viewers to see.
All of the 12 cast members’ lives have been dramatic; they have showcased life lessons to viewers as they maneuver through intricacies of friendships, love interests, career and important social issues, raising network ratings while building each cast member’s public profile.
The cast which includes Kat, Phor, Don, Charmaine, Danielle, Ashley, Junior, Cobra, Nikki, and Neek with Henry at the helm and Johnson as a strong force with a loyal base. The show has helped everyone in their interests with Charmaine holding down an on-air position as a radio personality at WGCI-FM. Phor’s music career is steadily building fans, and Van’s new fashion line, Chicago Illa, is being rocked out by celebrities.
With all of the show’s success, the tattoo artists say the real success of 9Mag lies in the heart of customer service and providing a comfortable sanctuary for new and returning clients.
Henry says, “When we started the shop, it was the fact we didn’t want to be like every other shop. Some shops when you walk in, it’s wide open and there’s ten people being tattooed. There was nothing personal about it. Since we all were personal artists before that, we wanted to keep the feel because we respected the art more than a monetary transaction.”
More importantly, “Black Ink Chicago” allows viewers an inside track into an authentic side of Chicago that steps outside of the mainstream media’s perception of violence and homicides.
“People can decipher what is fake and what’s real. The world as a whole sees Chicago as one-side with the shootings and the killings, especially with us being from the South Side.” Henry says the show has shown him a reflection of himself as both a man and father. “We wanted to give them a level of something they can relate to. To see people from the South Side and from the street level, but we can also be Black business owners, men of God, we can be fathers—something that is actually going on here that isn’t covered,” said the father of two.
In Season 2 of the show, there was real tension with both Henry and Johnson falling out and coming to physical blows, but before the sophomore season ended, they reconciled.
Also a father, Johnson understands that “Black Ink Chicago” is more than just entertaining millions of viewers every week.
“Watching myself in Season 1 to where I’m at now, I’ve always been downplayed. That made me stronger, it put me in the position to make me want to do more just for the television screen. If they’ll play me having to go to jail and having a daughter throughout the entire season, maybe … I need to do more next season. It made me become stronger and a better castmate. This is an opportunity for everybody. You use this platform to grow.”
Watch the interview: