Angela Kephart was 12-years-old, homeless and living on the Portland streets when she got her first tattoo - a small heart on her left index finger that was given to her by an amateur tattoo artist with a makeshift needle. Kephart recalls that she was standing on the balcony of the Kent Motel above a fish house restaurant at the time. The entire process took about ten minutes, but it made an impact that's resonated throughout her entire life.
Today, Kephart is a single mom, sober, and a successful small business owner as the sole proprietor of Mum's Tattoos on Galveston where she employs four other artists, including one other female tattoo artist, Holly McClintock. Kephart has done it working in a field that is typically dominated by men and that is known for its lack of hospitality toward newcomers breaking into the business.
"I think as a woman in this industry you have to be very strong, you have to have a strong personality. At the same time, you have to have some tact with clientele," Kephart said.
While there's probably no single, smooth path to professional tattooing, Kephart's journey was particularly tumultuous. Emancipated and homeless before she was a teenager, Kephart fell prey to the perils of the street, including drug addiction.
"I did what it took to survive," said Kephart, who said she isn't necessarily proud of those things, including her time working as stripper in Portland.
But unlike so many of her peers, Kephart found a way out. In the process she found her calling in a career that allowed her to combine artistry and entrepreneurship.
She moved to Bend in 1998 with little more than the clothes on her back and a 1975 Volkswagen bus. She worked two jobs for a period and ultimately earned the opportunity to apprentice in a local tattoo shop. She made the most of it.
Within a couple of years, Kephart was leasing her own space, a modest 300-foot studio on Division Street that backed up to the railroad tracks. She keeps a neatly pressed $5 bill on the windowsill of her studio, the first she ever earned, as a reminder of those early days.
It hasn't necessarily been an easy road in the interim. There's been a move to Southern California and a divorce, but through it all Mum's Tattoos has survived.
Today, Kephart, whose own arms are emblazoned with brilliant swirls of red, green, blue and yellow, is recognized as one of Bend's most talented tattoo artists. She credits her success to her passion for the work.
"It's not just a tattoo;it's a conversation; it's the person. There's so much more than the art," she said, a needle buzzing in hand as she works on a cover-up job for a client, 34-year-old Arlee Turpin of Sunriver.
When finished Kephart will have transformed a pentagram on Turpin's back into an elaborate butterfly. It's a painful process, but Turpin who clutches a tissue and lightly dabs away tears during the operation is grateful for Kephart's deft touch.
Although tattoos were once primarily the province of men, these days women are just as likely to have a tattoo, according to the most recent research.
Turpin, who got the pentagram tattoo in a friend's bedroom from an amateur artist, said she has since found religion and that the pentagram no longer represents who she is. She came to Kephart after another local artist declined the job because of the difficulty and referred her to Mum's.
When it comes to Kephart's own tattoos, she turns to a friend and former colleague from California with whom she is working to complete an ambitious piece on her back. The work, which Kephart drew and gave to her friend, depicts a woman sitting alone among a group of large stones.
"For me it portrays how we can be really strong as women, but also elegant. And every strong woman has that quality in some
respect," Kephart said.