Creatives in the Crowd: Forrest Douglas spreads opportunity via tattooing

LASTING IMAGE: A.R.T. A Real Testament tattoo studio owner Forrest Douglas, center, inks a client in his Patton Avenue space. Photo by BnB Visions

Forrest Douglas knows what it’s like to struggle, and he doesn’t want others to experience the hardships he’s endured. The Asheville native says he grew up in a broken home with little hope of escaping a life of crime and poverty; as a young adult, he went on to serve multiple stints in jail.

In the past few years, however, he’s turned his life around as the co-owner of A.R.T. A Real Testament tattoo studio at 770 Patton Ave. The business launched in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, it was in a tiny space next to Green’s Mini-Mart in the Southside community.

“Everybody says it’s the ghetto, but it was just home to me,” says Douglas, 34, who grew up in the Livingston and Erskine-Walton apartments. “I’m going to try to make a change for my area, and I started where I’m from.”

Down but not out

Staying in Asheville, however, wasn’t always Douglas’ plan. At age 17, he and his brothers Alexander and Donovan were headed east to Winston-Salem, where their mother, Elizabeth Laffitte, lived. But on the way, Alexander fell asleep at the wheel and died from the injuries sustained after the car flipped multiple times. Donovan was also severely injured and nearly lost an arm.

“It really took a toll on me,” Douglas says of the loss. “I quit football. I won a state championship at Asheville High [School] the year before. I loved that sh*t — I thought I was going to college on football, but the world works different.”

After a year in Winston-Salem, Douglas was arrested at age 18 for drug trafficking and numerous sale and delivery charges. He was sentenced to two years at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner.

Once released, he returned to Asheville. But hardships continued to follow Douglas. Still “heavily involved in the street life,” he says he was going in and out of jail for violating the terms of his probation. But along the way, moments of clarity arose whenever he tapped into his creative side.

Artistic journey

Throughout his life, Douglas has enjoyed drawing, collaging, painting and sculpting. And he points to encouragement from former Asheville Middle School art teacher Portia Leverette — whom he describes as “an older Black Southern lady who was sweet and stern” — as proving especially formative in his development at a juncture when his home life was far from stable.

“Me being a child and living in a world of chaos at the time, her kindness really pushed me forward to love art,” he says. “I used to be so excited to go to her class — and I’d behave in her class. Everybody else’s class, I wouldn’t.”

Growing up, he also admired tattoo artist Miya Bailey, an Asheville native currently based in Atlanta. Douglas wanted to follow Bailey’s example by helping people express themselves through body art, so he did what he could to find local opportunities.

But he says area tattoo studios weren’t willing to give him an apprenticeship. So in 2009, at age 20, Douglas bought a tattoo kit and started honing his craft on his friends, who were more than willing to let him practice — even if the results weren’t exactly great.

“I’m talking some sh***y work,” Douglas says with a laugh. “I look at it now, and I’m like, ‘I did that? That was 10 years ago.’”

Though he continued working on tattooing, the lack of stable, well-paying work within the field, as well as repeat run-ins with police, gradually sidetracked him yet again. By then a father, Douglas vowed at the start of 2020 to make a lasting change.

“I got to a point in my life where I was tired. I just wanted to be a father that could provide for my kids and family properly,” he says. “Tattooing was what I loved. They say if you want to do something, do something you love.”

The apprentice

Douglas believes you can tell people that redemption is possible, but until they see it up close and in person, the advice won’t make an impact. For that reason, he launched A.R.T. in a former ice cream shop by Green’s Mini-Mart.

“It was where I wanted to be,” Douglas says. “I could have gone different places, but I wanted my community and the other people around me to see that I was making a change for myself in my community and to show the next generation that’s coming up — the teenagers that come to the shop — that I don’t sell drugs. I’m doing just perfectly fine. I do art.”

In partnership with Nico Rodriguez, an industry veteran with over 25 years’ experience, the pair quickly grew their customer base, as well as their apprenticeship program. All too familiar with the frustrations of being turned away, Douglas says he’s always ready to give determined aspiring tattoo artists a chance and let them learn from him.

“The ones graduating high school who don’t want to go to college and don’t know what they want to do — well, they don’t teach tattooing in school,” he says. “I was like, ‘Hey, come down here. We’re in the hood. We’re at Green’s. Come here, be comfortable. Anything I learned, I’m going to pass along.’”

That generosity proved contagious, and A.R.T. eventually needed more space. In summer 2022, the studio relocated to Patton Avenue and is currently home to four additional tattoo artists, a piercer and two aspiring tattooists.

A life of its own 

Though Douglas describes himself as a “workhorse” who’s taken on any client request from lettering to roses to Chinese symbols, he’s becoming known as a go-to portrait artist.

“In the Black community, a lot of people have lost a lot of loved ones here lately, and I want people to still be able to see their loved ones,” says Douglas.

Similar to those portraits allowing memories to endure, Douglas’ commitment to sharing his knowledge of the craft has improved the lives of those he’s worked with. Visitors to A.R.T. will hear nothing but praise for Douglas’ giving spirit from his colleagues and apprentices. And the feeling is mutual. Douglas says he is confident those who work with him will go on to open their own studios and pass on what they’ve learned from him, thereby continuing the legacy of an art form with a distinct endurance of its own.

“The only thing that you can take to the grave that you pay for in life is tattoos,” Douglas says. “You take your body art and the story of your life with you.”

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This article is part of our ongoing feature, Creatives in the Crowd, which focuses on local artists — both established and new. The feature spotlights unique stories and innovative artistic approaches within our creative community. Unlike much of our Arts & Culture reporting, these stories are not tied to upcoming events, exhibits or releases. The feature strives to represent a diverse range of voices, experiences and artistic mediums. If you’d like to nominate a community member for consideration, please reach out to with the subject line “Creatives in the Crowd.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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