“I live in a very weird land,” says local tattoo artist One Arm Willie. “I don’t consider myself disabled, but I recognize others do.”
OAW, who has been tattooing at Sacred Lotus Tattoo on New Leicester Highway since 2019, sports a striking look accentuated by his rugged beard. His personal style favors a darker side, with beanies, denim vests and plaid button-downs creating a mountain-man-meets-biker vibe — somewhat intimidating at first glance until the verbose tattooist starts talking. Warm, congenial and forthcoming, OAW doesn’t shy away from tough topics, including the fact that his left arm ends just below the bend of the elbow.
But he never tells the same story twice. In one version, he lost his extremity in a car accident; in a later edition, a bear ran off with his appendage. Whatever the true story may be seems beyond the point and counter to the public persona he’s created — one that is intentionally mysterious.
Get him talking long enough, though, and you’ll pick up pieces of a past riddled with obstacles that still drive OAW to this day.
Born in Albuquerque, N.M., OAW spent much of his childhood bouncing around the country with his family. But no matter the location, he always ended up skateboarding and hanging around local tattoo shops.
This early exposure to the tattoo industry, in tandem with his grandmother’s encouragement to pursue a career in the arts, proved inspirational. But early naysayers, who insisted he couldn’t learn the skill with only one hand, led OAW to initially pursue other vocations. He first considered translating for the military before earning degrees in hospitality management and biblical studies. Despite these credentials, OAW often felt potential employers couldn’t see past his missing limb.
“It’s extremely debilitating to go into a job interview and immediately get turned down because all they look at is my arm instead of me,” OAW says.
Things changed in 2015, when OAW offered to help his longtime friend Darcy Del Priore renovate the space for his new business, Sickle and Moon Tattoo in Columbia, S.C. Recognizing OAW’s passion for the industry, Del Priore offered his friend an apprenticeship. OAW endured the phases of grunt work and practiced on tattooing grapefruits before breaking actual skin.
“That motherf**ker threw me in the deep end,” remembers OAW. “He understood me enough to give me the freedom to play with things but would tell me if I was straight up doing it wrong.”
Exchange of energy
Trained in traditional-style tattooing, OAW has since developed his personal flair, favoring a darker style with lots of black.
“It’s refreshing to have someone with a more old-school outlook,” says Kimi Leger, owner of Sacred Lotus Tattoo. “But he still prioritizes his own style.”
Because of his missing limb, OAW works from the bottom up, which helps him avoid smudging the stencil.
“Working with someone with a physical challenge like that is really inspiring,” Leger continues. But when it comes to his work, he never focuses on having one arm, she notes — his portfolio speaks for itself.
Reapers, skulls and spiders are among the designs OAW enjoys tattooing the most. However, his favorite pieces are those that have a deeper meaning for clients, since he considers his work an exchange of energy between himself and the individual.
“I tell them, ‘This isn’t your tattoo, it’s ours,’” he says.
OAW also views each new piece he works on as a direct challenge to the biases people often hold about people with disabilities.
“A lot of times, people want things done in a certain way, and when others physically can’t do it that way, they don’t consider us valuable in their system,” he says. “If people were given the freedom to be creative in the way they did things, we would be more successful.”
Not that any naysayers are slowing him down. OAW says he intends to continue tattooing and challenging misconceptions for the rest of his life.
“Tattooing is my first love,” he says. “Everything else is a mistress.”
To learn more about OAW, visit avl.mx/8we.