The HyLife: Whistle Stop tattoo: Reckoning with the past to leave a mark on the future
BY JESSICA ARENDS
In honor of Black History Month, I sat down with tattoo artist and Hyattsville native Shawn Brown and his wife, Michelle Roberts, to discuss their experiences growing up in the area and opening their tattoo business, Whistle Stop Studio, five years ago on Gallatin Street.
Tucked up on the second floor of the SOHY Arts Building in the warm space of their shop, we sat surrounded by twisting, colorful images of skulls, animals and human figures, as well as a wall of black-and-white family photos. Brown shared stories of his childhood as he traced his fingers along the pictures, including framed family photos from the Hyattsville and Prince George’s County editions of the Images of America book series.
Brown grew up in the 1970s along Route 1, in a house on property now occupied by the Palette at Arts District apartments. He described his house as the last one standing on the property, alongside a few car repair shops and the old Lustine building. Brown remembers feeling isolated from his friends, as they mostly lived on the other side of Route 1, yet fortunate, as the wilderness surrounding the train tracks was his very own to explore.
Brown was raised Catholic with a large extended family that lived throughout the city and in the Melrose area where the Melrose Skatepark now stands. Brown spent time with aunts, uncles and cousins — including cousin Charles “Queenie” Queen who assisted at the Hyattsville Hardware Co. store, now home to Franklins. As they do today, the sound of trains echoed throughout his childhood — hence the name of his tattoo shop.
We discussed the current political climate, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how history books don’t always give the full story when it comes to race and race relations.
“America is still trying to figure itself out of the whole situation of race,” Brown said. “We need to go through periods of chaos in order to make progress.”
As a child, Brown heard stories of his family’s encounters with segregation and racism. Family members couldn’t go to the movie theater across the street; Carrie, Brown’s grandmother, could only ride in the back of the streetcars which ran alongside his family’s property.
As a kid working odd jobs around town, including sweeping the Lustine building, Brown was subjected to charged comments from people. “There were constant reminders of your place or class. It sticks with you,” Brown said.
Brown spoke of the importance of learning about all facets of U.S. history, even the painful ones. “No one wants to feel bad, or we say, ‘Oh, that was in the past.’ But I still have to walk around with that in the back of my psyche.”
Roberts reflected on how growing up in Colesville, just 10 miles away, provided a more racially diverse experience for her as a child. She explained that since people are sometimes surprised to learn Hyattsville was segregated, she, as a white person, makes it a point to bring up this important part of the city’s past. “You have to know the history,” Roberts said. “You have to acknowledge it in order to deal with it and move forward.”
As a teenager, Brown found community in the District’s punk rock scene, which is how he eventually connected with tattoo artists and learned his craft. He first apprenticed with D.C. artists, honing his skills in the classic tattoo style and in meticulous sanitation standards. After 20 years of tattooing in street shops in Maryland and the District, he landed back in his hometown, opening his own business. Brown points out that Whistle Stop offers private tattoo appointments, a model that other tattoo businesses are emulating.
“It is gratifying to now own a business across the street from where I grew up, in a building full of so many other creative Black business owners, and to see how Hyattsville’s diversity has progressed,” said Brown. Other Black-owned businesses in the SOHY building include the Little Inkplay Shop, Love Your Roots hair salon, the Trap Factory Studio and Gremlin’s Tattoo Lounge.
Brown and Roberts expressed deep gratitude to the Hyattsville community for the business support they’ve been given, especially during the pandemic. They received a small business grant from the city and several donations from residents — clients, friends and other small business owners, some of whom hadn’t been previously connected to the shop but wanted to show support.
“One of the most amazing things about the pandemic was people being able to see each other’s humanity,” Brown said. “It’s nice to know somebody is thinking about the little guy, too.”
Jessica Arends is the arts, culture and lifestyle columnist for the Hyattsville Life & Times.