A behind-the-scenes look into the work of local tattoo artist Cory Craft as he sits down for an exclusive session with contributor, Joe Hepler

Outside, Black Swan Tattoo looks like a normal brown building on a typical gray street. It’s located on South Florida Avenue, the aorta artery of Lakeland transit. You’ve definitely driven by it. But unless you’ve ventured inside of Black Swan, you’ve never had the experience of stepping off of the bland white sidewalk and into Cory Craft’s kaleidoscopic kingdom.

Inside, Black Swan is saturated in color; pieces of traditional tattoo artwork cover every square inch of the walls, except for a deer head mounted along the length of the left side of the wall just behind the glass counter, as if it were the gatekeeper of this colorful domain. On the wall opposite the mounted buck and just beyond the wooden saloon-style swinging doors, you’ll hear the unmistakable sound of ink-soaked needles steadily humming as they’re meticulously guided across human skin. Through those doors you’ll find Cory and company — Kris, Cori, Jake, George, and Phil — scattered around the room working on their latest bit of ink-and-needle magic, sketching out a new idea, or casually lounging on a couch watching videos on an iPad.

Natural light floods through the shop-front windows, filling the neatly kept space with a welcoming warmth. As I took my seat on the semi-reclined chair where I would be spending the next two hours letting Cory permanently mark my body, I noted how inviting the shop was compared to other tattoo places I’ve visited before.

“Yeah man, the natural light was one of the things we loved most about this spot as we were looking at it,” replied Craft. “We wanted our shop to be a place people can feel comfortable. We want you to want to come here.” Craft understands the stigmas that still exist around tattoo shops, despite tattoos being widely accepted, and he’s mindful of this when it comes to Black Swan. “We try to make it family-friendly and inviting,” Craft continued, “because it can be intimidating coming in and getting a tattoo. So, we want to make sure you’re happy and you feel welcomed, and that you’d want to stay here and get your tattoo.”

For Craft, this isn’t so much a business philosophy as it is a manifestation of who he is. You see, Cory is cool; there’s just no other way to say it. But not in a pretentious or arrogant kind of way, because that’s not cool and that’s not Cory. He has this welcoming presence about him (much like his shop), as if he couldn’t be more comfortable in his own skin even if he tried. Cory is that kind of cool. And Cory’s wife, Lena? She’s cool, too. When asked about his wife, Craft beamed and put his head down a little to try and hide his excitement. “Lena? Shoot, she’s beautiful, smart, super nerdy,” smiled Cory, as he continued to rave about her and tell me more about their relationship.

The Crafts love pop culture: TV, movies, comics, and all things sci-fi and fantasy, including Harry Potter (which is fortunate, since Cory was in the process of shading in a tattoo on my right thigh that was inspired by Potter and the podcast, Binge Mode, which is doing a “deep-dive” through the series). Lena and Cory definitely embrace their shared “nerdiness”; so much so, that they will debate which of them is a bigger Potter fan and argue over the merits of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. They even run an Etsy shop together which they have appropriately dubbed 2NerdsOnAJourney.

As Craft was finishing up my freshly inked thigh, I asked him where exactly he saw his “journey” taking him in the next five or 10 years from now. He let out another laugh as he pressed an alcohol-soaked paper towel to my stinging skin. “What’s the dream?” he repeated, almost as if to confirm that he heard me correctly. He leaned back in his chair, held his arms out, and gave a slight shrug. “This, man,” giving an approving gaze around his shop, “I’m living the dream!”

Lakelander Insider: For the month of September, show this article when you go in for a tattoo and get 15% off.