Peggi Hurley’s personality is just about as colorful as her skin, and her skin is colorful. “I wanted to be tattooed,” Hurley said. “I never wanted to be a tattoo artist.”
Hurley has owned Ancient Art Tattoo on Route 1 in Lewes for 18 years. The small shop is covered wall-to-wall in colorful, bold drawings of hearts, skulls, eagles and pirate ships. A number of posters also hang on the wall – images of a nude or barely-clad young woman with long brown hair and tattoos that start at her shoulders and end halfway down her legs.
“That’s my poster,” said Hurley, 62, who now sports a head of cropped red hair.
Hurley got her first tattoo at age 21 – flowers on the arch of her foot. But it wasn’t until she met artist Don Nolan in her early 30s that she decided she wanted to cover her body in art. “He was a very strong influence,” Hurley said. “I never thought of the body as a canvas until I met him.”
Hurley said she got one tattoo from Nolan and immediately wanted more. Next, Nolan tattooed a tiger on Hurley’s shoulder sitting in the cockpit of his boat, bobbing up and down at a port in the Bahamas. The tiger was the start of what would become an award-winning tattoo.
Hurley said she lost count of the time she spent under the gun after 80 or 100 hours. After two years of making regular trips to Nolan, Hurley wanted to show off her body of work.
“I had this beautiful artwork on me. I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I brag about it?’” Hurley said. In 1986, Hurley won the Nation’s Best Tattooed Female at the National Tattoo Convention in New Orleans.
Hurley then made a poster of herself for the National Tattoo Convention in San Diego, Cal. “It was a huge hit,” she said.
Hurley and her four younger brothers were born and raised in Rehoboth Beach. Her father was a teacher and principal at Rehoboth High School; her mother was an artist. “Art was always part of my being,” Hurley said. “I love beautiful things.”
Hurley left Rehoboth Beach for college, then spent time living in countless cities across the country. “I was part of the hippie generation,” she said. “I did everything from bartending to burlesque.”
Hurley married Gary Schwartz in 1980, and the couple settled in Fort Myers, Fla. Hurley and Schwartz operated a used car lot, which is where they met tattoo artist Gill Montie.
Montie opened the first Ancient Art Tattoo Studio, and he agreed to apprentice Hurley’s husband at the shop. But Hurley said Montie would have to teach her too, or no deal.
Hurley said Montie was not happy about teaching a woman to tattoo, but he complied. “There weren’t many women that tattooed 25 years ago,” she said. “As a woman, it wasn’t good enough to be good.”
Montie’s wife, Cathy Montie, also taught Hurley cosmetic tattooing. “It’s very popular, especially at the beach,” Hurley said. Now, three or four clients come to Hurley every week for permanent lipstick, eyebrows or eyeliner.
After completing her apprenticeship, Hurley and her husband bought Ancient Art Tattoo. When she and Schwartz divorced, she bought his share, and the shop became hers.
But Hurley said she longed to be closer to her family. In 1994, she moved back to the Cape Region and brought Ancient Art Tattoo with her.
“I had a lot of doors slammed on me,” she said. Hurley said the closest tattoo shops at the time were in Laurel and Dover. “It’s gotten a lot more mainstream.”
After she settled into her Tenley Court location, Hurley said she realized Delaware’s tattoo laws were largely nonexistent. She successfully lobbied for legislation that would protect tattoo artists and helped create health regulations for tattoo shops in the state. “That got us a lot of credibility,” Hurley said.
Hurley remembers giving former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner a gift certificate for a tattoo at Ancient Art. “She got a kick out of it,” Hurley said.
Though Minner never came in to redeem the gift, Hurley said she feels people in Delaware are fortunate to have leaders like Minner and Gov. Jack Markell. “It’s easy to bitch, but get out there and try to do something about it,” she said. “Most places you can’t get personal attention like you can in Delaware.”
In 1996, Hurley took a trip back to Florida to attend the first all female tattoo artist convention in Orlando. In 1999, Hurley was part of an exhibit called Marks of Identity in the Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Hurley said instead of writing a memoir, she decided to make a DVD. “Memories, History and Tattoo Tales” debuted in May. Money from the premiere of the movie was donated to the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation program, in which Hurley has been actively involved since its inception.
The film addresses the history of tattooing through Hurley’s own history as one of the first female tattoo artists in the country. “My story’s pretty cool,” Hurley said. “But it’s not all that important in the scope of the world. Sharing the history is important.”
“Kids now don’t really understand how things were before Google,” Hurley said. “I had to go to the library; I had to research things.” Pointing to her tattoo sleeves, Hurley said, “My arms were two stacks of library books.”
Hurley said as a tattoo artist, she used to make her own needles and mix powder color pigment to create ink.
Advancements in technology have made tattooing cleaner, easier and quicker, she said. “It’s such a cool world now,” Hurley said. She said technology has also made it easier for her to keep in touch tattoo artists she has met throughout the country and the world.
Hurley regularly takes classes at Wilmington University’s Rehoboth Beach campus to learn a new language, skill or keep her up-to-date on new technology. “You’re living in the Dark Ages if you don’t take advantage of it,” she said. “It keeps you young.”
But, she said, it’s important to know what tattooing was like before modern advancements. “I want people to understand how it was,” Hurley said. “It’s history.”
And Hurley is part of that history. She has trained a number of artists at Ancient Art. George Keeler began working at the shop in 2000, but Hurley said Keeler left after 12 years to manage a tattoo studio in Ohio.
Ben Sellman joined Hurley’s team in 2007; now his cousin, Curtis Kuhn, has jumped on board. At a recent tattoo convention in Philadelphia, Hurley said Sellman won two 1st place awards and one 2nd place award for his work. “I want him to take advantage of the people I know and the things I know,” she said.
“I guess that’s part of my legacy too,” Hurley said. “They’re not my children, but they’re my kids.”
And Hurley shows no signs of throwing in the towel. In February 2011, she traveled to Australia and New Zealand. She returned with some new ink – an Aboriginal design on her neck that represents the dream line for Mother Earth’s energy.
“I will tattoo as long as I can because I love it,” Hurley said. “You build lifelong relationships with people, and not just here, but all over the world.”
For more information on Hurley or for a copy of “Memories, History and Tattoo Tales,” go to ancientarttattoo.net.