Jesse “Mule” Hembree – Tattoo Collector

Jesse “Mule” Hembree – Tattoo Collector

If you ever attended a tattoo show or convention that was worth going to chances are you have seen Jesse Hembree – aka “Mule”.  Jesse has been tattooed by some of the areas greatest tattoo artists from John Slater to James Vaughn.  We caught up with Jesse after attending the Steel City Tattoo Convention in Pennsylvania.

AnoTat2:  How old were you when you started to collect tattoos?

Jesse:  I was 40 years old when I got my first tattoo.  I always hung around with people who had tattoos and wanted to wait until I had a clear vision of what I wanted on my body and who was going to do it.  I was not just going to get some “flash” off the wall.  98% of my tattoos have been hand drawn on me with a sharpie, it’s an experience to see the artist’s vision go from what looks like sharpie scribbling to a high-quality piece of art.

AnoTat2:  What was the first tattoo you got?

Jesse:  I got the name “Mule” tattooed on my arm in a Celtic lettering style.

AnoTat2:  Any story or meaning behind it?

Jesse:  I used to play ice hockey when I was younger and this was my nickname. It marked a period of time in my life.  I had the tattoo done at Little John’s Tattoo in Greensboro by John Bury – aka Little John.

AnoTat2:  You have been tattooed by some of the areas greatest artists like John Bury, James Vaughn, Janson Spainhour, John Slater and Sarah Miller (to name a few); what do you look for in an artist before selecting them to do work?

Jesse:  I pick one like a girlfriend or wife (while laughing).  Well, you need to be able to click with them and share the same vision for your tattoo.  It’s a very personal experience that I wouldn’t want just anybody doing it.  There are too many shops out there just looking to make money and they don’t do it for the art.  I want to see the love and passion in their work or their work won’t be on me.  The other very important aspect is to look through their portfolio, portfolio, and portfolio.  An artist should take pride in their work and it should show in their portfolio and sketchbook.  You will see the best artists always drawing and pushing their skills – you’ll see it in their work.

AnoTat2:  We have seen enormous growth in the “body art” industry in the last 5 to 10 years; we feel like the tattoo shows on TV have helped move “body art” from taboo and into the mainstream. Do you feel like these shows help or hurt the industry?

Jesse:  The tattoo shows on TV are a double edge sword.  In one hand it spotlights artists and their work, while educating the viewers on getting a good tattoo.  Tattoos are not only for bikers anymore but anybody who wants one.  On the other hand, it has a lot of “people” jumping into the industry because they think it will be easy money and become a “rockstar”.  They don’t see the hard work being done behind the scenes.

AnoTat2:  Back when I got my first tattoo in the 90’s I heard a lot of people say “You have tattoos?” mainly because tattoos had a stigma of being for gang members, convicts, bike gangs and rockstars not on the average person. How did people around you react when you started work on your body suit?

Jesse:  No one really said anything, everyone likes them.  I do know that most people say, “What will they look like when you’re 80?” and it just makes me laugh.  Not only would I be happy to live to 80 but at 80 who cares what they look like.  People who are 80 without tattoos look better? (laughing)

AnoTat2:  Have you had any negative reactions to your Ink while you were working or out in public?

Jesse:  Not at all.  Everyone at work likes my tattoos from my co-workers to the owner of the company.  I usually wear  shorts and a tee shirt while working at the office, I know how to dress for the occasion.  If we have clients coming to the office I wear a long sleeve shirt and khaki pants because it’s appropriate attire when meeting with our clients.

AnoTat2:  We see discrimination everywhere based on the color or colors of a person’s skin.  As being tattooed we have chosen to color our skin to display our art, life’s journey, a memory or because we want to stand out of the status quo; any advice you would give a younger person starting out getting a tattoo?

Jesse:  Be yourself and always be yourself.  Don’t let other people dictate how you should look.  I also think that the younger generation needs to slow down a bit and think about their future.  Having your hands or face tattooed at a young age will limit their job possibilities in the future, it’s just how the world works.  I am not saying it’s correct – just how it is.

AnoTat2:  We could not agree more with you Jesse.  Young people think in the “moment” and not long term.  They are not always going to be working at the Kiosk at the mall.   In an Interview with John Slater a few months back, he said something that has stuck in my head:

“I have turned away hand tattoos.  A lot more as of late.  Don’t start your sleeve at the bottom, it could inhibit your career path.”

We agree with John as well on this topic.  It has been said that getting your hand(s), neck or face tattooed is considered a “Job Killer”; as a serious tattoo collector why do you think this is?

Jesse:  I agree too.  My body suit is completely covered by proper business attire.  Like I said before young people need to slow down and think about it before doing something that will affect them for years to come.  I am not putting anybody down for getting a tattoo in those places.  I am just passing on friendly advice – I won’t judge either way.

AnoTat2:  You travel across the states attending tattoo shows and conventions winning a large amounts or awards for your body suit; how does this make you feel?

Jesse:  It feels great to win at anything, not just tattoos.  The other day we (Emerald City Tattoo and Straight A Tattoo) counted up my awards for this year and I am just shy of 60.  To be honest, it doesn’t matter if I never win another award for my tattoos.  To me showing off my Ink to a crowd of 200-300 people allowing them to see the work put into my tattoos is all I need.  If seeing my work inspires someone to seek out a great artist and get a tattoo which is equally great is very rewarding.  I have people walking up to me asking who or where I got my work done – this is a better award.

AnoTat2:  We love your saying, I am just living in my skin – how did this saying come about?

Jesse:  I am glad you asked about this.  John Bury (Little John) was a very close and good friend of mine who I used to tell all the time “You’re living great in your skin“.  It eventually became a saying we would say – Just living in my skin.  When John (Little John) was taken away from us I took this saying to the ultimate level. My back piece is a copy of John’s piece, basically, he is living on in my art.

“John (Little John) was cremated, so his artwork isn’t around anymore. I had his back-piece recreated so that this part of him continues on…”

If you want to follow Jesse, “Living in his skin” go follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

This article is dedicated to John D. Bury, aka Little John


1963 – 2008

~ ☠  AnoTat2 
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