(CNN) — Four years ago, Beth Cirami walked into Malissa Booth’s tattoo shop, mournful and anxious. Her brother had just died of leukemia, and she wanted something to remember him by.
She’d gone to other tattoo shops in the St. Louis areaand when she tried to explain her story — why she was getting her first tattoo at age 37, what it meant to her — it felt like no one listened. They told her to flip through a book and pick a drawing she liked; it just didn’t feel right.
“This was a very personal piece for me. I needed that work of art,” Cirami said.
She had heard about Booth’s shop, Madame Voodoo’s House of Ink in Warrenton, Missouri, and decided to stop by. She told Booth that her brother died at age 45, and she wanted to honor him in some way.
Cirami left Booth’s shop with a pinstripe tattoo adorned with the initials of her children and a picture of a heart glass her brother gave her before he passed away. It was exactly what she wanted.
“She had that sensitivity to that reason why most people get tattoos. It is a very secret and spiritual experience,” Cirami said.
It’s the kind of experience on which Booth built her business — a family-friendly tattoo shop she opened five years ago, hoping it would feel welcoming to everybody.
“I wanted to take the smut and drama out of the image of a tattoo shop,” said Booth, 42. “I have children, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed to bring my kids into my shop.”
But Booth’s entrance into the tattooing world didn’t start off easy.
Long before Booth started dabbling with needles and inks, she managed a call center with more than 180 employees. The single mother of three teens rose quickly at her company, but when the travel industry hit a slump, jobs were cut left and right.
After sleepless nights and stressful days of hoping she would stay employed, she found herself being escorted out of her building with her belongings packed in a cardboard box, while her boss told her she’d be “fine.”
Suddenly, the years of stress, the long on-call hours felt like a waste.
“I was angry, angrier than I had ever been,” she recalls. “I put everything I had into that job.”
After sending out dozens of job applications and not hearing back, she decided to pay her ex-husband, a tattooist, a visit. She wanted to give tattooing a shot, maybe just as a part-time job until she found her next management gig.
He was hesitant to help her.
“The life of a tattoo artist is one of feast or famine,” she said. “He knew I had three kids to raise and that it wouldn’t be stable income, but I insisted. So, he spent months making me draw.”
At age 37, she quickly learned she was a rarity in the business; few middle-aged women were signing up to become tattoo artists. As an apprentice working among other artists — all men — she sometimes heard she was too “soft” to be in the industry, or too old to start learning.
While apprenticing at a shop in Warrenton, she met Michael Pease, a 30-year veteran of tattooing. Pease taught Booth how to draw lines and quick sketches, techniques tattoo artists use to ink their customers quickly, “before they change their minds,” he jokes.
Pease was impressed by Booth’s persistence, despite the negativity she heard from her male counterparts.
“There are a lot of guys who don’t like (female tattoo artists),” he said. “Art is a big egotistical thing, especially in the tattoo world.”
After Booth apprenticed with him for a year, Pease encouraged her to take another step by purchasing a tattoo shop that was going on sale in Warrenton.
“If you meet her, you would understand why she would run a shop in this industry,” Pease said. “With her background in management, she was perfect to run the books the legal way. A lot of shops half-ass the things they do.”
And she had her own ideas about how a shop should look and feel.
Booth remembered apprenticing at a tattoo shop in 2008, looking up at pictures of half-naked women strung on the walls. It wasn’t the kind of place anyone could just walk into, she thought.
As wearing tattoos was becoming mainstream— more than 14% of people in the United States have tattoos — Booth felt confident she could cater her business toward previously under-served clientele.
“I felt a need to create something more accommodating for women and anyone else that didn’t want to feel like they were entering a shady establishment,” she said.
In her shop, there are no photos of nude girls. Instead, there are colorful paintings of wildflowers, abstract shapes, and warped skulls, it’s reminiscent of Creole artwork hanging in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a place where Booth says she draws artistic inspiration.
Although experts usually advise against tapping into your 401(k), Booth cashed hers out, using $12,000 to buy the tattoo shop and new equipment.
So far, she says, the bet has paid off. Booth says she has seen steady success since launching her shop in 2008. She hasn’t replenished her 401(k), but it’s among next year’s goals.
“My clientele ranges from 80-year-old women to leaders of churches and doctors and lawyers,” she said. “I wanted to create a shop where anyone would feel safe and like family.”
It’s that kind feel of that drew customers like Beth Cirami, who now refers others to the shop.
“It’s a very cherished thing,” Cirami said. “Malissa really takes the time to produce something that is as special as the reason why you are getting it.”
Booth says she’s on track to grow the business, and happier now than when she worked her corporate job.
“It was very hard going from being in careers where you are at the top of your game, winning awards of excellence, being the expert at things, to being a nobody that knew nothing,” she said.
“(Tattooing) is not a job. It’s an adventure. I have no idea what each day brings and I like helping people, giving them beautiful works of art that they can be proud of.”
By Jareen Imam, CNN
Editor’s note: This story is part of CNN’s American Journey series, showing how people have turned hobbies into jobs. Have you transformed your passion into profits? Share your story with CNN iReport, and you could be featured in a CNN story.
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