COMPTON, Calif. — Danny "KP" Kirkpatrick has inked tattoos for Diddy, Nas, Taraji P. Henson and numerous other stars, but his latest venture aims to create a safe space in his hometown of Compton.
Kirkpatrick stars in "Black Ink Crew: Compton," the newest VH1 series that chronicles prominent tattoo artists. He hopes his shop can help change the gritty image of a city that was arguably put on the map thanks to gangsta rap and gang culture.
"We're showing we can unite. We're shedding a different light of Compton through art, our ink and music," he said of the series, which airs Wednesdays on VH1. He's a native of the area and owner of iAMCompton, which is considered the community's first black-owned tattoo shop.
Kirkpatrick and his crew of tattoo artists attempt to make the shop a "safe zone" in Compton and help build up one of the most economically underserved communities in the United States. He believes attracting a mix of outside clients and locals to the appointment-only shop can start to make that happen.
The reality series is the third spinoff of the "Black Ink Crew" franchise. The other locations include Chicago and New York, which is currently airing its eighth season on Wednesday nights.
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Kirkpatrick, 36, has already made his mark as a famed tattoo artist for several celebrities including Travis Scott. He could have opened a tattoo shop in a more popular area in Los Angeles, but he felt compelled to plant roots where he grew up to show that a black-owned business can thrive in Compton, a city of roughly 100,000 people south of downtown Los Angeles.
Before that could happen, Kirkpatrick and his cousin Tim Simmons met with Compton's rival gang leaders at a dimly lit warehouse to seek their approval to open the shop, which turned into a small scuffle. He later got the blessing from a group of gang members who barged into the shop's ground-breaking party.
Those scenes were intense, and some on social media said they thought the interactions with gangs were staged. But the cast insists everything they filmed is real, especially the aftermath of a shooting at a barbershop near their business.
"We've had some negative press saying 'Oh, you're making Compton look bad,'" said Erica "Barbie" Thompson, a receptionist at the shop. "At the end of the day, the stuff that's being shown is real. This is really happening in Compton. We're just now seeing it on VH1 instead of the news. We're not showing anything that's not happening. Our goal is to try to clean this up the best way we can. We're not making up false gang allegations. It's real out here."
Kirkpatrick said he was grateful to earn the gang leaders' support to bring peace to the neighborhood. He envisions a day when he'll have his celeb friends and other clients feeling comfortable enough to visit Compton without any worries.
"People in this city actually want change," said Kirkpatrick, a former college football player who was kicked out of school after a drug charge. He learned the art of tattooing after selling his drawings to a local tattoo parlor more than a decade ago.
"This is my second chance," he said. "And honestly, nobody wants to be going to funerals all the time. I grew up and ran these streets. For me now, I'm really telling the homies like 'Yo, I'm doing something. It could be big for all of us.' This show will show that people can positively change the way they live."
Simmons said their meeting with gang leaders was imperative, calling it "hood politics." He said they couldn't safely open their shop or film the show in Compton without the gangster's permission first.
"You have to start with the homies," said Simmons, who is also a former college football player. "They are the ones who keep the violence up or down. You get them, then corporate sees that and now they want to invite you in. You got power. Once you show you got power, then you can change the environment."
Christian "Ink" Thomas wants to connect the divided worlds between the city's black and Mexican residents, some of whom have been at odds for years.
"The two people who damn near hate each other the most, that's who I am," said Thomas, a tattoo artist at iAMCompton who is Mexican and black. "I want to show that you can be whatever you are mixed with. You can be bigger than what your mix came out to be. When you start with the color of your skin, then it goes to the color of your rag, then to the color of your laces. We're artists. We make that perfect blend work."