Matthew “Toto” Davis, a popular tattoo artist at Animated Canvas Custom Tattoo studio, tattoos a client. Photos by Katie Kettell and Josh Matthews.
The sounds of a muffled tattoo machine and heavy metal music resonate from the upstairs studio of Animated Canvas Custom Tattoo. Horror posters adorn the walls.
The atmosphere might be intimidating, but one of the studio’s most popular tattooists, Matthew “Toto” Davis, isn’t.
On a recent day, the 31-year-old artist was working on an intricate black-and-gray animal design on JP Cole, of Irmo, a regular client who has sat for multiple days in the studio to complete tattoos on both arms and legs.
“I was initially drawn to his artwork, but I keep coming back because of his professionalism,” Cole said.
Cole, a social worker and therapist who owns Cole Wellness, said he has been a regular client for a year. In that time span, he’s received four large black-and-gray tattoos.
In 2012, only 21% of Americans had at least one tattoo. 10 years later, that percentage has grown by 10%, according to Ipsos, a market research and consulting firm.
In the time he has spent in Columbia, Davis has watched the tattoo community grow, immensely.
“I remember when I first came here, there was only a handful of shops. Maybe eight or 10,” he said. Now, there are more than 30 shops.
The number of tattoo studios isn’t the only thing Davis has noticed change in the local tattoo scene. He has also observed the general opinion on tattoos change.
“The stigma was that if you were a tattooed person, you were a freak or sailor or biker dude,” said Davis. “But now you have people like nurses and doctors and lawyers getting tattoos and all other types of professions.”
Davis said he is drawn to black and gray, realism, minimalism, and pointillism-style tattoos. He is one of the few people in Columbia who specialize in these styles.
“There’s not a lot of people who do large scale black and gray,” said Davis. “I wanted to do things that weren’t being done.”
His entire left arm is dedicated to one of his favorites; black and grey minimalism, each piece representing a different game he enjoys.
“I’ve got chess and poker to pool and horseshoes,” said Davis. “What else do I have? I have a roller skate wheel on the back.”
The roller skate represents another big passion in Davis’s life, roller derby. He’s been skating competitively for eight years and is currently skating with the Columbia Wreckingballs.
“I tried it out and instantly fell in love with the level of contact and amount of physical force it takes,” Davis said.
When Davis said physical force, he meant it. He winced as he tattooed his client, showing how hardcore the sport can be.
“Yeah, my ribs are bruised right now,” Davis laughed and winced again. “Actually, from my wife of all people. She’s an amazing skater.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Davis and his wife decided they wanted to steer clear from skate parks. But, where else would a roller skater go?
The answer was simple: a 16-by 23-foot halfpipe in their backyard. All Davis had to do was build it.
“I started in October 2020 and finished around January 2022,” said Davis. “I had three people help me, but two of them weren’t there until about two months before we finished.”
While Davis has many interests, he’s passionate about art.
“My grandfather and I would sit down every Saturday morning and watch Bob Ross together. I would try to mimic as much as I could,” Davis said.
Davis moved away from art in the years after, studying music education at Appalachian State University.
“I made it through about three and a half years of a music degree and decided I didn’t want to teach,” he said. “This was probably more of a real revelation in itself, just because of the fact that I had spent so much time in music and gotten away from art.”
Davis finally found his way back to his main passion. He left university, collected all his previous artwork, and drove to the nearest tattoo shop. He spent the next eight months apprenticing in Boone, North Carolina.
“The journey just kind of began from there,” Davis said. “After two years I moved down to Columbia and worked in, like, six or seven shops here on and off.”
Davis showed off a tattoo of a skull on his right wrist. The skull is the logo for his current shop, Animated Canvas.
“This is my permanent home,” said Davis. “I’ve been here for going on eight years now.”
In the time he has spent in his studio, Davis has been recognized for his talent. He has placed in the “Best of Columbia” for Best Tattoo Artist awarded by the Free Times the last four years.
Brianna Raffa, a former client of Davis, who lives in Anderson, described Davis as an artist who was deeply concerned about what his clients wanted in a tattoo.
“Even when I wasn’t sure what I wanted, he was so helpful,” said Raffa, now a bar manager at Sippy Sips in Anderson, South Carolina. “I trusted him so much with the rest of my tattoos because of how knowledgeable and kind he was.”
With so many shops come a large amount of competition. But Davis has found a group of fellow artists who are are passionate about the art.
“I have a few guys in town that we geek out every couple of weeks, like, oh look at this new tattoo machine, or I love these ink caps, you should try them out,” he said. “I’m a little flabbergasted every day I get to come into work and do something I love.
“There’s really no more rewarding feeling than when you come in and someone’s so excited to see what you’ve drawn.”