Stray Dog Freedom: Getting to Know Memphis Tattoo Artist Claire Faulhaber

In just a few short years, Memphis tattoo artist, Claire Faulhaber has gone from dedicated apprentice to one of the city’s most successful and highly demanded artists. Her exponential growth, I believe, is a result of her raw talent, unique style, and fierce dedication to her clients and her own artistic identity.

A born Memphian, Claire grew up in Midtown. She moved around a lot, went to several different schools as a kid and graduated from Central High. Following a year of life in Philly, she transferred to Kansas City Art Institute, where she graduated with a BFA in illustration.

After graduating, and before landing her current spot at Bluff City Tattoo in the Edge District, Claire did what most artists do and took on freelance work to make ends meet. She designed album art, show posters and t-shirts for bands, and also spent some time as the head graphic artist for a startup skate apparel company.

Photo: Naø Lewandowski

“It didn’t really pan out how I thought,” she said. “I was super bummed one day and one of my oldest and dearest friends texted me. It happened to be Friday the 13th, and she said, Dude, I know you’re super bummed. Let’s go get tattooed; it always makes you feel better. I told her, I can’t even afford a $13 tattoo right now. So she texted back, I’ll just teach you how to give a stick and poke lol, and I was like, Lol sure, yeah, let’s meet up.

“So when I picked her up from work that night, we went back to my studio space and she made me give her a stick and poke. It took me three hours to do this tiny little dagger, which is now totally blown out and looks like a lowercase ‘t.’ I definitely overworked that thing, but I loved it.”

A few weeks later, Claire started taking her portfolio around to local shops in search of an apprenticeship.

Now, she is one of Memphis’s most-wanted tattoo artists. Her signature illustrated style and inclusive, collaborative process has earned her a highly regarded reputation around town and a client base devoted to supporting her art.

Brought up in a life of subculture and creativity, Claire’s style is inspired by beauty she’s encountered from a very young age. Her mom was in a punk band and her adolescence was filled to the brim with music, literature and art. 

“I was an anime kid. I was definitely ‘Not Cool,’ like, capital ‘N’ and capital ‘C,’” she laughed as we bonded over the days of emo bands and misfit culture. “I took a sketchbook to recess, I wasn’t athletic and I just liked to be in my own world, drawing constantly. My mom was a children’s librarian too, so I spent a lot of time around books and cartoons. Before I even learned to read, I spent time looking at pictures in books. My mom told me all the time that I would talk to images, just creating stories.”

The more we talked, the more it was clear that Claire was passionate about and fueled by the growing accessibility of counterculture, especially tattoos.

“I mean, it’s very rare in 2019 to meet someone who’s over 18 and doesn’t have a tattoo,” she said. “I also remember one particular Manga studio that I loved called CLAMP; they’re an all-female Manga studio. Their stuff was always really cool to me – lots of magical girl anime, which is definitely my thing. And that’s super popular again now, too, so that’s sick.”

As we dove deeper into her creative process, she highlighted the impact that lyrics have on her tattoos. Lately, her playlist consists of Frank Ocean, Omni, Coma Prieta, Gouge Away, Big Thief, Dilly Dally and Lomelda. The album she’s listening to will always feed the imagery, but also the tone of her art. 

Even if it’s not something related to the music at all, it always seems to influence the tone of the drawing,” she explained. “If I’m listening to something sleepier, I’m going to work slower. It’s interesting to me how it affects line weights and even compositions that I’m drawn to.

“Movies definitely inspire me, too, and traveling, for sure,” she added. “I was able to do a lot of traveling this summer and it was definitely a big source of inspiration; just being able to see different landscapes and textures. The way the sky looks in Utah is so different than the way it looks here. Beautiful in both places, but just so different.”

When asked how the Memphis community impacted her work as a tattoo artist, Claire went on and on with gratitude.

I have a lot of people in the community to thank, especially the people that I work with. I wouldn’t be tattooing without the people who come see me for tattoos, and I think that’s really special. I have a really strong bond with a lot of people that I work with, and I’ve made a lot of friends through tattooing that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

If you’ve ever gotten tattooed by Claire, you know how collaborative and involved the process is. She will sketch out an idea in person with her clients, harnessing their creative energy and feedback, and making absolutely sure that they’re happy with the direction it’s going.

“It’s really cool to get to work with people and create something together,” she said. “I like to do a lot of stuff in person because everything is so digital and it can be very cold. I think that’s another reason why tattooing has presented itself as such a gift to me. It’s very different than doing freelance illustration, communicating with an art director in New York or someone who’s not in front of you. I need the connection and physical presence of the people I work with, and I feel like everyone I tattoo is so supportive and kind. I’m super grateful for every person I tattoo, whatever the design is.”

Photos: Naø Lewandowski

With that philosophy, Claire has not only established herself as a valuable asset to the Memphis community, but also positioned her art as a unique collector’s item for the local tattoo enthusiast. Her specialty is black and gray, and if you truly want a Claire Faulhaber original, go for one of her expressive hand designs or botanical flash pieces. 

“I also really love working with abstract concepts,” she said. “People will come to me with poetry and ask me to just interpret it, which is really sick.”

Like any artist, she loves having freedom over composition of a tattoo, but Claire will always try to add something personal into each design.

“I don’t ever want someone to feel like they have to get something just because I drew it for them, you know? So, you can tell me you just want me to do my thing, but I’m going to at least ask you what month you were born, because that gives me some florals to go off of; just something to make it personal.”

Claire’s most personal and beloved tattoos are those that her friends have given her, including a tattoo of her cat, Lettuce, a set of Boy Genius lyrics with a turned-over glass and a saddle oxford shoe. Each has a unique story, lived out within a unique friendship.

“The tattoos that I have that I like the most are the ones I have the least control over,” she said.

Her moniker, Stray Dog Claire, comes from her very first tattoo, which she got at the age of 18. Derived from a set of Bright Eyes lyrics, “stray dog freedom” has been her social media handle since before she ever picked up a tattoo machine, and has carried through as her professional brand.

When asked what it takes to be successful in the craft of tattooing, Claire told me that she believed in conquering the fear of permanence, devoting yourself to drawing and the lifestyle of tattoos, and pushing through the bad beginning. She referenced a video by Ira Glass on storytelling that she revisits often as a creative person. 

“When your creative output doesn’t line up with your taste, you have to push through it,” she said. “A lot of people give up and quit because what they’re making isn’t as good as their own standards. But, especially with tattooing, oh yeah, your stuff’s not going to be good at first. You just have to keep going and hope that you are around people who are kind and supportive, motivating you and enriching your experience in the industry.”

Our conversation ended with a feeling of enrichment and utter fullness. Her authenticity and gratitude for the opportunity to create art for the people of Memphis were inspiring. 

“I just try my best to do good work and be kind to people,” she said. “I think if you are those things, if you do those things, if you work in a genuine way, it pays off.” 

Follow Claire on Instagram at @straydogclaire. Bluff City Tattoo is located at 667 Monroe Ave. in the Edge.

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