“Bald Bill” Henshaw: Inside the Mind of a Body Artist

My parents started placing bets on what my first tattoo would be after I left for college. I’m still leaving them hanging. Bill Henshaw, affectionately known as “Bald Bill” by his friends and coworkers, guesses he’s a little bit ahead of me. He’s been tattooed by over 100 tattoo artists and estimates he’s 80 percent tattoo.

Henshaw opened Yankee Tattoo in 1996 on the same day that tattooing was legalized in Vermont. Although he’s an icon in the Burlington body art scene today, winning local and national awards, his road here has been anything but straightforward.

“I did a lot of hand poking as a kid. Then I went into the navy, drew a lot of tattoos for friends,” Henshaw said. Not only was this where he first discovered his love for tattooing, but it’s also where he was inspired to name his shop Yankee Tattoo.

Born and raised in Boston, Bald Bill is a self-identified Yankee. “When I was in the Navy, every time I opened my mouth I had to fight the Civil War,” he said. Although it’s faded since he’s moved to Vermont, you can still hear a hint of a Boston accent in Henshaw’s voice.

After leaving the Navy, Henshaw worked for a telephone company, eventually transferring to the art department. Designing art for the Yellow Pages by day and tattooing by night, he quit his day job in 1986 and decided to go into tattooing full time.

“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Henshaw said. When I asked him if this bothered him, he just laughed.

Tattooing is serious business for Henshaw. He and his staff go through extensive training and he attends professional industry events around the country with world-renowned tattoo artists.

“I’ve met and rubbed shoulders and partied with them,” Henshaw said. “I know many, many famous tattoo artists and they know me.”

The most difficult part of his job, though? The customers.

“Fucking soul-suckers. Customers always think they’re right,” Henshaw said, shaking his head. “But for all those difficult clients, there are so many more that are great.”

Although tattooing has gained popularity in recent years, there’s still a niche counter-culture community formed around body art. “People at the top of the food chain put their noses up and look down on us,” Henshaw said. He and his friends, he explained, have even been pulled aside for security checks at airports because of their tattoos.

Despite the stubborn customers, judgmental outsiders and changing times, there’s nothing else “Bald Bill” Henshaw would rather be doing.

“The best part of my job is I make people happy,” he told me. “Everyday, with my art, I make people happy. That’s why I want to work until I fucking die.”

The unique appeal of tattooing has caused many people, like Henshaw, to fall in love with the art form. A 2012 Harris poll found that 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. have tattoos.

“The whole country, the whole world, is going tattoo,” Henshaw said.

Walking around downtown Burlington, or UVM’s campus, his words seem to ring true. For our generation, tattooing has increasingly become incorporated into youth culture.

I asked Bill if he had any advice for those considering getting inked for the first time.

“Research what you want. There’s nothing worse than getting tattooed by an asshole,” Henshaw said.

Yankee Tattoo doesn’t bombard their followers on social media and their shop is tucked away on Pearl Street, making it less central than some of their competitors’ shops.

They’ve also won the 7 Daysies award for 13 years in a row and Bill won both the people’s choice and judges award for best sleeve at the National Tattoo Association Convention this past year.

Yankee seems to prove the old adage, “a picture (or a tattoo) is worth a thousand words.” Their art and their expertise speak for themselves.

As I packed up my bag to leave Yankee Tattoo and make my way back to campus for class, Henshaw started to speak again. “We try to do our best. Everybody always asks us: what’s the best work you’ve ever done? And I always say my next one,” Henshaw said.