Smile Politely

Champaign’s newest tattoo spot is also making waves in the arts scene

Since its grand opening during the recent Boneyard Art Fest, the Recreation Club has continued to make waves in both the tattoo and visual arts scenes. 

The annual county-wide celebration held a special meaning this year for the local artists who were eager to provide new, curated spaces where art welcomes all. The Recreation Club fell squarely into this category and immediately attracted nonstop business from passersby.

The tattoo shop and gallery space sits neatly at the corner where Taylor and Market Street come together, and where local residents from all walks of life come to meet. The building at 117 N. Market Street had previously been home to the recording studio Bull & Dog. The studio moved locations during the pandemic and its owner, Ashley Buerkett, handed the building over to its current owners in the hopes that they would create a space that valued art and community.

“That was this past November, so it was kind of in the thick of all the chaos. We just had no idea what was going on with the state of the world,” says co-owner Carlie Upchurch. Nevertheless, she and her business partner, Carly Benjamin, were ready to take on the new challenge in the midst of plans they already had brewing in the background.

Tattoo on a Recreation Club client, tattooed by Carly Benjamin. Photo courtesy of Carlie Upchurch.

Tattoo designs by Carly Benjamin. Photo by Carlie Upchurch.

Benjamin worked as a hairdresser for 13 years before branching out into tattoo artistry at the Dark Matter Collective. She now splits her time between the Rec Club and Benny & Kay, a hair salon she opened with friend and fellow stylist Hillary Kay in 2020. For her, art is about so much more than creation; it is about the impact it has on community.

“I’m excited because I feel like [hairdressing and tattooing] are both things that the community wants and are really curious about, so facilitating that with another good friend is really cool,” says Benjamin as she shares a smile with Upchurch.

Upchurch has also involved herself consistently in various forms of art throughout her life, particularly drawing and mural painting. Being awarded the Urbana Arts & Culture grant in 2020 allowed her to finally explore what being a full-time artist could look like. She hopes that the Rec Club will infuse the local culture with a more artistic and communal atmosphere; she is determined to “not let it become another bar.”

Items created by Megan Hinds displayed at a recent Recreation Club pop-up event. Photo courtesy of Carlie Upchurch

Artwork by Megan Hinds displayed at the Rec Club. Photo by Carlie Upchurch.

The Rec Club has already begun to fulfill this vision as a dual-purpose space for tattooing and a wide variety of other events. After its grand opening at Boneyard, Benjamin has spearheaded the former while Upchurch has taken on the majority of outreach and organization that goes into gallery bookings. The duo also works together to welcome as many people into the space as possible.

“Organically it’s been really cool because I have so many clients with hairdressing and we just know so many people… so I’m involved in it too,” Benjamin explains.

Both owners have been busy gathering artists and resources for pop-up galleries, partnering with everyone from printmakers and jewelers to music curators and painters. The most recent pop-up just a few days ago was followed by an announcement of the Rec Club’s next event, The Mothership Experience, billed as “an immersive, collective arts and sound healing experience.” 

So far, the Rec Club has lived up to the hype it received on its opening day with continuous projects that reach numerous corners of the artistic community. Benjamin says that this plays perfectly into her efforts to change the popular perceptions of what tattooing spaces look like.

“Over the course of all the tattoo history I know about, it’s been male-dominated for sure,” she says. “And being a woman, I’ve been tattooed by men, and it’s a vulnerable situation… It turns people off of getting tattooed even though they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to but I’m a nurse and what if I’m not cool enough to go here?’ Or, ‘I’m a queer person and I’m scared they’re going to make fun of my pronouns.’ Or, you know, I feel like the list goes on.”

In an effort to assuage these types of concerns, Benjamin plans to host “flash nights” to create a more welcoming tattooing community. She also works to provide an exceptionally safe space for her clients that is private, identity-affirming, communicative, and non-judgemental. Upchurch is also working on incorporating Reiki healing, Tarot reading, and astrology-related events into the schedule to build upon this environment of revitalization and comfort.  

This innovative business model will also serve to revitalize and push forward the growth of a unique artistic community in Champaign-Urbana. Instead of moving away to bigger cities that already have expansive art scenes, Benjamin wants to help create a flourishing art scene right where she is.

Items created by Carlie Upchurch displayed at a recent Recreation Club pop-up event. Photo courtesy of Carlie Upchurch

Artwork and photo by Carlie Upchurch.  

“Doing things that no one’s done here before, taking a risk, I think it allows others to dream bigger and take risks,” says Benjamin, painting a picture of a domino effect that seems more within reach than ever. Upchurch likewise appreciates the creation of a new space “for community to gather to create more art, in whatever way that looks like.” 

While Champaign is filled to the brim with bars, taverns, and cafes, and the opportunities that the Rec Club offers hints that we have barely even begun to tap into our unique artistic identity as a community. A new wave of innovation, acceptance and celebration of perspectives challenges us to explore new possibilities of comfort and community. The Recreation Club is serving as a pioneer in this effort, and I think we can all agree that this is a mission worth supporting.

Find out more about the Rec Club on their website, or follow them on Instagram.

Top photo by Carlie Upchurch.

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