Inkbus customer Michael Soldati and his house fire tattoo

Would you get a tattoo without seeing the design first? This is the leap of faith on which Mark Dugally, the owner of Portland’s Inkbus Tattoo, makes his living. For the past five years, Dugally has inked his elaborate art pieces on people who often don’t see their tattoo until it’s finished.

“It is an exercise in trust,” says Dugally, 43, who sometimes parks his mobile studio at local events, like the Portland Night Market. “I wanted to honor the clients, genuinely create something for them that is personal, artful, unique, and important. But it’s not for everybody.”

Dugally’s surprise “surrealist” tattoos begin with what he calls the “Inner Portrait” process—a self-designed 14-part questionnaire. It quizzes clients about their “favorite” regrets, life-changing musical experiences, guilty pleasures, and the best cry they’ve ever had. From that, he says, you get a more personal tattoo than choosing a design from a studio wall.

Tattoo artist Mark Dugally

“I call it ink therapy. I wanted to create a system that would let me look into the parts of someone’s personality that really mattered. It is never someone just looking for a cool tattoo. It is always someone who is facilitating major change in their life, and it becomes therapeutic,” says Dugally, who estimates he has done about 35 inner portraits—the tattooing equivalent of a trust fall from a very high, pokey ledge. 

This was the case for Michael Soldati, a 32-year-old performance artist who decided to go through Dugally’s process for his very first tattoo. After about 20 hours under the needle over the span of five visits, Dugally finished a depiction of Soldati’s childhood home on fire, with an emerging butterfly and face of a tiger. (The house fire was a real childhood experience.)

“Initially the process scared me,” says Soldati. “I had a lot of ideas for tattoos but was never able to commit.”

For Dugally, Inner Portrait is, as the cliché goes, as much about the process as the outcome. “They have gone through an investigation of themselves,” says Dugally.

“Tears. I often get tears,” he adds. “Always positive, but tears.”

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