First responder-run, themed tattoo shop to become TV show
Customers who come into the shop might actually end up with a tattoo artist who is still an active first responder
HOUSTON — Six years ago, Bryan Klevens, a sergeant with the Houston Police Department, decided to indulge his dream of opening a tattoo studio geared toward first responders. Today, that dream is a reality — and will also be reality TV.
Prison Break Tattoos, located at 5306 Washington Ave., is the subject of A&E Network’s “Hero Ink,” a 12-episode series debuting 9 p.m. Thursday chronicling the lives of those who work at or patronize the shop. Each half-hour show focuses on firefighters, police, EMS professionals or members of the military who come to Prison Break looking for a design that means something special to them.
“It’s a safe haven for first responders to feel comfortable getting tattoos by other first responders who can relate to their stories,” said Klevens, better known as B.K. Klev, an active-duty sergeant. “When I opened the studio — I had been getting tattoos for years and working undercover and different assignments — I never quite felt comfortable as an officer… in some of the studios I went to.
“I felt when I started this place, if I could make it to where I felt comfortable, then other first responders from across the country would probably feel comfortable, as well.”
That comfort starts at the front door of the 1,800-square-foot storefront, as visitors are greeted by jail bars that lead into a space resembling a cell, except the walls are decorated with law-enforcement paraphernalia — photos, caps, patches, banners — from jurisdictions all across the country, from New York to Washington state. The shop has gotten first-responder visitors from Israel to Australia, Klev said.
While many reality shows have covered tattoo studios — they’ve ranged from “Inked” to “America’s Worst Tattoos” and “Tattoo Nightmares” — Prison Break’s angle was different enough to attract producers’ attention.
“I’ve been approached by five different production companies … Most of them wanted some sort of drama. They wanted ‘Real Housewives’ type stuff. And I turned them down. I wanted to tell the stories of first responders and the stories behind their tattoos,” Klev said.
Then he got a call from Matador Content, the L.A. and New York-based production company known for such non-scripted shows as AMC’s “Geeking Out,” Viceland’s “What Would Diplo Do?” and A&E’s own “Epic Ink.”
“The guy on the other end said he was sitting in the offices of A&E about to have a weekly meeting when he saw a police officer with tattoos on TV,” Klev said.
Intrigued by the concept of law-enforcement tats, the producer hit Google and came across a 2016 Texas Monthly article about Prison Break. “It just went from there,” Klev said.
Klev is committed to remaining a sergeant — all of his artists, including those on staff who aren’t on the show and those brought in to guest on the series, have some connection to the world of first responders. He plans to juggle police work and the demands of TV as long as he can.
“Chief (Art) Acevedo asks me all the time, ‘When are you leaving?’” he said with a laugh.
Straddling two worlds
In fact, customers might actually end up with a tattoo artist who is still an active first responder — such as 29-year-old Houston firefighter Robbie Carson. When he’s working the hook and ladder instead of the needle and ink, he can be found at fire station No. 27 on the east side of town.
“I don’t sleep,” he said with a laugh by phone about his busy schedule. “I have such a passion for helping people and being there for someone on their worst day, which is my firefighting job. Ninety percent of my job is not that serious, as far as firefighting goes. … Then you have that 10 percent that’s super intense, and that’s what I love about it. … When I’m not at the fire station, the following day I’m tattooing, and I’m completely involved in the artistic world.”
But his worlds merge when he starts chatting with his tattoo clients.
“Working at Prison Break is like working at a fire station,” he said. “I’m always joking around with the first responders who come in. I was also prior active-duty Marine Corps, and a lot of the first responders were prior military … and we just banter, and it’s hilarious. It’s like tattooing at the fire station. It’s really awesome and unlike any of the other studios I’ve worked at. You have that camaraderie, that sense of family.”
The convergence of interests can happen the other way, too. “I transported one person to the hospital that I’d tattooed a couple of years prior,” he recalled.
Carson — originally from San Antonio, though he has lived in the Houston area since age 11 — long has had an interest in both art and the military. He had an apprenticeship at a tattoo studio after going to Dayton High School and then joined the Marines, where he would tattoo in his spare time.
His firefighter buddies like to joke about his potential TV fame. “They’re starting to call me a celebrity in the department,” he said. “Say we’re responding to a car accident, all the other firefighters that show up are like, ‘Oh, you’re the TV guy.’ I can’t go anywhere without someone knowing who I am.”
Of course, the general public may start recognizing him now, too. There are two watch parties for the first episode Thursday night at Standard Bar, next door to Prison Break, and sports bar 360 Midtown.
“I’m ready for anything,” Carson said. “Obviously, I don’t know the future, but I’m going to stay true to who I am and continue to do my job as a civil servant for my city, which I love dearly.”
Texas has been a favorite spot for reality and non-fiction TV producers to set up shop over the years. Houston has been home to CNBC’s “Billion Dollar Buyer” (starring Tilman Fertitta), TLC’s “The Little Couple,” “Animal Cops: Houston” and a short-lived iteration of Bravo’s “Married to Medicine.”
San Antonio is the setting for “Texicanas,” currently airing on Bravo while D-FW can claim another Bravo series, “The Real Housewives of Dallas,” as well as CMT’s “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team” and Discovery’s top-rated, car-themed “Fast N’ Loud.”
West Texas has gotten in on the action with CNBC’s “The West Texas Investors Club” (featuring Mike “Rooster” McConaughey, Matthew’s brother) while East Texas had Fox’s “Anchorwoman,” in which a former Miss New York with no journalism experience was parachuted into a Tyler TV station as an anchor/reporter.
Central Texas can claim the distinction of being the only Lone Star State region to ever host MTV’s groundbreaking “The Real World” though it’s also the place that brought us A&E’s “American Hoggers,” about a family that removes feral pigs.
©2019 the Houston Chronicle