Former ‘Ink Master’ contestant Kyle Dunbar is using his fame to make a difference in the lives of wounded veterans.
Kyle Dunbar might be too real for reality TV. The Flint, Mich., native has never been one to keep quiet when something doesn’t sit well with him. It’s a trait that got him kicked off Spike TV’s tattoo-competition show, “Ink Master,” in 2014, after a near fight with one of the judges.
It’s also a trait that’s earned him a considerable amount of fame, which he’s now using for a good cause — tattooing wounded veterans.
Dunbar, along with fellow “Ink Master” contestants Dave Clarke and Chris Blinston, are using their skills as tattoo artists to make a difference in the lives of wounded veterans as part of Healing Ink — a project created by Clarke and Blinston, both veterans, to provide a form of healing and closure through pro-bono tattoos. They also plan to use their newfound fame to promote charities of the veterans’ choice.
After leaving the show, Dunbar traveled the country for a year with his wife, Candace, before moving to Sarasota. When he got a call from Clarke, asking if he’d be interested in tattooing a local Navy veteran, he didn’t hesitate to get involved.
“From being on the show, I’ve become a sort of celebrity,” he says. “It feels very weird to me, but if I can use that to do something good for someone else — something selfless — I’m absolutely on board.”
Never Give Up
James Duffy is lying on his back on a black leather tattoo chair in Webber Street Studios. The tattoo session is approaching the six-hour mark, but he’s as unflinching as when he first sat down.
Dunbar, seated next to him, is meticulously shading in the details of a tentacle on his left wrist — the start of a Poseidon-themed full-sleeve tattoo they designed together to commemorate Duffy’s Navy service.
Dunbar keeps the mood light, joking with Duffy and his mother, Regina Brooks, who has stopped by to see the progress.
Duffy and Brooks moved to Sarasota two years ago to be closer to the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital’s polytrauma unit in Tampa. Duffy joined the Navy two days after the 9/11 attacks, and he served during the shock-and-awe phase of the Iraq War. After his deployment, Duffy returned with post-traumatic stress disorder and later suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him with severe balance, coordination and communication impairments.
A tattoo enthusiast and a fan of “Ink Master,” Duffy was excited to meet Dave Clarke at a Tampa tattoo convention earlier this year. Duffy, Brooks and Clarke discussed military service, and Clarke told them about Healing Ink. Clarke also has post-traumatic stress disorder, and he says Duffy’s story resonated with him.
“These veterans don’t give up,” he says. “They just keep pushing on, and these tattoos serve as a physical reminder of that — to never give up. This project is just getting started, but big or small, anything I can do to help my brothers and sisters in arms is worth doing.”
Many people use body art as a form of self-expression, but for Duffy, who is largely unable to communicate verbally, the art form has an added significance.
“He’s always loved tattoos,” says Brooks. “He’s never happier than when he’s getting work done. You can just see his face light up. It’s one way he can really express himself.”
A Grateful Gesture
In search of a licensed tattoo shop out of which he could work, Dunbar called Webber Street Studios. When owner Joel Illch learned about the Healing Ink project, he says he was happy to open his doors to Dunbar and Duffy.
“I don’t know Kyle from TV,” he says. “Honestly, that didn’t have anything to do with it. I just believe what he’s doing is admirable. Anybody who’s served our country deserves to be treated correctly. It’s as simple as that.”
On Veterans Day, Dunbar and Duffy met at the shop to design his tattoo together and do some touch-up work on a previous tattoo. Although he’s not a veteran himself, Dunbar says he empathizes with people who have made sacrifices in service of our country, and he’s happy to do whatever he can to express his gratitude.
“Some things you do, not for the money, but to be a better person,” he says. “I love seeing his excitement. I’ve had a bigger smile on my face these last few weeks, even as I’ve been getting ready for this. It just feels right.”