Growing up in Back of the Yards, there was one thing Quori Senyon could always count on: Disney movies. Senyon was raised by his grandmother, who couldn't afford trips to the movie theater but always found a way to buy the VHS copies for her grandson.
But he didn't just watch the tapes—Senyon drew the characters he saw onscreen. Beautiful Belles and pretty Pocahontases came to life on any scrap of paper he could find. Today, the 32-year-old South Loop resident is a tattoo artist at Royal Flesh Tattoo and Piercing in Buena Park—he still draws characters, but these days they're more permanent fixtures.
"I loved Walt Disney as a kid," Senyon said. "That was one of the things that was there to keep me out of everything that was bad. My grandmother never told me [my neighborhood] was bad … but I knew it was bad."
Years before he began tattooing, Senyon fantasized about becoming an animator. After one year at Tilden Career Community Academy High School, his family moved to Indiana so he could attend Hammond High School. That's where he met Karen Baumann, an art teacher-turned-mentor who introduced him to pastels, colored pencils and thick, rich paper.
"That was the first time I saw the books of how the movies I watched as a kid were made," Senyon said. "When I saw that, I thought, 'This is what I want to do forever.' " He started working on his own animated concept, "Aloha," and pored over books on Hawaiian culture, drawing out the characters, scenes and plot in incredible detail.
Senyon's dreams were interrupted when he dropped out of high school after three years to help support his grandmother. But he kept up his craft, going door to door with an art portfolio and asking families if they wanted to commission hand-drawn portraits. He later found his way to the International Academy of Design and Technology after finishing high school at Lincoln's Challenge Academy on the Near South Side.
He was still working on "Aloha" in 2002 when he got a job at a small biker-style tattoo shop in Indiana, where he was hired after owners Bobby and Mari Gonzales saw his artwork. He cleaned the shop, traced art for the tattoo artists and, slowly but surely, learned to create his own designs and hold a tattoo machine. He discovered what the vibrations meant when he hit the foot pedal, learning when to speed up or slow down. Eventually, he recruited friend Tony Ramirez as his first tattoo "dummy."
"I put this big Puerto Rican flag on his leg and I messed it up," said Senyon, laughing. "I kind of fixed it. It was so intense, because I never drew on someone's skin before."
The release of Disney's "Lilo and Stitch" in 2002 marked a shift in Senyon's life—his dreams of making "Aloha" suddenly turned sour. "After that, every time someone saw my stuff, they would ask if it was 'Lilo and Stitch,' " Senyon said. "That crushed my little dream of everything I was working for."
Two years later, Senyon's world was rocked by his grandmother's death. "Everything I did, she was proud of. She was gone and didn't know what to do," Senyon said. "I just mentally checked out."
He took the year off, visiting friends in California, Minnesota, Indiana and Illinois, and eventually returning to work out of a small, private studio in the South Suburbs. In 2011, he discovered Royal Flesh and emailed owner Nick Maiella, who hired him the next year.
"This is his life," Maiella said. "When I say he's a role model, I mean that his dedication to this art is infectious."
Customers come to Senyon for his unique style, which he describes as "animation meets West Coast street culture." Rich black-and-gray designs, flowers, religious symbols and low-riders all are part of his repertoire—along with pin-up girls, who still show hints of Disney princesses in their long eyelashes, perfectly pink smiles and beautiful curly hair. Last year alone, he clocked close to 1,500 tattoos.
"Quori had a significant following before he came to me … and now he's the busiest person in this entire shop," Maiella said.
When it comes to his own canvas, Senyon said he's lost track of how many pieces he has, but his favorite is a geisha on his left arm—she's holding a tattoo machine, and the Chicago skyline is etched in the background.
"This tattoo reminds me to never prostitute myself as a tattoo artist, or an artist in general," he said. "This is what I do, this is my art. I want to respect what I do, be humble about what I do and know when to say no. When you chase money, all you're trying to do is entertain and you get blindsided." Senyon says he won't tattoo gang signs, shies away from inking overly indecisive clients and won't do anything that could potentially harm someone's future.
As Senyon moves and points, more tattoos are revealed—the number 13 on his left palm (his birthday and lucky number), palm trees and the phrase "another lesson learned" on his left wrist and a tiny unalome symbol on his finger—each with its own story.
One of the most satisfying parts of Senyon's job is helping his clients tell their own stories—even the ones an outsider could never understand. He once inked a Spam can on a chef named Samantha.
"Spam was her nickname growing up—she always broke things, she was clumsy," he said. "It's ironic because she's a chef and Spam is one of the world's grossest but yummiest foods, depending on where you're at. Never in life again will I probably tattoo a Spam can on someone."
Senyon stays true to his Chicago roots, too. He's gotten countless requests for classic hometown symbols: the Blackhawks logo, the skyline and, of course, the Chicago flag. He even has special colors mixed to mimic its likeness.
One of his tattoos even led to a new life for "Aloha." After inking a librarian who worked for Chicago Public Library, Senyon received a call that the Lincoln-Belmont Library wanted to feature his artwork for a month.
Though his life has played out nothing like a Disney movie, Senyon said he couldn't imagine things any other way. "I want to die doing this," he said, smiling.
This profile is part of a yearlong series about Chicagoans with unique jobs in the arts. Know someone who deserves to be profiled? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Arts jobs" or tweet us @redeyechicago.