University District

21 and counting: Trilogy reflects on two decades on the Highland Strip

For nearly 21 years, Trilogy Tattoos and Piercing has been a sort of rite of passage among Memphis' modified to get pierced or inked.

“I mean, everybody knows Trilogy,” said Mark Svetz, a tattoo artist who joined the Trilogy staff as an apprentice in 2006.

Despite its longevity, it’s also a place of firsts.

Many of the city’s top artists and piercers got their start at Trilogy. Many of its customers are first-timers who look at jewelry in gleaming cases or flip through albums of artists’ work while nervously awaiting their turn.

“We probably do more first-time tattoo clients just because of the proximity to the university. Just the law of averages,” said Svetz.

Located at 530 South Highland Street in the University District, the business has seen its share of challenges — its own and in the University District neighborhoods that surround it — but it’s also seen steady growth.

“For the last 21 years, [we’ve had] an increase in business every year,” said owner Richie Jarvis.

When it launched in June 1998, Trilogy had two piercers and three tattoo artists. It now has eight permanent artists, a rotation of guest artists, three full-time and one part-time piercer and five support staff including Jarvis.

“On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, they’ll be a line to the door,” said Svetz.

Jarvis said the shop’s success has been a combination of top tier staff, a prime location, steady dedication and a little help from a higher source. 

“Any person on this planet would have a hard time convincing me that this shop isn’t divinely inspired,” he said. “You got a guy that owns one of the top three shops in the city according to the Memphis Flyer for 20 years in a row — that doesn’t even know how to draw."
 

"We Trudge"

In his younger days, Jarvis liked things fast. He was a champion runner in high school and college and raced cars in his mid-twenties, but a stint in rehab in early 1995 set him on a different path.

“Basically I made a deal with God that if I stayed sober he’d take care of everything else, whatever that was,” he said. “Three years later, to the month, we opened Trilogy on Highland as it is now.”

Jarvis said Trilogy’s pace has been decidedly more tortoise than hare.

“We trudge. We just walk with a purpose," Jarvis said. "It’s not a bad thing; it’s just a steady walk with purpose. That’s what a trudge is. That’s kind of my mantra; that’s what AA taught me — to have a purpose and just walk towards it. You don’t have to run. It doesn’t have to be a sprint.”

Artist Mark Svetz stands at Trilogy's front counter. Receptionist Lauren Taylor works at the desk behind him. Svetz is one of four artists who have been with Trilogy for 10 or more years. (Cole Bradley)

Location, Location, Location

“I don’t think there’s a shop in the city that’s got a better location than I do just because of that university,” said Jarvis.

When Trilogy opened on the Highland Strip in 1998, it was the beginning of a 15-year slump for the University of Memphis’ closest commercial corridor. By the mid-2000s, the strip was largely vacant and falling in disrepair and had lost its sense of identity.

While most businesses suffered or shuttered, Trilogy grew thanks in large part to its proximity to the school.

“It was the most convenient area, and I’ve heard of it a lot,” said returning customer Kristen Shook on why she chooses Trilogy. “I like it. Everybody’s usually nice here.”

Jarvis said he’s glad for the recent upswing on Highland and adjacent Walker Avenue.

In the last five years, stakeholders have seen new branding, streetscaping, a return of businesses and new construction that has added apartment communities and dozens of shops and restaurants.

“I’m quite pleased with the change I’ve seen so far. It’s just making it look better,” he said. “Do I think they need to do other stuff? Sure. They need to slow it down. They need to make it more pedestrian friendly. Having said that, I’m really, really digging what they’re doing bringing commerce to that area.”
 

The Core

“I’ve got the best group of people that you can have working in this industry,” said Jarvis. “The only job I have is to make sure all the bills are paid and the lights are on. But as far as the talent goes, that’s the staff.”

Customer Cara McLane has two tattoos by Trilogy’s Jessie Miles-Mears and a piercing by former piercer Inger Owens. 

“The people that I’ve chosen to work with at Trilogy have always been very professional and talented,” she said.
Artist Eric Cooley works on an ankle tattoo. (Submitted)Over the years, Trilogy has had turnover in staff and co-owners, but Jarvis said he's happy to see them pursue their passions. His core team is strong, and there’s plenty of space in Memphis for different shops and artists.

“It’s just the cycle, man. It’s just how it is … but you’ve got a core that’s going to stay strong,” he said. “I’ve got several people that’ve been working there 10 to 15 years.”

Among those early artists, Trilogy co-founder and tattoo artist Patrick Rhode took a job at an Alabama steel mill in the shop’s first year. In the mid-2000s, co-owner and piercer Michael Crites left along with several members of the staff to open No Regrets Tattoo Emporium at 1928 Madison Avenue. In 2013, artist Babak Tabatabai left Trilogy to launch Ronin Design and Manufacturing at 2615 Broad Avenue.

“You know about Trilogy because of the people who came out of that shop,” said McLane, noting that a significant portion of Memphis’ top artists worked at Trilogy early in their careers. "The fact that Babak [Tabatabai] worked there for so long before he went out on his own really said a lot to me about Trilogy as an establishment."
 

Building The Brand

Trilogy says its reputation is built on talent and solid customer service.

“The people that come in there and spend money are who we cater to,” said Jarvis. “We don’t care what’s cool and what’s not cool … We’re just trying to make our little dent in the world.”

Svetz said that first-time tattoo clients may need more assurance and patience, and Trilogy has worked to ensure their service is thoughtful and responsive.

Jarvis said their reputation as a trusted tattoo shop built over time, but their reputation for piercings was immediate largely due to the skill of co-owner Crites. Crites also trained other piercers who kept up momentum after his departure.

“Probably half of Memphis got their first piercing from Michael Crites,” quipped receptionist Lauren Taylor.

But even with changes in talent and leadership, Trilogy has continued to strengthen its core and grow its reputation.   

Thrillist named it among the top eight tattoo shops in Memphis. Yelp ranked it fifth, and it’s been in the top three shops in the Memphis Flyer's Best of Memphis awards 20 years in a row. Jarvis said 18 of those have been third place wins.

“It’s appropriate. It’s Trilogy. We’re supposed to be third,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s one, two or three, we’re in the conversation.”

Flash lines the wall at Trilogy Tattoo and Piercing located at 530 South Highland Street in the University District. (Cole Bradley)

The Next (Steady) Steps

Jarvis and Svetz both said they hope Trilogy continues its same success in the years to come, but Jarvis doesn’t plan to lead the charge forever.

“I’m thinking I’m going to stick around for another nine years, and then I’ll sell the business to the employees. That’s my plan,” he said. “When I’m dead and gone, that shop’s still going to be there.”

In the surrounding neighborhood, Trilogy also hopes to see more of the same — more businesses and more traffic calming and secured walking areas for students and patrons to safely navigate.  

Svetz said he's noticed university centers in other cities have more amenities, connectivity and pedestrian traffic.

“I think it’s on the verge of that," he said, citing new food options on the Highland Strip like DWJ, Burgerim and Happy Greek Cafe.

Jarvis says steady and meaningful growth is the path forward for Trilogy and the University District. 

“It doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do or how good you think you are at what you do, you still have to treat people the right way," he said. 

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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