For the last decade, Shaun Kama has been directing the ink-slinging troupe at the Buffalo Chip Tattoo Café during the annual Sturgis Rally. Managing a team of artists and handling the pressure of long, stressful days is no problem for Kama, a talented tattoo artist and illustrator who’s been honing his craft for nigh on 30 years. Between a storied career that his earned him repute as “King of Halloween Tattoos” to his tenure as director of the Buffalo Chip Tattoo Cafe, Kama’s seen first-hand the intimate relationship between tattoo and motorcycle cultures.

“Initially, it was more of the rebel or the outsider, introvert, the loner, or the pack kind of individual that were really getting tattooed. Obviously, for a period of time, too, motorcycles have always been associated with rebels or people who want some type of freedom that they can’t find sitting around. The only time they can find freedom is when they’re on a motorcycle cruising down the highway. It’s the best sense of freedom you can find,” said Kama.

Just as motorcyclists were once considered rebels, Kama added that tattoo artists as a whole, especially when he was first starting out, were very “on the outside kind of individuals.”

“So right away you have a kind of kinship, especially back in the day,” he said.

Shaun Kama not only spearheads the team at the Buffalo Chip Tattoo Cafe, he's also one of the featured artists. (Photo courtesy of Sturgis Buffalo Chip) 

Kama noted other parallels between the two sub-cultures.

“The same way people wear patches on their vests, which is part of that culture, you’re kind of showing people, to a minor degree, what you’re all about. The patches are something that’s important to them in some regard, and so you wear them all over yourself proudly. Tattoos are very much the same. Not always, but subjectively they’re the same, an extension of who they are, a small facet of their personality. So you’ve got that tie-in as well.”

Kama added he loves coming to the Sturgis Buffalo Chip because “the culture is amazing and the people are really cool.” Common rally tattoos include buffalo skulls in honor of The Chip, skulls in general, and motorcycle brand logos. The Tattoo Café has become so popular, they opened a second location at The Chip a couple years back. At the main café located inside the campground, Kama said artists tend to do larger pieces and custom work while visitors to the free CrossRoads location often opt for flash. Kama’s crew consists of a cross-section of artists versed in a variety of styles. Kama takes pride that the artists he has selected to work in the café are “ethical and skillful individuals with high standards who are empathetic and listen to their subjects.” While walk-ins are welcome, the Tattoo Café is always slammin’, especially when bands start to hit the main stage, so appointments are highly recommended to ensure a session.

Kama claims his role as Buffalo Chip Tattoo Café Director was part kismet. After hearing how it all came about, we just might have to agree. Forces were first set in motion in 2009 when Sturgis appeared as a blip on his mental radar.

"I got it in my head that I wanted to do something with Sturgis and that demographic because I love that, especially with my parents being in Vietnam and growing up in a military-type family. So I thought wow, this is a really cool vibe, let’s rock & roll, what’s the best place out there? Quick research, Buffalo Chip, easy, hands down. OK great. I look to see what they had in the tattoo prairie. I didn’t even see that they had one. They did, but it wasn’t put together like it is now,” he said.

“I didn’t have any contacts out there so I hit my buddy up. At the time I was still playing music pretty much full-time. We planned a trip for four days to literally just go there and meet the people. So I played a sold-out show at The Tea Club and that dude never showed up the next day. I made the trip to Sturgis alone spending all kinds of money during the rally. I was so angry I didn’t even go the Buffalo Chip because I got so fucked by this guy.”

Despite that first dismal Sturgis experience, a chance meeting brought tattooing in Sturgis back into the fold.

“The following October I’m setting up for a show on a Friday in Las Vegas when a dude with a Buffalo Chip hat walks up. So I look at him and say, “Hey the Buffalo Chip” and I went into the story about my trip, and he’s like, ironically, I’m Greg Smith.”

Turns out, Smith is Woody’s right-hand man, a jack-of-all-trades who’s got his fingers in sponsorships, marketing, and security at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip. Best part is, Smith ambled over to the tattoo convention by chance because he was in Vegas attending a different event. During their chance meeting the two talked about creating a dedicated, highly professional tattoo program at The Chip. The next August, Kama brought 14 artists to Sturgis and the Tattoo Café was born. Kismet.

“The Buffalo Chip Family. Getting into this, I didn’t know the gravity of the situation on a positive level. After spending a decade with them, it’s one of the most profound things that has happened in my life in terms of extended family. It’s something I look forward to doing – traveling, connections, the people I’ve met that have come into my life through the faction that is the Buffalo Chip and become a staple of my existence, the numbers are staggering,” said the King of Halloween Tattoos.

Kama and his talented cast of artists will once again be setting up shop at the Buffalo Chip come August as all indicators point to the campgrounds on the outskirts of Sturgis moving forward with plans for the rally. The Buffalo Chip Tattoo Café will be open from August 7 – 15, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily, and can be found at the 2nd Tier on the Bluff in the back of the main amphitheater. The location at the free access CrossRoads area is open from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. There will be artists versed in just about every style and as mentioned, appointments are recommended. You can do so by reaching out to Kama at [email protected] With everything that’s been going on in the world, one way or another its going to be a historic year at the rally, one that might be worthy of commemorating with ink under skin.