Harry Vernon McChesney V grew up on a farm outside Lexington, Ky., went to a good Catholic high school, and had the opportunity to go to college. Most of this classmates went to the University of Kentucky and became successful lawyers and businessmen. “Very few of them strayed on that left-hand path,” he says. But he did. 

First, he lasted just a semester at Lexington Community College, mostly because he was bored by it. He’d already read Lord of the Rings in eighth grade. The art teacher was one he already had in sixth grade. And he had no interest in the remedial classes he was assigned to because of his poor test scores. “I didn’t want to be told what to do anymore,” he says.

He started skipping classes, hanging out at the railroad tracks with graffiti artists and others. Here’s what he learned from one guy named Vagabond John: “Don’t hop freight trains unless you’ve just killed someone and need to get to Mexico by tomorrow.”

So Mac — that’s what everyone calls him — never hopped a train. Instead, after Hurricane Katrina he grabbed a chainsaw, got in a pickup truck, and drove to New Orleans to help with clean-up. He’s been here on and off since.

Later spraying graffiti turned into inking tattoos. On this Tuesday, he’s taking a cigarette break outside the Sailor’s Cross Tattoo and Gallery a few blocks from Tulane University.

Mac, 35, apprenticed with an expert tattoo artist for a year and now has had three apprentices himself. Learning through doing makes much more sense to him. Like with any craft, a new artist is going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. Having someone over your shoulder to guide you makes an enormous difference.

The most common tattoo he does in New Orleans? The fleur de lis. Probably as many as one a week. He likes it though because it’s easier to add an individual flourish to that than make yet another exact replica of a sports team’s logo.

What advice would he give to a young tattoo artist? “It’s an easy way to make a hard living.”

The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.