Travis Crossley fondly recalls the creative, early-teens version of himself. Back then, he was a kid with a specific passion and dream.
“Yes, I was into tattoos, how they are designed, from a young age,” he recalls. “When I was about 14 years old, I even built a pen to draw tattoos using a remote control car motor and a bent spoon.”
Crossley also recalls with disgust and disbelief the person that young teenager soon became, someone those who know him today would never recognize. Crossley himself certainly doesn’t.
Growing up amid financial challenges, he began to lose hope and his way. Criminal behavior, specifically theft and robbery, took over. Years of run-ins with law enforcement followed.
“I grew up poor and started feeling like life didn’t matter and that nobody was going to help me out of my situation, so I started making bad choices,” Crossley says. “The stealing began, including sticking people up, when I was still 14. I turned 18 years old in a prison cell. Now, it’s just so hard to think about what kind of person I was then.”
Being arrested following a 2010 crime spree finally convinced Crossley, then 22, that it was imperative for him to change his life – before it was too late.
According to media reports at the time, Crossley used weapons to rob a gas station in Midland on September 8 and a 7-Eleven store in Auburn on September 9, as two accomplices waited in a getaway car. They attempted another robbery near Detroit later that same day, but fled after a store clerk began shooting at Crossley.
The trio were soon arrested and Crossley was unable to make bail. After being sentenced, he didn’t experience freedom again until the summer of 2017.
“I finally realized the only way out of the mess I created was to take responsibility right then for what I had done, pay my debt and still be young enough to make something of myself once I was released,” Crossley shares. “At that point, I could still turn my life around.”
To say Crossley has turned his life around seems like an understatement, considering all he has accomplished in the six years since finally closing the book on that nightmare chapter and resurrecting some of those dormant dreams of his youth.
Today, he owns and operates the wildly successful Millennial Ink tattoo and body-piercing shop in Grand Blanc. Crossley is now practicing his art with state-of-the-art, not makeshift, equipment.
“I’ve always liked being a black & gray tattoo artist because I feel the designs come out looking really nice and they heal well,” he says. “I tend to design darker stuff that probably fits my personality best, but I’m always down to create any design someone wants, no matter what the subject is.”
He also takes pride in promoting the Flint area as an ink mecca, noting that it has the most tattoo shops per capita in the nation. In 2020, tat2x.com ranked Flint fourth on its list of America’s Top 10 tattoo-friendly cities.
Crossley and wife Amber, whom he met soon after his release from incarceration, seized on that momentum in 2021 by founding Flint’s annual Tattoo City Convention, assisted by the Explore Flint & Genesee organization.
“The convention was born out of a desire to help all tattoo artists in my community by raising awareness about how strong a tattoo area Flint is and to break any stigmas about who should or should not get a tattoo,” Crossley says. “People can experience the work of incredible artists up close and see that getting their favorite design done is usually doable and affordable.”
This year’s event in August drew hundreds of artists and thousands of attendees to Dort Financial Center. Among those performing their craft were Flint-based Kyle Dunbar along with Big Creeze, both of whom have appeared on the reality TV competition series, “Ink Master.” Dunbar also serves customers at Millennial Ink when he’s not traveling to events around the nation.
Sporting an anchor tattoo on his right cheekbone representing how grounded his life has become, Crossley also finds time to help parolees assimilate back into society. To date, more than 50 have benefitted from his assistance.
“I know as well as anyone how difficult it can be because there is no real guidebook for it,” Crossley explains. “I dealt with post-traumatic stress and depression and counseling didn’t help because it seemed they all just wanted to medicate me. People trying to adjust to life after prison need help with overcoming challenges as they make an effort to better themselves.”
Perhaps most satisfying for Crossley, however, are the times when he can combine his love of all things tattooing and his passion for helping former inmates become productive members of society. He works with parole officers and others to offer employment and guidance to parolees who share his passion for tattoo artistry, are eager for the same second chance afforded Crossley, and determined to become the best versions of themselves.
Crossley first entertained the idea not long after opening Millennial Ink with then-business partner Kevin Crampton in October of 2018, just 15 months after his release. He is diligent about employing only those who truly intend to put the negative aspects of their past permanently behind them.
“I was a little reluctant at first because, through my experience, I have seen people get out of prison who don’t care to do better, so their actions need to show they are serious about wanting to better their lives,” he says. “I’ve helped them beyond offering a job and getting tattoo equipment with things like getting a car, a place to live and managing finances.”
Among those thankful for Crossley’s willingness to offer second chances is Chris “CJ” Sherman, who joined Millennial Ink just over two years ago. At age 17, he was arrested for first-degree home invasion, felony possession of a firearm and larceny, and served five years in prison.
Upon his release, Sherman honed his craft at his uncle’s tattoo shop in North Carolina. They also traveled to tattoo conventions around the country. In 2020, Sherman returned to his native Flint and later connected with Crossley through Megan Rose, Millennial Ink’s renowned body-piercing specialist and a childhood friend of Sherman’s wife.
“Meg was saying so many great things about Travis and how Millennial Ink is such a great place to work and I was really impressed after meeting with him and Amber,” Sherman says. “Amazingly, a position opened up for me about a week later. I’m just so grateful to be where I’m at today after clearly making some bad choices earlier in life.”
Sherman is indeed all about positivity. The energy in his voice reflects that as does his brightly colored, Pokemon-themed workstation.
“I really like doing the bright colors on people, doing the contours, and really get a glint in my eye when doing my thing with Pokemon characters,” Sherman says. “I also really developed my black & gray skills with what I describe as freehand designs, fitting to the body. It’s also very cool running into people I’ve done tattoos for and hearing how thankful they are for my work.”
Another way Millennial Ink offers a fresh start is by covering up old tattoos affiliated with gangs or hate groups.
In addition to Sherman, Chris “Creep” Upshaw and Kory Gross are also thriving at Millennial Ink after spending time behind bars. Other than Crossley and Rose, the staff also includes Kam Wallace and Amber Crossley – she also runs a separate men’s grooming business in the same building.
“CJ, Chris and Kory are just three of the eight total former inmates I’ve offered jobs to, and it’s worked out very well in every case,” Crossley says. “I’m very proud of that 100% success rate. Of the other guys, two now own their tattoo shops, one is successful in another line of work and another is an amazing stay-at-home father.”
Overall, most of the 233 Google reviews (as of mid-October) of Millennial Ink are glowingly positive, averaging a 4.7 out of five stars.
“Love this place and wouldn’t go anywhere else for tattoos,” a review from earlier this year read. “Kory’s best for black and gray and Meg is also amazing with flowers and line work along with Travis, who’s great at pretty much everything. Everyone who works here does amazing work, and CJ and Kam are the ones to go to for bright colors.”
This review specifically cited Upshaw:
“Chris Upshaw is the guy to go to for one-of-a-kind tattoos as well as professionalism, expertise, experience and flexibility, whether you’re getting a tattoo or just wanting to get information about getting one,” it read. “I’d even send my grandmother to him.”
“People trying to adjust to life after prison need help with overcoming challenges as they make an effort to better themselves.”
As for the future, Crossley’s plate is chock-full.
The first Tattoo City Convention outside of Flint is coming to Lansing Convention Center in April while the fourth annual Flint convention is slated for August. Crossley’s long-term vision is forming a Habitat for Humanity-type charity with Tattoo City proceeds helping renovate and sell abandoned homes via land contracts.
Crossley will continue providing his services remotely from a customized RV and is launching Dotwork, a business management software designed for tattoo studios. He also plans to meet with Michigan Department of Corrections officials regarding working with recent parolees in a more official capacity.
All the while, his former life continues to fade far into the past.