Art of Skin & Bones
“Each of us is strong where the other is weak.”
“That’s a good way to put it,” says Tami Jo Urban, echoing her best friend and business partner, chiropractor Stacy Corrado’s astute assessment of what makes their enviable relationship work.
Listening to Corrado and Urban interact is like listening to twin sisters. Their conversation is seamless, voices weaving together to start and complete each others’ sentences and laugh at the same moments—often with a similar cadence. I have to ask them to identify themselves before they speak for the first half of our telephone interview, until I can learn to tell them apart.
The two met five years ago at a birthday party for a mutual friend. “We had a lot of things in common,” Corrado says. “So we just started hanging out more and more and then we pretty much became inseparable.” Inseparable enough to run with Urban’s wild idea that she quit her job as creative director for JGA, a leading retail design and branding firm, and move into Corrado’s chiropractic office (just 30 miles away, in Mt. Clemens, Mich.) to paint, draw, photograph—and ink tattoos.
“Urban was a creative director by 30,” says Corrado, the admiration in her voice meant for Urban’s ears as much as mine, “but she was miserable in her corporate job. She really needed to have the ability to express herself artistically, so she hatched a plan to be in the office with me.”
In 2007, the pair remodeled what was then Main Street Chiropractic, transforming it into a chiropractic office slash art gallery and tattoo studio. The new look was, as Urban puts it, “bohemian,” with distinctly non-clinical paint colors and art strung unstuffily from the walls (they even staged a gallery opening once the renovation was complete; works included a series Urban had created profiling Corrado’s chiropractic career). As far as patients rebelling at the prospect of their chiropractor’s office becoming part gallery and ink parlor: “We lost no one,” Corrado affirms. “Everyone was on board and supportive.” And so, by 2008, they had become Art of Skin & Bones.
“I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version,” Urban says, when I ask about her life as an artist. “You couldn’t pry a pencil out of my hand. It’s how I fell into the world.” From pencils to paintbrushes to needles to computers to cameras—it turns out there are very few tools you can pry out of Urban’s artistic grip.
At just 18, she walked into a tattoo shop with a friend. When she picked up a pencil and started drawing the design she wanted, the tattoo artists were impressed. “They were like, ‘Cha ching! You can draw—want to learn to do tattoos? I didn’t know how any of it worked, but I thought, ‘Hey, this is kinda cool.’” But after just eight days under the shop’s tutelage, Urban walked out. “In terms of their custom drawings,” she says, “they were just lesser quality.”
Still, she had been there long enough to pique the interest of a visiting artist, Mel “The Head” McElhiney, who offered to take her on as his apprentice. “It was like Karate Kid,” Urban says, “He taught me how to make my own needles, my own tubes, inks, everything. I was his last apprentice before he died in 2002.”
Though she went on to get her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in drawing and painting and her Master’s of Fine Arts in biomedical illustration, and to work in everything from art instruction to gallery installation to technical, graphic and web design, “Tattooing has been all through it,” she says. (A tour through the works in her online gallery—impishly entitled “Tamityville”—reveals paintings, graphics, even photographs that echo the bold colors and sharp, sure lines of ink and needle.) “In the beginning, it was something offered to me. To this day, it is still my favorite thing to do.”
Corrado came to chiropractic partly through providence, and partly thanks to an undying thirst for change—a quality she and Urban share in spades. A native Michigander, Corrado moved to Atlanta with her then-husband and young son in 1991, so her husband could attend chiropractic college at Life University. As her website (which Urban designed, of course) puts it: “Since she could never be accused of being an underachiever, while there she had her son Austin and went ahead and graduated from Life University in 1997 with her Doctor of Chiropractic.” While her obvious drive certainly had a thing or two to do with it, earning her DC—and furthering her education by studying nutritional therapy, Applied Kinesiology (since 2000) and working toward her diplomate in Clinical Neurology—all started with a speech. “I went to a lecture by Dr. Peet [Jennifer Brandon Peet, leading pediatric chiropractor and author] and was fascinated and decided to go to school as well. I had not previously attended any college, so I did my entire undergrad down at Life too.”
After graduating, Corrado went home to Michigan and a year-long associate position at Skarbo Chiropractic in Port Huron (where she still returns to practice six days a month). Ten years later, she found herself teaming up with a rogue artist to offer art, adjustments, and a truly inspired brand of wellness care under one roof. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The office speaks for itself—literally. Clusters of art call from nearly every wall—including a large installation entitled “26 Things,” an office-wide collaboration that evolved from one of Corrado’s sons’ high school photography assignments. Framed paintings and drawings of flowers, portraits, body parts and other lovingly rendered miscellany serve not only to create an aesthetic space (and earn Urban some enthusiastic collectors), but also to educate.
Says Urban, “One picture is of two gloved hands holding a dog’s kidney. We had to do an animal necropsy as part of a medical illustration lab at the University of Michigan. This photo was taken and we worked from it. We had to really make the flat picture show the texture and sheen of the organ,” she explains. “Kids love it,” Corrado adds. “They’ll go right to it and ask ‘What’s this?’ So I’ll talk about kidneys and what they do for the body and how it’s important to drink water.” (“I did not know that,” Tami interrupts. “Groovy!”)
As I listen to them fill in each other’s blanks, I wonder if their relationship is always this fluid and innate—especially when you throw in the pressures of running a business together. “There’s always friction with any partnership,” Corrado replies. “In the office, we have our roles pretty well defined. I do the banking and the business side of it—she can’t stand that kind of thing. She’s better at mediating personal conflicts; she tends to be more reasonable and practical.” They’ve also got their golden rule: “Honesty,” Corrado says, “and not letting anything fester. Don’t keep secrets. With a true friend, you can say it; you can work it out. Say it at the time, say it when it’s fresh. When you tell yourself it’s not a big deal and you ignore it, that’s when the hairs in the sink start to become huge monsters.”
These days, though Urban is no longer a regular fixture in the office (she moved to Miami in June 2009, where she continues to make art and tattoo far from those Michigan winters), she remains co-owner of the office on Harper Street. “My brick and mortar is still in Michigan. My gallery’s there.”
“We all talk to her every day through Skype and IM,” Corrado says, referring to the entire Skin & Bones crew, which now encompasses five massage therapists in addition to its itinerant artist when she visits from Miami (usually for an extended sleepover at Corrado’s house during the summer months). “Urban and I are very happy with the way things are. Neither of us is a stagnant person. The office will continue to evolve and change as we get new ideas. We have no problem taking all the art down and doing something else.” And what might that “something else” be? Urban is itching for a new installation. “I want to replace all the art there—sell it, burn it, whatever. I want new stuff going in.” From there, who knows?
One thing is certain: No matter where the next idea takes them, they’ll get there together, still best friends, close as the closest of sisters. Their matching tattoos (Urban’s creations—a blue and orange beta fish chief among them), serve as constant reminders of a connection that is inseparable—like ink on skin; like skin and bone.