cover photo credit: Stuart Matthews

Fans of VH1’s Black Ink Crew: Chicago may notice that the show is returning a little earlier in the year than previous seasons. That’s due to the success of the reality series, holding down the top spot on the cable network. Last we left our favorite Chicagoans, relationships were fractured and a shop dismantled. But for Van Johnson, when the cameras cut, the work picked up. Part owner of the Cold As Ice tattoo shop, located in the same building as 9Mag, the past few months that have yet to be televised served as a growth period personally and professionally.

During filming of the season that kicked off yesterday (Jan. 2), Van sat down with The Source, spoke on his path to becoming one of the most popular tattoo artists in the country, giving back to those who helped him, and looking forward to helping those who are impacted by the prison system. There is also a brief hint that things have healed between him and Ryan Henry as well.

photo credit: Stuart Matthews

The Source: What sparked the name of Cold As Ice Tattoos, the movement behind it and association with everything that you’re doing is as a businessman?
Van Johnson: My friend and business partner now taught me how to do tattoos 10 years ago, 10 years. So he came up with the name because it was just dope. When I was older, everything that looked cold, was nice. That was our definition, it looked cold. So the tattoos that he thought that he was doing back in the day, it was always cold. So he’s like I’m going to call it Cold As Ice.  I never really disagreed with the brand being that name. Years later of course we partnered and we had another space in the building we just kept the name. Just by me having that back then shows loyalty to my friend and that gave me a platform to do something different with my life.

So you hit your 10th year of tattooing, what created the spark of wanting to go that route?
I was always an artist. It was just, I was a kid, man. I was always into just art, drawing and draw for girls in school. Then that transcended out to being a fashion guy, but that’s still art and I was always putting clothes together. Just being inspired just by the art period. Then I met D and I had designed, painted a pair of Nikes and Adidas. It was dope, man. And he was like, “man, you know what bro? This is not my style.” He’s like a little more of like an all white air force guy. “But if you can do something like this on a pair of sneakers, man, I can only imagine what you could do on some skin with a needle and ink.” I was immediately drawn to it and I said, man, you know what, I want to try that because I was already getting tattoos and I wanted more and I was infatuated about the lifestyle. Tattoos brought a lot of money in. But I never really cared about the money aspect of it. I always cared about the passion for the art and took a liking to it. He put me on some books and I read about it. I took like a small apprenticeship with them and he taught me everything I needed to know.

For you, that proved to be big because ultimately, tattooing provided a second chance for you. How did it serve as another option to have a career? 
I came up in Auburn Gresham neighborhood, man, Englewood, 79th street, went to Calumet High School. So I’ve always been in rough areas growing up and just seeing so much coming up, man. Seeing the dope fiends on the street man and the less fortunate and the homeless. Always outside cold in the winter time. I walk past these guys and give a quarter if I had it, I’m like, I just never wanted to go down that route, man. To be what they call a bum, you know. I really wanted to do something with my life. So as, as I progressed in life, I’ve always had setbacks. I went to jail right when I was in college, messed up the opportunities of being in college. Got out of jail, still was doing stupid stuff, man, because I couldn’t get no nine to five. I really wanted to have to pay to – I have a daughter who’s 17 now, but back then you know, she was about, I say about eight, nine years old. I still wanted to be able to provide. I remember being like a booster almost. But I was still in and I was doing it for my family. I was doing it to provide and trying to look good, being a father, you know, just doing whatever I could for my daughter. And I’m like, man, I just can’t live like this forever. I cannot provide this way. This has to be in the way for me to provide. Tattooing was my outlet.

With your new shop, you are providing an opportunity for other people too. What sparked for you to be able to bring that partnership you were doing to make it benefit other people who may need that second chance that you got?
Well, the thing was D needed a second chance. He had a business on 79th and Bennett, over east and you know, the inspectors were coming out checking on him and he’s like, man, it’s just coming to a point that I don’t know if I’m really wanting to do this no more. I’m like, bro, you taught me, you been tattooing for x amount of years, man. Like you have to keep that up. You know what I’m saying? You can’t go back, bro. Life is about progression and moving forward. So we got to do something about this. And I had already been with 9Mag, you know what I’m saying? On the television show, Black Ink Crew: Chicago and after things kind of went left, not with me and D, but the business I still wanted to be able to provide and be a tattoo artist.

So me and Ryan sat down and collaborated on some things to where it is now. I wanted to give D a second chance and in my mind what I can do with the fame and the fortune, but just more so the fame because a lot of people follow us and I know I’ve created a lot of traffic. So I said, you know what, I’m going to be able to talk to the management in this building and maybe you can do something. We can open up a tattoo parlor. And it was just strictly for me and him, you know. But we knew that to cover the rent we will want essentially to have a full staff. And that was always our dream. And just to have our own tattoo shop where people working for us and essentially working with us. I got guys in my shop that spent some time in the penitentiary, have guys in my shop that went through some bad times and currently looking for a place to stay. I wanted to make that a home and be able to be a family. I’m all about family and love and loyalty. Me and D created that space just to give back and move as a unit with great talented artists because as black people we were really not given that many opportunities, man.

So with the opportunity there, what has the artist’s response been since they walked through that door and been able to put that foot down for themselves? 
They are appreciative, man. That’s the type of people that I really want to work with, people that are not only appreciative but just people that, that respect what I do for them. They understand we can grow as a team. I’m just at a different level of mentality in my life as a man just to know if we can work together, we can go much further in life, period.

Being both on the show and in the same building, how will the bond be between both shops? 
Being in the same building would honestly, now, I mean I don’t think it has ever been a problem. We now want to see everybody grow and we want to see all the respect for each individual artist. The family has clientele on his own. I have clientele that stems from 10 years ago and way more from other countries. You’ve got guys flying in from Ukraine and Africa, which is crazy. The amount of traffic that the show was created for us made it really no issue. It has never ever been a conflict of interest between like Ryan having a shop in the building. It was a more of friendly competition if anything.

You have your own experience with prison, getting out and do something different for yourself and helping other people do the same. A part of the current climate of our culture is focused on reforming the issues that are associated with prison. Do you find a responsibility of your star power to attack that as well? 
I have some things coming up in early 2019. I’m actually going to go to the prison systems myself with the camera crew and we’re going to do interviews with inmates.  It’s actually artists, real, real true artists in there. A lot of inmates have a great amount of talent. I’ve seen guys sit there and draw people without even looking at a picture. Like just drawing a portrait is extremely hard and I know guys that can sit there just draw you looking at the flesh, not even in the portrait. So we want to really go in and figure out what can we do to help the talent that comes out at the prison system.

What does it mean to be able to do it for the city?
You know what? I want to leave a legacy behind. I want to be a mogul and for me to personally be able to do that instead of buying the jewelry and the clothes and all the other bullshit. I want to be able to create generational revenue to help families, to help myself. I can actually be of some assistance to help create another way besides the killings and all the bullshit that happens within our own culture. That’s what I want to do.