There’s something joyfully rebellious about a 105-year-old, iconic Southern food brand becoming the altar at which heavily tattooed chefs worship.
“Richmond is the #3 most tattooed city in the country and in the Duke’s core audience, which is really focused on the South/Southeast, it’s the #1 most tattooed city,” says Duke’s marketing manager Rebecca Lupesco.
Sure, your granny may use Duke’s religiously in her chicken salad, but the bad-ass, James Beard-winning chef down the street is also devoted to the yellow-topped jar. “I think we can liven up the brand a bit, we can reconstruct what the South means now,” says Cobra Burger co-owner Joshua Franklin.
Restaurant folks are a prime audience for permanent inking, to be sure. “It doesn’t take much for me to get something tattooed,” admits Franklin. But there’s something special about Duke’s.
“I actually grew up on Hellman’s,” he says. “I don’t remember the exact moment of having Duke’s for the first time but I certainly remembered preferring it—I unabashedly put mayo on everything.”
At Cobra Burger, you’ll find Duke’s listed by name on the menu, alongside patties, bacon, “chz” and ketchup. Franklin is currently sporting two mayo-spired tats, both created by artists from local tattoo shop, Yellow Bird.
This Friday May 13, Yellow Bird and Duke’s are teaming up for a free, flash tat pop-up. The event is already sold out—even the waitlist is full. Lupesco says the idea to meld Richmond’s love of tats with the city’s love of Duke’s just made sense, though she didn’t realize how popular the idea would be. “Seventy appointments filled up in less than an hour-and-a-half,” says Lupesco. “I think Yellow Bird got over 1,000 emails requesting appointments.”
The serendipitous collaboration between Yellow Bird and Duke’s began when Franklin and the Cobra crew went out en masse after a Duke’s promo video to get their love of the twangy mayo forever inked on their bodies. “They’re solid in Americana, classic Texan-style which all of us are pretty fond of,” says Franklin.
Lupesco says that while brainstorming tattoo-centric collabs, Duke’s considered hosting an event that was more in line with the traditional Friday the 13th holiday, wherein shops around the city would offer $13 Duke’s-themed flash tats.
“With the pandemic the idea of lines wrapping around tattoo shops just doesn’t exist anymore,” says Lupesco. “The idea shifted to more of a pop-up/takeover of a shop where we’d have a flash sheet of mayo-themed, Duke’s-inspired tats.”
Yellow Bird was a natural fit, says Lupesco. “They were excited about it and understood the spirit of what this was and could handle it logistically.”
Yellow Bird Tattoo owner Joseph Fessman is a pro when it comes to Friday the 13th events, which he’s held at his own shop and participated in at other shops for more than a decade.
And while he appreciates what the event can do for a business—"Friday the 13 events can be critical to get through the next month or sometimes two months during the slow season”—he also believes that the beloved holiday has flaws, too.
“People are getting dinky, stupid tattoos in places where you could put a beautiful tattoo,” says Hessman. “When I opened my own shop I made it part of my business plan—it was non-negotiable—everyone must be coached in where these can tattoos can go. Small tats go in small places. It’s important for me to have a moral code for Friday the 13. I don’t believe in a bad tattoo on someone especially when we’re sacrificing money to do it—it’s still on them for life.”
That means don’t expect any half-baked Hellman’s quality tats from the Yellow Bird artists this Friday. The sheet of Duke’s flash tats features more elaborate, carefully thought-out designs, from a busty “Mayo Queen” to a delicate hand wrapped in a vine of tomatoes, holding a knife slathered in Duke’s.
- Duke’s digital marketing manager Sarah DiPeppe sports this ink.
“We are very skilled at these events,” says Fessman, who recently held a flash event that raised enough money in one day to cover two crew members’ outstanding medical bills. Fessman and his artists are more than ready for the Duke’s pop-up, which will run from noon to 8 p.m. at the shop.
“We will be implementing the latest version of our strategy,” says Fessman, whose goal is to always forge a connection between tattoo artist and the person receiving their new ink.
“We’ve found it’s easier to schedule blocks of time, with one hour allotted per tattoo. We assign people that block and they come in waves every hour, so for instance we’d have seven appointments come in at noon, seven at 1 p.m., etc.”
For Fessman, the festive spirit of Friday the 13th tattoos is important, sure, but even more important is the quality of artwork his crew is taking time to create for each individual. “Every tattoo is going to be good.”
Fessman says that when the Duke’s team first approached him, he was slightly skeptical. Not because he doesn’t like the brand, but simply because in the tattooing world, “we naturally like to keep to ourselves, what we do is secret and special.” But Lupesco and Duke’s digital marketing manager Sarah DiPeppe (who rocks a Duke’s flower jar tat), won him over.
“It’s been a wonderful experience, I’m really looking forward to it,” he says. As are the folks lucky enough to be on the list for this Friday’s event. And if you didn’t make the cut? “I think if this is something that interests people, it would be awesome to do this again with another shop with a different aesthetic,” says Lupesco.