AZTEC — Greg Knuppel has lost his share of business spending quality time with his three kids, but he wouldn't have it any other way. To him, profit is always a distant second to people.

To see him today -- 6 feet 2 inches in flip flops with his half-foot-long goatee gone white, large holes through his pierced ear lobes, and tattoos from the top of his head down to his toes -- Knuppel at first glance strikes an imposing figure. But talk to him a while and you might find any snap judgements fading away.

Since 2001, Knuppel, 52, has owned and operated The Pierced Buddha, a tattoo and body piercing studio on North Main Avenue in Aztec, across the street from Minium Park. One of Aztec's longest-running businesses that is currently in operation, the shop is not Knuppel's first stint as a tattoo artist. He started at his mom's former Cedar Hill home.

"They were my guinea pigs -- my mom, my brothers, my sister," Knuppel said. "I tattooed in my mom's dining room. The living room was my the front lobby."

One immediate difference between Knuppel's shop and many tattoo parlors is that it's bright and roomy inside. Hardly a boy's club or den of iniquity, his business looks less like a place to get a nose ring or a dermal anchor and more a museum for world antiquities and fringe art.

"I cater more to the female crowd," Knuppel said. "Most tat shops are like a dark, smoky guy's place. That's not my style. I'm a mellow dude -- a people person."

In 1979, Knuppel enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a machinist's mate. He was in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Fifteen years of service and five tattoos inked in far-flung locales later, he returned to the Four Corners and apprenticed for three years before starting his own shop in 1998.

Knuppel was also certified and became a treatment foster care parent, working with several families of abused or emotionally disturbed kids. And for six months, he cared for a neglected teen boy until his grandparents could adopt him.

Knuppel points to a Buddha tattoo on his left arm that was the inspiration for the name of his tattoo shop on Main Avenue in Aztec.
Knuppel points to a Buddha tattoo on his left arm that was the inspiration for the name of his tattoo shop on Main Avenue in Aztec.

The shop is adorned with face masks from four different cultures, swords, Peruvian machetes, hand-carved chairs from Istanbul, Chinese lanterns, a Jamaican rasta mask, a six-foot-tall Chinese funeral urn -- and a collection of Buddha sculptures in various sizes, of course. Most of the hundreds of objects Knuppel has displayed throughout his shop he purchased while overseas. In one corner is a memorial with an urn containing the ashes of Burt Gill, now deceased, whom Knuppel took a shine to when Betty, Burt's wife, came in one day to get a full-color butterfly tattoo across her back.

"Sometimes people ask and I say my oldest client's over there," he said, pointing to the urn. "Burt was the coolest. He was also in the Navy and wanted tattoos too. I tattooed him, at age 89, taking breaks so he could take his oxygen. He was the coolest guy. I adopted them as my great grandparents."

Knuppel's younger clients might be a bit of a surprise, too.

"I work on a lot of doctors, dentists, teachers -- a lot of professional people," he said. "Sometimes kids come in and soon their parents want one and it's a family thing."

He would rather see happy clients long-term than see them choose something they may regret later.

"A guy wanted his girlfriend's name, Veronica, written in thick black, two-inch Old English font across his chest, and I tried for almost an hour to talk him out of it," Knuppel said. "He insisted. Two weeks later he came back and told me they broke up."

Knuppel won't do drug-related images, nor will he ink anyone's face.

He said his only regret was tattooing his head because it limited his ability to be a teacher.

For more information, call The Pierced Buddha, 304 N. Main Ave., at 505-334-8989.



James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and jfenton@daily-times.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.