At first glance, the heavy iron bars, warning signs and barbed wire threaten to keep visitors out. But once you’re buzzed past the gates of Prison Break Tattoos, Sergeant Bryan “B.K.” Klevens welcomes you like part of the family.
Klevens, a 23-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, took an abandoned dirt-floor tire shop on Washington Avenue and transformed it into a law enforcement-themed tattoo studio in 2013. Prison Break is open to the public, but the studio draws a distinctive community united by a calling to public service.
Careers in law enforcement, emergency services and the armed forces are more than just a job, Klevens said. They produce corresponding experiences that forge lifelong bonds and leave indelible marks on those who serve. Klevens’ studio offers a welcoming atmosphere to first responders seeking to permanently capture that sentiment with tattoos that are more than skin deep.
“Every tattoo tells a story, and it’s not uncommon for first responders to get inked to show pride in our profession or pay tribute to those who died on the job,” said Klevens, whose arms are inked to the wrist. Among the skulls and other traditional designs, Klevens said his most significant tattoos are his late sister’s name and a Star of David with a thin blue line.
The thin blue line is a symbol that shows support for law enforcement and represents the line between chaos and order, Klevens said. Firefighters use use similar symbolism with a thin red line.
Prison Break has inked numerous HPD officers and HFD firefighters, including the late Capt. William Dowling. The word is out about Prison Break in the law enforcement community, and Klevens said people from all around the country and Canada have visited the studio. Prison Break artists also created memorial tattoos for family members of Dallas and Baton Rouge police shooting victims.
HPD officer Michael Bates works in a special operations unit for crowd control. He and his wife got tattoos at Prison Break with thin blue line symbolism.
“I heard about B.K. through social media, and I immediately knew he was part of the brothers in blue,” Bates said. “I come from a family with a long history of law enforcement and military service, so my badge may be a symbol of my profession, but that thin blue line is a symbol of my family,” he said.
“One time, I was on the front line of an anti-police protest, where about 100 officers stood against 2,000 angry protestors,” Bates said. “That was the very real example of a thin blue line, where a single line of police were the only thing holding back the crowd from escalating.”
Opening a tattoo studio was in part inspired by Klevens’ misgivings and previous personal experiences in tattoo studios.
“With all the recent anti-police sentiment, a lot of first responders don’t always feel comfortable to walk in off the street to just any studio and request something like a St. Michael, the patron saint of law enforcement, unless you know an artist personally,” he said. “The artists here understand the culture; they know the symbolism.”
“As a police officer, I have to operate everything to the letter of the law. You know this place is going to be safe and your artist is going to be vetted personally by an officer of the law. We give people the peace of mind knowing they have a immaculately clean environment, and there is no backroom shady dealings.”
Klevens isn’t shy about promoting his studio. He’s one of the only tattoo proprietors in Houston with television ads. Prison Break has also garnered attention from local, state and national media, including Texas Monthly Magazine, Houstonia Magazine, KHOU Channel 11, the Houston Chronicle and lawofficer.com. The Houston Press named Prison Break on it’s 2016 list of 20 Best Tattoo Parlors in Houston.
Klevens donates a portion of the tattoo profits to organizations like the 100 Club and he gives generously to individuals in uniform.
“Sure, I’m on TV with ads like Mattress Mack, but I’m not just doing this for myself. The more business I do, the more I can give back,” Klevens said. “I love what I’m doing with the city, and I have no immediate plans to retire. I’m very careful to balance my police work and this business so they don’t overlap. They are both very fulfilling and give me a sense of accomplishment.”
HPD Officer Monica Fortson started visiting Prison Break to cover an old tattoo, but she has gone back to the studio for two other original tattoos. Fortson referred her parents and brother to the studio as well.
“Sarge looks rough and tough, but he’s really a teddy bear. He cares so much and does so much for the law enforcement family,” Fortson said of Klevens. “And he doesn’t do it for the recognition. He gives out Police Lives Matter wrist bands, picks up restaurant tabs, and even leaves money anonymously on the vehicles of first responders who are struggling financially.”
Prison Break also taps into Klevens’ creative side. Though he is an artist at heart, Klevens entrusts the actual tattooing to his staff of four full-time, experienced artists. As a graduate of the Houston High School for Performing and Visual Arts, Klevens got an early education about theater and the value of setting the stage. Before changing his major to criminal justice, Klevens studied theater at Texas State University (formerly Southwest Texas State University).
He channels his experience in the arts into the studio’s décor. In addition to the prison bars, the studio is decked out with prison-related murals, law enforcement mannequins, memorabilia, tribute signs, an authentic prison bunk bed and a replica electric chair.
“This entire place is like a movie set; it’s all tongue-in-cheek theater,” Klevens said. “I even built a fake electric chair that gives you a harmless zap. I’ve created a destination that people will remember and still talk about months later. You would be surprised. City employees will come in here with their families in here just to look around. Everyone is welcome. We totally cater to the kids with stickers, thin blue line cookies and temporary tattoos.”