The roar was heard from his shop in Scottsdale.
Not long after sharing another one of his portraits on Instagram, Bubba Irwin’s phone was buzzing right along with the hockey world, which at the time was captivated by the intrigue – and stunning detail – of the massive crowned lion tattoo suddenly decorating the shoulder and arm of Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews.
“It was crazy,” Irwin said. “I immediately got about 500 more followers, and everyone started direct messaging me and stuff.”
It wasn’t until Matthews settled into a chair at Old Town Ink did Irwin realize that his next canvas was a local kid making it big in the NHL.
Before that, he was just a teenager who discovered Irwin’s work on Instagram and had the cash to front the $1000 sitting fee. That’s the cost of doing business with the self-taught artist, who has the status to charge those eager to decorate their skin with the incredible portrait realism that made him a contestant on the popular reality series Ink Master.
Still, Irwin had no idea Matthews was the sixth teenager in NHL history to score 40 goals, or that he represents hope for a franchise with a 100-year history, or that he’s the future face of USA Hockey.
But given the toll it took on his battery, Irwin, a tattoo artist who routinely works on high-profile musicians and athletes in sports with greater popularity in his home state, felt compelled to learn more.
“I watched his highlights. It was pretty incredible, man. Dude is quite the badass.”
King of the jungle, huh?
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Irwin laughed.
This is as detailed as Irwin would get about the significance of the lion in the royal crown covering Matthews’ upper arm, or conversation between the two during the five-hour session.
There’s certain confidentiality to his craft; people trust tattoo artists with more than their skin. There’s often deeply personal meaning or significance behind the artwork that Irwin personalizes for his clients, and it’s his obligation to protect that trust.
Irwin picked up on something else. Matthews didn’t post a photo of the tattoo to one of his own accounts, leading him to wonder: “I don’t know how much he’s wanting people to know.”
Of course, people do. And Matthews will be quizzed soon after his return to Toronto because, intentional or not, after the rookie season he had in one of the biggest hockey markets in the world, an enormous portrait of a regal animal king is, if nothing else, a statement piece.
Before that happens, though, we might have more of Irwin’s artistry to marvel at.
An inner arm tattoo, Irwin reveals, may be in the works.
More NHL coverage on Yahoo Sports: