For many years, getting a tattoo meant going to a parlor, flipping through pages of standardized designs and letting some guy named T-Bone stick a needle in your arm. Now it involves collaborating with an artist who may just hold a degree, contributing to what some are calling the “art school generation” of tattoo professionals.
Lee Leahy, owner of the Family Tattoo parlor at 2125 W. Belmont Ave., said many rising tattoo artists have strong backgrounds or degrees in fine art. In his shop alone, two artists have degrees in printmaking and illustration from the School of the Art Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Together with his staff, Leahy, 33, organized an art show highlighting the increasing role and influence of fine art in tattooing featuring the work of more than 40 tattoo artists from Chicago and around the country.
According to Leahy, the purpose of the show—which includes paintings,sculptures and mixed media—is to bring together artists whose work outside the realm of tattooing is not often recognized.
“A lot of the younger guys [in the industry] are coming in from art schools all over the country,” Leahy said. “Artists my age or a little older never had the money to go to school. But for the younger guys, their parents don’t think it’s so crazy to be a tattooer anymore.”
Caroline Moody, 28, has been tattooing for nearly four years. An artist from an early age, she said she first started visiting tattoo shops when she was 18 and was impressed by how the tattoo artists were able to practice and use their art skills on a daily basis. She found an apprenticeship at a parlor in her native Louisville, Ky., and ever since has been tattooing in order to pay for art school. After studying fine art at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Louisville, she moved to Chicago to finish her degree at SAIC.
When she’s not tattooing at Metamorph Studios, 1456 N. Milwaukee Ave., Moody continues to paint and sculpt. Although clay is her preferred medium, she also learned metal foundry at SAIC. Drawing on her familiarity with traditional Japanese tattoo subject matter, she cast three Hannya masks used to represent the demon women of Japanese “noh” theatre. In keeping with the tradition of the masks being different colors to represent three recurring characters, Moody cast her masks in aluminum, bronze and iron—a process she said mirrored the theme of her work.
“Iron is a beast of a material to pour,” Moody laughed. “If pouring bronze and aluminum is like a kitten, then pouring iron is like a demon hellcat.”
Moody said she continues to draw on her schooling in fine art for her paintings and tattoos, and cites Lucian Freud and John Singer Sargent as two of her key inspirations.
“I’ve had a very strict fine art background,” she said. “I’ve studied it, and it’s all in my head. I just try to remember what’s beautiful about everything those [artists] did and try to make it a bit more modern, or at least apply it to my life.”
An art education has numerous advantages for a tattoo artist, including versatility and development of an individual style, said veteran tattoo artist Scott Fricke, 44. Fricke, who has worked in the industry for more than 18 years, said more young artists are looking at tattooing as a legitimate profession.
“When I started out, there were less people from a fine arts background,” Fricke said. “It seems that in more recent years, with the growing popularity of tattooing, art students look at us and think, ‘Hey, these people are making artwork every day, and they’re getting paid for it.’ They look at it as a more viable option for what they can do as a career and be a successful artist.”
Like Moody, Fricke said he was interested in tattoos and art from an early age. As a child, he imagined himself having tattoos and was even sent home from school for applying decals to his face. After taking numerous art courses in high school, he went on to study printmaking and painting at SAIC. It was there that a fellow student gave him his first tattoo, and by the time he was 25, Fricke knew he wanted to be a professional.
In addition to his work at Speakeasy Custom Tattoo, 1935 1/2 W. North Ave., Fricke still does acrylic paintings and has recently branched out to murals. A self-described heavy metal music fan, Fricke said the dark imagery of his paintings is heavily inspired by album art. He said he has had reasonable success with his art, although he thinks many galleries are not interested in his aesthetic.
“For me, it’s always been about creating [a painting] rather than trying to sell it,” he said. “If it were about selling paintings, I would quit my tattoo job and concentrate solely on that, but I like it being my escape from what
I do daily.”
Fricke said the vast majority of his tattoos are custom designs that can take up to 10 hours to sketch, and like any piece of commissioned art, creative differences between a tattoo artist and a client sometimes arise.
“It’s really about getting into the head of the person I’m about to tattoo,” Fricke said. “Sometimes I have to be honest with them and say, ‘Maybe I’m not the person for this.’ Generally, I don’t want to turn away business, but I also don’t want my name attached to something that is not going to [accurately] represent what I do.”
Creating a signature style is crucial for any tattoo artist, but especially for those just starting out, said Ben McQueen, 24.
McQueen, who studied fine art and animation at Columbia in 2009, moved back to his native Indianapolis in June to be a full-time tattoo artist. He said that tattooing is an ideal way for young artists to have a steady job and get paid for developing their own talent.
“Custom tattooing really enables you to put your own twist on everything that comes through the door,” McQueen said. “It’s pretty awesome to be able to do that on a daily basis. But at the same time, tattooing is at a level now where it’s so competitive and so advanced that if you’re not on top of your game all the time, if you’re not making art and pushing yourself, you’re going to plateau and get swallowed up.”
Despite the increasing competition, Fricke said he can’t imagine any other life for himself.
“I watched people in my family break their backs doing manual labor,” Fricke said. “I did a fair share of that myself, and I feel pretty fortunate to be able to make my living with my artwork. I’m not rich by any stretch, but I’m a lot happier than I would be doing anything else.”