How do you achieve permanence?
This question confronts all people on some existential level, but it’s especially vital for artists, who constantly struggle to create something that will outlive them. A signature style. A body of work. A legacy. Nothing lasts forever—even the Mona Lisa had work done—but no other art form endures quite like the tattoo, both in terms of its cultural longevity (thousands of years strong) and its impression on the recipient, the tattooed. It survives a lifetime.
The tattoo also coexists peacefully with commerce. It’s an opportunity for artist and client to collaborate and design something that’s meaningful to both of them. The artist gives time, talent, and energy; the benefactor becomes the artwork.
With tattoo culture becoming ever more visible each day, we explored Columbus’s thriving scene, from the history to the shops to its hallmark festival. And then there are the men and women behind the guns, most of whom are walking testaments to other notable artists from around the city and all over the world. We found that the stories behind the tattoos are often as fascinating as the work itself—at various times bizarre, remarkable, heartbreaking, healing, or inspiring. And beautiful.
Experience: 11 years
Passion: “Visiting the raw and open places of America … the real nourishment … it’s in visiting someplace truly wild.”
Background: Appalachia. “I was never terribly proud [of it]. In today’s world those kind of riches hold value for a declining few it seems, and it can be really hard to see the value in it when it’s all you know. It was only after I moved to New York City that I really saw what I had left behind. Never had I appreciated the pungency of a cow pasture until that first return visit home.”
Extracurricular art: beer labels, guitar pick-ups, collaborative prints
Photo by Giles Clement
Silverquill Tattoo Gallery
Experience: 18 years
First tattoo given: self-inked, leg
Next 35 tattoos given: “When I moved to Columbus I didn’t know where to live, so I accidentally moved kind of into the ghetto near Miller-Kelton Avenue. … I really decided I wanted to tattoo but no one had given me a job, so I offered $40 tattoos to all the people in the neighborhood—I ended up doing about 35 tattoos on some local gangsters, then I tattooed my own leg. I took the pictures that I had to Mike at Sacred Heart, and he was nice enough to give me my first job.”
Background: Founder, High Street Tattoo
Photo by Chris Casella
Kat Marie Moya
Experience: 19 years
First tattoo given: “Needle and ink on a friend I used to skateboard with. It was 1989 or ‘90, I was a junior in high school, and I did it in American History class! It was ‘I have a dream’ on my friend’s arm. I didn’t think for a second that I’d be a professional tattoo artist only a few years later.”
“I have an unhealthy fascination with the Large Hadron Collider, the science behind it, and it’s infinite symbolism. I dwell on things like spirituality, modern technology, and human nature. That’s pretty much the common denominator of all the things I produce.”
Extracurricular art: Mixed media, illustration
Photo by Gils Clement
Experience: 13 years
Inspiration: “Sacred geometry, metaphysics, quantum physics related to metaphysics, as well as ancient civilizations”
Favorite local artist: “David Boggins. I haven’t met him, but I really appreciate his work.”
Background: Degree in metaphysical healing, Delphi University
Experience: Eight years
First tattoo received: “An old wizard drew a sun on me”
inspirations: “Punk music and skateboarding. Duh!”
Background: Graphic design, illustration, painting
What turned you on to tattoo art?
Polacek: I was working as an airbrush artist at Geauga Lake amusement park as a summer job while in college. Customers would always suggest tattooing because it was similar. One day I decided to take my airbrushing portfolio into a tattoo studio to see if they would be interested in giving me an apprenticeship. That is the day my tattooing career started.
Giovani: I feel there are two reasons that people get involved with tattooing: one is that they are fascinated by the process and the tattoos themselves, and the other is people who are artists that simply choose to work in the medium of tattooing. I find myself to be the former. I have always been fascinated with tattoos as long as I can remember. I enjoy the interaction with the clients and [bringing] their ideas to life, and while I do strive to have as much artistic ability as possible and to put that into my tattooing, I believe that the interpersonal parts of the process are what really drew me to tattooing.
Moses: Other than seeing people in movies with a couple tattoos and the rock and roll heroes, my sister Monica being a tattooer was my first experience with it. She has been tattooing about five to eight years longer than my 11 and just opened up her own shop in our hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. I hung out with her at her old shop every now and then, and it [made] a really strong impression, partly because it was still this kind of underground, shady thing that I wasn’t supposed to be exposed to, and partly the cigarette smoke, lighting, and crazy images enveloping the rooms. It was distinctly another planet, and very impressive. I can still smell and see the place vividly in my mind.
Moya: The Catholic Church! I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I spent much of my childhood in appreciation of stained glass windows, intricate woodwork, mosaics, and the all-sensory atmosphere of scent and light amongst all the art. My dad was an artist too, and let me mess around with his materials and color all over the basement walls.
Who are your biggest artistic inspirations?
Johnson: I’ve created a loop in which I try to spend my mornings learning new things and digging into some heavy inspiration—Buddhist history, Eastern philosophy, meditation, classic architecture and sacred geometry, botanical and natural history, printmaking—these are the things that excite me. And then there’s the clients, who continually bring their influences and inspirations to me, that help me focus that imagery into things for them and their lives. … I think it’s one of the unique things about tattooing compared to other forms of art I have created. It’s a wonderful, intimate exchange of ideas on a very primitive level.
Moya: Wassily Kandinsky is number one, because I appreciate his philosophy as an artist, and he was my first exposure to the concept of stream of consciousness work. I carry his essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” with me everywhere.
What are your favorite kinds of tattoos to create?
Johnson: I’m fortunate to own my own shop and be able to put out artwork that I want to create. I’ve been lucky that clients have seen the work I like to create and come to me specifically for this style—black work. Since a very young age, I’ve always been happiest creating black and white images, trying to simplify this strange world into black and white. I’m lucky to have found a technique that allows me to do this on skin also.
Moya: My stream of consciousness art is my favorite to tattoo, because they’re inspired by some really profound things going on in my head and my heart. When I offer them, I get emails from people that feel connected to them for various reasons, and I get to choose who I do them on. I feel it’s my best work for all these reasons. I also greatly enjoy the sciences, and I do a lot of work on professionals in various fields of science. They introduce me to new concepts yet give me full liberties on [the] design process.
Have you ever had a client leave because it was too painful?
Polacek: Oh yeah. It happens often, especially with larger tattoos. I have only had one person stop before the outline was done and never return. She was getting a Betty Boop cartoon on her butt.
Moya: Yes! I never forgot her. I seemed to have all the challenges in the first year of my career, and this woman was getting a piece that would’ve taken 15 minutes to do. She didn’t get past the outline. Funny thing is, years later, I found myself doing a guest spot at a shop and she came in with her friend to get another tattoo. She didn’t remember I was the one that did her first, and she actually wanted to stop after the outline of the new one! I told her who I was, that I remembered her from years before, and that she HAS to let me finish this one, that it was important to me [laughs]. She did and loved it, and it was just a hilarious experience.
Do you have any other tattoo horror stories?
Polacek: No horror stories, but my favorite story is from five years ago. A kid came in to get a 1.5-inch star on his hip. His way of coping with the pain was to sing show tunes at the top of his lungs for the whole seven minutes it took me to do the tattoo. I had to stop a couple times because I was laughing so hard. He drew all the attention of the studio that day.
What is your favorite thing about tattoo culture? What about the culture here in Columbus specifically?
Johnson: Columbus has an amazing group of people making art, and I’m proud to be a part of this community. I know a few other artists in other cities that have lots of infighting and backstabbing. You’ll have that everywhere, but I think the artists in this city also have a huge amount of respect for each other. It’s competitive and tough, but that fire keeps us all humble and pushing forward.
Polacek: That it is so accepting. People with tattoos tend to be less judgmental. Also, people with tattoo art tend to admire others with art, and it brings people together to talk about their art. It is like our own club. They are also great conversation starters.
Giovani: One of the biggest things for me that drew me to Columbus for tattooing is its amazing tattoo history. Most people don’t know this, but there was a tattoo artist here before—Stoney St. Clair [see page 70]—and there is an older artist in the city that has some of his flash, his artwork, and it’s amazing. Then you have Marty Holcomb, Tim and Connie, Durb [see page 72], right down to guys like me who are now passing on the torch to a younger generation. The city has a style of tattooing that’s all its own: bold, bright, clean lines, great aesthetics. Columbus tattooing has definitely influenced tattooing in the Midwest, and the city loves tattooing. Plus, you can be anybody you want here and have as many tattoos you like, and I’ve been all over, and believe me it’s not always like that.
Moses: Tattoo culture is a difficult thing to be involved in. It’s something that really polarizes people on either side, and polarized people have never been easy for me to be around. I used to describe myself as a person that likes life to hover between a three and a seven. Extremes on either side make me uncomfortable, and I find they are very hard for me to relate to. Tattoo culture in and of itself is more about perceptions than really being a solid thing of its own because so many people have some sort of a stake in it—whether people [are] making a living and participating as a human, someone turning it into a hustle (which is disgusting by the way), or people that use it as an example of where the world is going wrong. It’s a weird place to be, no matter how it’s viewed.
Moya: The variety of work I’m seeing these days is astounding. Just as in the real world of artists overall, I like when I discover someone and they’re not easy to find out more about. I like mystery—it reminds me that there are a great number of people that believe in an organic process. There are so many types of tattooers out there, and the ones that last are the ones that keep evolving, and not because they’re following trends, but finding themselves in the work. I like that tattoo culture allows us to exist.
What’s one style of tattoo art you wish would go away?
Johnson: I think the current state of tattooing is very exciting. There’s so many amazing tattoo artists pushing great art in all different directions. I think of it the opposite—what styles of art haven’t been attempted on the body and who’s doing that? I believe we’re in the “golden age” of tattooing. We’ve reached a point that artists can be proficient in one specialty and really try to master that style. It’s really exciting.
Polacek: The kind that is done in someone’s kitchen by some kid who bought a kit on eBay.
Giovani: The thing that I have the hardest time with regarding tattooing is people that do tattoos that aren’t fundamentally proper. What I mean by that is that there are a set of ground rules for doing a good tattoo—a tattoo that looks good now and will look good in the future. So when tattoos are done with only colors that are close to the skin tone, white tattoos, tattoos with no outlines, or tattoos that are done on parts of the body that simply don’t hold ink—that is where I really draw the line, and I feel that any good tattoo artist will draw that same line.
Moya: I can’t say anything about styles, because that’s for the carrier to decide for themselves. I wish work that was not technically sound or compositionally complete would go away. I wish conceptual plagiarism would go away too.
What separates tattoo art from other artistic mediums?
Johnson: Besides cave painting, I don’t know of any other art form that has been around as long as tattooing. Its history around the world is immense. The collaborative nature of tattooing is pretty amazing and unique also. We’re creating artwork for individuals directly on them. If done well, they will wear these images ‘til they die. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure and honor to create like this. When I was a designer, you’d design something and then it would be a collaboration between yourself, the marketing manager, the VP of sales, the art director—the list was long. When you paint a picture, you’re doing it for yourself and that is great. But with tattooing, you are sitting down with your client and trying your hardest to make something that they will be proud of for their life. It will always mark a time and space for them—pretty amazing. That, to me, is the most exciting art: a collaboration between the artist and the client.
Polacek: The skin, there is nothing like it to compare it to. All of the variables in order to execute a tattoo changes for each person and different location on the body.
Giovani: The first thing that comes to mind is the personal interaction—if you’re doing a painting or sculpture it’s all you. But when you tattoo, you add in another person to the process and it’s usually something very personal to them. Also, almost all other artistic mediums are on a fairly static surface, whereas tattooing has to fit the structure of the body and really work to become part of the individual that’s wearing it.
Moses: There’s an emotional exchange in what we do that’s entirely unique to tattooing. When you labor over this image that was a mutual conception of client and artist, a very drawn-out and painful experience that’s psychologically heavy for all parties—the process itself becomes more than just a set of steps you follow. You’re performing and taking [part] in a rite. You’re making a passage, and you both come out a little changed on the other side. What we do used to be performed by priests. We were some of the most highly respected members of a society, and no accepted individual held social worth without this act. The same psychological and emotional impacts happen today; in all this time that hasn’t changed. … In some reaches of the industry, hiding under desks, dried to chairs, and laying beneath procedure sheets is every human fluid we produce. Think on that as long as you care to.
Moya: It has the lifespan of its carrier, and that’s something real special right there. It’s changing the landscape of a human body, and they will carry it for a lifetime. I’m not a very social tattooer in the industry itself, and there are a lot of us loners out there, so I’d say for us it’s the freedom to do a form of art that is conducive to whatever your personality is. And in all truth, it funds my other artistic mediums—total simpatico—and they enrich one another.