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Jackson tattoo artists strive to balance commerce with artistic integrity


By RJ Walters / For the Jackson Citizen Patriot

Tattoo shops are the new liquor store — licensing required, consumers galore and, now more than ever, people can find one on what seems like every corner of town.

They’re also part of a thriving industry. A 2007 Pew Research study estimated that about 45 million Americans — more than one seven — are “inked up.” Tattoos have become a mainstream movement that includes television network productions like “Miami Ink” and “L.A. Ink.”

Local tattoo artists say they are constantly trying to fight stereotypes, shoddy practices and even themselves, to make money while staying true to their craft.

Jackson County is home to eight state-licensed tattoo facilities. There are others that might not be playing by the rules. Despite high unemployment, there is a consensus among local shops that business has stayed steady.

Robin Soles took over her mother’s Indian Ink Tattoos, 6613 Lansing Ave., about four years ago. She said the shop used to get an influx of customers during summer vacation and spring break. Now, the start of the year and tax season are popular times.

“Now it’s all about tax day. January and February we get smashed, and I was like, ‘What happened?’ ” she said. “People get that tax rebate and are like, ‘Woo hoo!’ “

S.A. Custom owner Robert Stewart ran Underground Ink in Michigan Center for 10 years before opening his one-man shop at 2161 Ferguson Road a year ago. He said there are slow times — like “back-to-school and Christmas, when people are putting money into other places,” — but business largely stays strong.

A tattoo, he said is “one of those things you can express yourself and you can’t take that thing from you. It’s yours no matter how tough (things are) or what you lose.”

Even when people are tight for money Stewart and Soles keep their rates constant, letting their reputations and abilities speak for themselves.

“This commercial stuff — ‘Bring your friend in, I’ll give you 10 percent off,’ — I mean this is permanent. This isn’t like getting your haircut,” Soles said.
Yet, Seth Duimstra, a co-owner of Cloverland Tattoo Co., 2108 Wildwood Ave., which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, will offer discounts and promotions. He said the shop specials vary by month, and last year it offered promotions around Christmas and Thanksgiving, in which customers brought in food for the needy in return for a discount.

“Seriously, dude, help other people out, and give someone that sweet tattoo, (they’re) going to pay 100 bucks or 150 bucks for and they’ll come back because they’re still getting good quality,” Duimstra said.

Cloverland Tattoo Co. co-owners Seth Duimstra (top) and CALICO (above) stay true to their art form, by keeping up with the latest technology and constantly improving their skills. Photos by Katie Rausch / Jackson Citizen Patriot.

Stewart charges clients specific “per project” fees as opposed to hourly rates to keep the focus is on the final product, not the time it takes. He says “money is nowhere near his head,” other than being necessary to support his family.

Soles said Indian Ink charges “anywhere from $75 to $150 an hour,” and she doesn’t know anyone in the area who charges more than $150 per hour.

One thing the new kids on the block and veteran shop owners agree on is that success largely depends on word of mouth and reputation. One way to get that is by staying up with new techniques.

For Stewart, that means going to conventions; for Soles that included an expensive “permanent makeup” course that provided her the expertise to give cancer patients permanent eyebrows and everyday customers things like permanent eyeliner; at Cloverland they will soon be testing out a wireless tattoo machine prototype.

Word of mouth partly comes from “treating people” right, said Soles, whose mother opened Indian Ink 17 years ago.

“It separates us a lot because we don’t treat people harshly. We don’t make them feel bad about what they bring in,” she said. “Some places won’t change (an idea), they won’t put any input on it — they don’t care if it’s good or bad; it’s about the money. Not all of them, but some of them.”

Duimstra believes giving someone “a piece they are proud of” will inevitably mean some of their friends will ask where they got it done. But he said there is a fine line between being confident in your work and being vain.

“I wouldn’t say we’re stars, man. Any tattoo artist probably has a little bit of that in their personality, but the minute you think you’re big someone comes over and knocks you right off your pedestal,” he said. “You’ve got to stay humble.”

Stewart said the attention the tattoo industry has been getting is a double-edged sword. It brings more potential clients into shops, but it also leaves room for exploitation of an art form he holds close to his heart.

“I’m not trying to cater to that clientele that watched ‘Miami Ink’ or ‘L.A. Ink’ last night, because those are the ones that come in and think you’re going to get a sleeve (entire arm) done in a half-an-hour and have no concept of what it’s really like,” he said. “It’s basically like they’re trying to go get the coolest pair of new jeans.”

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About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

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