The following article originally ran in the Summer 2019 issue of the UNO Magazine.
They’re the Sandro Botticellis of body art. The Fra Angelicos of anatomy. The Keith Harings of the human form.
For a thousand years, tattoo artists have been bringing art alive … on live bodies. Their designs have been a way for artists and their subjects to express themselves in permanent ink.
Today’s tattooers are redefining the medium, thanks to a sharper-than-ever focus on the art itself.
Designs that were ubiquitous 20 years ago — think lower-back tattoos and barbed wire encircling biceps — have been pushed aside.
Now, bodies are tatted everywhere and with everything from delicate line drawings and watercolor art to graffiti- and pop culture-inspired designs.
And, increasingly, the industry is populated by folks with the art background and education cred to go along with the technical expertise tattooing requires. That includes Maverick students and graduates.
Some artists have sought out their career. Others have gotten into the business by chance.
Respect for the business … and the OGs
For Eric Zuerlein, a 2008 art history grad and owner of American Tattoo in Omaha, it was a right-place, right-time situation.
“I kind of fell into it,” he says. “I came in to get a tattoo and never got the tattoo and actually ended up talking about getting a job.”
He’d always seen tattoos growing up and was curious about them. Back then, though, they weren’t always visible and they were a bit taboo.
Today, as a two-decade veteran of the business, he sees a lot more respect for it that he feels is long overdue.
“We’ve taken this industry from the fringes of counterculture to the mainstream,” Zuerlein says.
Dave Koenig, a tattoo artist at Tenth Sanctum Tattoo in Omaha and a painter, has been in the industry for nearly 20 years.
Art ignited his interest as a kid. A “huge Indiana Jones fan,” he says he always thought he wanted to travel and experience different cultures.
At UNO, he studied anthropology, Native American studies and ethnography, as well as art. He credits his coursework with inspiring new imagery for his work.
“I feel like my education has helped me see things that others wouldn’t see when they go and visit different places.”
Some tattoo artists are inspired by the OGs — the really old OGs.
“My personal style of tattooing that I like to do is realism, but just seeing how the different styles have emerged throughout history is very interesting to me,” says Alexandria Barrett, who’s pursuing a double major in studio arts and art history.
She takes inspiration from artists like da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, whom she calls “her idols.”
The Plattsmouth native, who recently opened Inked & Spellbound in her hometown, researches the work of these old masters and studies their techniques.
“All of those things I transfer into tattooing on someone.”
Discipline and technology
The art of tattoo requires the same kind of discipline as any other art form. Artists continually evolve their level of expertise by putting in the practice.
“I’ve always kind of been doing art. I think tattooing has definitely made me more disciplined of an artist,” says Jaime Craig, owner of Rawhide Tattoo Studio in Omaha and a 2008 fine arts graduate.
“You have to put a lot of work into it. You have to be drawing every day, and it encompasses more than one type of art form. It just seems like I’m doing a lot more, being more productive, just because I have to be.”
Her time at UNO she says has helped her career in several ways.
“It helped prepare me as an artist, to manage my time as an artist and make my own priorities, and promote myself as an artist.”
Technology has played a part in making the tattooing process easier, she says.
Several years ago, she was drawing her designs on tracing paper.
“Then they invented the iPad Pro, and that has saved a lot of trees,
I think,” she laughs. “It just makes things go a little bit faster, too.”
Design apps, like the one Craig uses for creating her mandala art, save a lot of time and free her for more enjoyable parts of the job, like going outside for inspiration for her plants and animal designs.
Impact of the internet
Other technology also has had a big impact on the industry.
“The Internet has been a huge change in our industry on so many levels,” Zuerlein says. “Our clients are more educated, or poorly educated, depending on where they’re getting their information.”
He says the web has opened clients’ eyes to different styles. A couple of decades ago, people would come to his shop and choose a piece of flash from on the wall. Or one of the artists would tailor a design or draw something custom for them.
Now, he says, people are bringing in certain styles that they want based on something they found online.
“It’s a good and a bad thing. We get a lot of somebody sees something that we that we can’t really do because there are certain restraints in the skin.”
“People are requesting more interesting tattoos because they see on TV what you can do with tattoos,” Koenig says. “But people also think, ‘Hey I can get a whole sleeve in just two days’ because on TV they edit things. So then you get some absurd requests.”
Achieving a great result
Translating an artistic vision to a sometimes-fickle canvas can also be a challenging part of the craft.
Achieving a great result is a collaborative effort between artist and client, Barrett says.
“A lot of people don’t understand why they don’t turn out well in the end. It’s really important for people to maintain good hydration, good moisturizing of the skin. It really makes a difference on how the tattoo turns out.”
For Craig, the most difficult part of the craft is the technical aspect, something she says a lot of people don’t often see or think about.
“Just getting to know the tools that you’re working with is probably the hardest thing that I’ve had to master as an artist,” she says. “There are so many different kinds and ways to do it that it can be kind of overwhelming.
“And skin isn’t always the most cooperative canvas. You can’t always predict what you’re going to get until you’re doing it.”
She says the growing shift from coil machines to rotary machines to transfer the ink has made a difference.
“Rotary machines are becoming more prevalent. It relieves a lot of pressure on hands. It’s a lot easier to maintain the stamina of being able to work when your hand isn’t hurting.”
Making a statement
One of the unexpected benefits of tattooing is seeing your art when you least expect it. For some, it can be like a walking art show of their work all around the globe.
“Standing in line in an airport in another country, I ran into a client,” Zuerlein says. “Other times, I’ve seen a tattoo on somebody and thought ‘I tattooed that guy.’”
For Barrett, tattoos are her opportunity to help her clients make a statement that's unique to them.
“A tattoo is much more personal to an individual than just going and buying a painting that’s on a canvas or something that you hang up on the wall,” she says.
“It’s a creative medium for me as an artist, but it’s also a way for the client to express themselves and have a beautiful piece of work that they can carry with them.”
Thinking About Getting Inked?
Looking to get your first tattoo? First consider the advice of our experts.
Do your due diligence
Research both the artist and their work to get an idea of what your tattoo will look like. When you’ve found someone whose work you like, don’t immediately hop in the chair. Next, “schedule a meeting with them and see if your personalities get along,” says Jaime Craig.
Scale back on the real estate
“It’s not an easy process and it can be very painful depending on where you put it on the body,” Alexandria Barrett says. “I recommend starting off with something smaller so you can understand what the tattoo feels like and if your body accepts it and can handle it.”
Be deliberate about choosing a design
Yes, some people pick their design on a whim. But consider that this is a permanent decision, says Eric Zuerlein. “When it’s your first tattoo, you want to think about it. It’s something for life.”
Don’t necessarily look at Pinterest for your tattoo ideas, Dave Koenig says. “Tattoos go through fads just like clothing does, so a lot of the time the popular tattoos may not be that cool in the long run.”
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.