Getting an appointment at Voluta Tattoo is a process. The studio has no phone. The door is always locked, and walk-ins are forbidden. Six years ago, I waited months for my first appointment with Conan Lea, the owner and founder of Voluta. His studio is in the Stutz Business Center, in a single, high-ceilinged room the size of a spacious loft. It's clean but not tidy, like the living room of a busy art professor.
Lea dresses casually, T-shirt and ink-spattered jeans shrugged over a tall, strong frame. I remember how gracious he was when I walked in for our first session. He takes your coat as you enter, asks you what you want to listen to, offers water and tea.
For a dude in the tattoo industry, his body is barely modified: just a labret piercing and two handspan-sized tats, one on each arm. The lighting is velvety-dim, save for the bright tattoo lamps that light his clients. Lanterns hang along a wall of windows; paintings sit on easels; art and anatomy books spill out of the shelves. The floor is the color of toasted almonds; the walls are deep turquoise and muted orange, with accent colors swirling and blending together. They're hung with larger-than-life canvas prints of Lea's work. There are dozens of them, each one unique.
Lea only does custom, fine art tattoos; no two pieces will ever be alike. The prints all contain a hint of the person wearing the tattoo (known as the collector in the industry): the tilt of a chin, half of a grin, an earring, a lightly flexed bicep.
The sole way to get in touch with him is via email, which he checks for a total of fifteen minutes each day. The emails he doesn't get to within a week, he erases. When you send him one, you receive an auto-response explaining this system, which is his way of declaring what he calls "email bankruptcy." An automatic message explains: "I was answering 25 hours of email per month! Trying my best to answer everyone helped no one."
One client piqued his interest by asking him to reproduce an abstract painting by her grandmother. Another got his attention by showing him an X-ray, which he used to inspire a depiction of the surgical instrumentation supposedly under the wearer's skin.
I convinced Lea to be my artist by offering him a job that another tattoo artist said would be impossible: a colorful spiral galaxy. He typically works with three out of five clients with whom he meets. By the time I finally got in the door and under the gun (industry lingo for the tattoo machine), I felt like a member of a very exclusive club. That's the way he likes it.
His studio has been called the best in Indianapolis by bloggers and reviewers. Jason of uncrate.com said, "Conan Lea and his staff are all artists, painters-illustrators-sculptors. They transfer all their experience into creating a custom piece of art... Go nowhere else." Ask him about the high praise, and he's quick to defer: "No. I'm going on record. Monte [Agee]'s the best."
Agee has been tattooing in Indianapolis for 15 years and currently works out of Altered Image Tattoo on the Southside. He says he is flattered but doesn't "believe anyone could really be called the best." The two worked together briefly, shortly after Lea moved to Indianapolis.
"Conan is a great artist," Agee told me. "Even when I worked with him, and he'd only been tattooing for a few years, he showed a lot of talent."
Lea's portfolio is atypical; one will have to look elsewhere for kanji, tribal dragons, barbed-wire armbands, hearts-and-daggers or Looney Tunes characters. Some of his tattoos look like watercolor paintings brushed on skin, with soft lines that coil along the body. Others like richly-saturated pastel drawings, or leap off the flesh with the crispness of pen-and-ink.
A garden scene lit by a glowing full moon spreads across a woman's back; a bright-white Celtic-style knot pattern that seems to hover over the wearer's skin. A man's chest becomes a snakeskin; giant peacock feathers gracefully curve around a torso. Fiery limbs blend into swirls of air and water, tricks of depth and movement find an American flag enveloping a man's entire arm and colorful chakras kiss a spine.
Lea's life has been a soap opera lately. Just prior to boarding the plane home from a family vacation last August, he learned that three of his four apprentices had left his shop to start their own. Lea was devastated and furious: "I just want to know what I did wrong."
Lea's boyish face and bright blue eyes show weariness beyond his forty years as he talks about what he perceives as a betrayal. The way he tells it, he took in three young Indy natives who had never held a tattoo gun and taught them to be world-class tattoo rock stars making up to $125 an hour through unheard-of paid apprenticeships. He stopped taking new clients so their appointment books would fill up with people seeking him. He spent time, money, and trust.
As they neared the end of their apprenticeship, Lea asked them to, as he puts it, step up their game and submit to a quarterly reviewing process. Then, according to Lea, they left. The former apprentices dispute this account in part, noting that two of the apprentices left, and the third was fired after their departure.
The bio on Lea's website admits he's hard to work for, and that he demands a lot of his apprentices. As of January 2013, the three apprentices continued to cite their apprenticeships with Lea on their website; one artist's bio described the apprenticeship as "rich and rewarding." All mentions of Lea have since been scrubbed from the site; the artists note that they continued to directly refer to Lea until recently because they were taking the "high road," but they're now ready to move on from that part of their life.
[Editor's note, Feb. 6: The original print version of this article stated that the former apprentices had declined comment, full stop. After we published this piece, the former apprentices notified us that they had been advised by their lawyer to stay mum when first contacted by us because Lea had filed a lawsuit against them. That lawsuit having been dropped, we talked with the apprentices in the week following the story and published a follow-up story concerning their account of their departure and their present activities. This story has been updated to reflect the interview, but the follow-up piece provides a fuller accounting of their concerns with the article as first published.
Lea takes himself and his work very seriously, but if a man you've just met is going to make a change to your body that cannot be easily erased, it doesn't hurt for him to have a heart surgeon's sense of gravity about the situation. "I get to become a permanent part of you," he said. "When you get undressed at night and your mate looks at your skin and my tattoo, they're looking at me and my work."