Sweet Ink: Conan Lea and Voluta Tattoo 

click to enlarge MICHELLE CRAIG

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.

Lea's portfolio includes this art nouveau-inspired sleeve.
  • Lea's portfolio includes this art nouveau-inspired sleeve.

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."

The author shows off Lea's galaxy tattoo alongside her husband, Ben. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • The author shows off Lea's galaxy tattoo alongside her husband, Ben.
  • Michelle Craig

From boot camp to ink slinging

Raised in Oxford, Ohio, by a Marine and a tough-as-nails mother, Lea didn't consider tattoos or tattooing in his childhood and teen years. Oxford is a small college town outside of Cincinnati and Lea grew up loving nature, animals and art. He signed up for the Marines at age 17, leaving for boot camp three days before his high school graduation, and served for six years.

Desert Storm broke out right after his stint in boot camp. Part of his service involved collecting body parts and personal effects from fallen soldiers so their remains could be sent home. It's a life he's long left behind: "I do all I can to not be a Marine anymore," he said. He's consciously trying to raise his two daughters without fear or anxiety: "I don't want to fear-parent. I don't need to be tough."

There was a three-year period in between the end of Lea's military career and the start of his tattoo career. "I was trying to find what I was going to do next in life," he said. "I tried selling cars. I was terrible at it. I couldn't find anything I was passionate about and tattoo was like lightning in my hand."

His first tattoo as a tattoo artist was a Taurus bull. "It looks like a donkey with horns," he said with a wide-open laugh. "It's really bad." He started slinging ink as an amateur when his Marine buddies, impressed with the drawings he did in his free time, talked him into it, put the equipment in his hands and offered to be guinea pigs. "I am responsible for way too many poorly done lower back tattoos," he said, laughing. "Men get them too, you know."

Getting an apprenticeship in a working shop is the first step to becoming a legitimate tattoo artist. "You have to pay your way in," Lea said. "Tattoo gives you access to the big four that everybody wants: money, popularity, status, and power. The guys at the top are protecting it. It's an old-world trade and it has to be handed down."

Lea says he went shop-to-shop in Cincinnati with his fine-art portfolio of colored pencil and graphite drawings - and got laughed out of most tattoo parlors. He eventually met Adam Bruce, who took him under his wing in 1999 for an apprentice fee of $5,000, the standard at the time. It was a year-long, "traditional roughneck apprenticeship," as he put it, involving everything from cleaning the toilets to wiping the counters in the front room.

Tattoo is the only art form that invariably involves blood, and tattoo artists (Lea being the exception) are generally a rough bunch. After earning the trust of his mentor, an apprentice is allowed to make patterns, which are the guidelines the artist transfers on to skin as a road map to the tattoo. At the next stage, an apprentice is allowed to tattoo an orange, banana or pigskin. None of those surfaces are anything like a breathing, squirming human, but at least it puts a tattoo gun in an apprentice's hands, according to Lea.

Eventually, Lea was allowed to bring in friends willing to undergo his early ink ministrations. He worked up to doing a handful of tattoos in a day. He built his portfolio by running down to a one-hour photo at the end of his sessions and developing the five to seven photos he took, wasting the rest of the roll, and sticking them in a photo album. He still has his first book, but when I told him I wanted to see it, he smiled and said, "Yeah. It's something to see, all right."

A mosquito-like touch

Lea moved to Indiana when his ex-wife got a job in Columbus. He founded Voluta in 2006 after bouncing around a few Indianapolis and Columbus tattoo parlors, including New Breed, Sacred Ink and Skeleton Crew. Like any artist, he craved his own space, and he was tired of the vibe of most shops, where there was constant hustle, bright lights, loud music and a crowd milling around the lobby.

Voluta Tattoo is different. Lea adjusts the music, lights and temperature for a client. His eyes stay fixated on your tattoo once he begins, although he can maintain a conversation and work at the same time. He has a light touch that feels more like being bitten by mosquitos than being stabbed with needles.

Lea adjusts the light, temperature and music in his studio for each client. - MICHELLE CRAIG
  • Lea adjusts the light, temperature and music in his studio for each client.
  • Michelle Craig

James Flynn, who has been a client of Lea's since 2001, collecting everything from black tribal designs to a colorful octopus, said, "He's always attuned to your mood and your level of pain or discomfort. He treats customers like life-long friends, so it's a personal experience, not just a business transaction."

Margot Finn, who travels from Ann Arbor, Mich., to see Lea, has a large, complex fractal design covering most of her back. "He built the design in layers to get the effect of patterns repeating from the smallest level to the largest ," Finn said. "He managed to capture the randomness of fractals by creating a design that isn't entirely predictable or symmetrical."

Finn got to know Lea well enough to invite him to her wedding. He couldn't make it, but he dropped off two paintings as a wedding gift the next time he was in Michigan. All of the clients I spoke with see Lea not just as a tattoo artist, but as a friend, and view their relationship as a collaboration.

Lea is an anti-marketing marketing genius. His clients receive individualized care and attention, and they go out in the world and share their experience. "You do one good tattoo and ten people will want you to tattoo them," he said.

Kat Borgelt (she of the fiery-limbed tree featured on this week's NUVO cover) waited two years for a tattoo from Lea, and she didn't mind a bit. Her first email to him said, "I'm not e-mailing to schedule an appointment, but to say thank you. Thank you for finally ending my search for the perfect studio."

I hadn't heard all the hype when I first reached out to Lea. Voluta was just barely open, and I was surprised to find the studio had an email-only policy, though I appreciated it after getting tattooed. It was nice to have my Lea's full attention, uninterrupted by phone calls or random visitors showing up unannounced, asking you if it hurts, asking your artist how much it would cost for a cover up.

Lea still has one apprentice learning the craft under him: his "wife," Michele, an adorable, no-nonsense blonde with creamy skin and clear, playful eyes. They're not technically married, but they might as well be. She has a strong right brain, an easy rapport with his daughters, and she isn't shy about putting her foot down. Teaching her is easy and natural for Lea.

Michele takes her work seriously, and she's gotten good at it. I ask Conan Lea at what point in his career he began to consider himself "good." He paused, glancing to the ceiling: "Just now, I think." He's finally in a place where he feels like he can grow. The most recent bout of drama with his apprentices has liberated him; since he's not putting all of his energy into being a mentor, he's free to focus on himself as an artist.

Lea is scheduled to appear at the Motor City Tattoo Expo in Detroit in February, the Paradise Tattoo Artist Retreat in Albuquerque in March, the Hell City Tattoo Fest in Ohio in April, and the Amsterdam Tattoo Convention in the Netherlands in May.

On the home front, he has plans to invite big-name tattoo artists he admires - names like Jeff Gogue, Timothy Boor, David Cordon, Bob Tyrrell, and Jo Harrison - to hold guest chairs in his studio. He dreams that Indianapolis could become the hub of the tattoo world.

"I want Voluta to have a cluster effect," he said. "You go to L.A. to become an actor because of the cluster effect; that's where it's all happening. My intention is to electrify this place. I need artists to inspire me now. Painters, illustrators.There's a movement and I love the people in it and we're going to explode."

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