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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.
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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