If you don't know what the buzz of a tattoo gun sounds like, you can find out, even if you're not ready to have its needle meet your skin. Tattoo City Underground, the Indy area's first major tattoo convention in over 10 years, convenes in Plainfield this month for a three-day celebration of a centuries-old art form that's as popular now as ever before. Local artists and studios will be on hand, as well as tattoo artists and enthusiasts from all over the country and around the world.
An artist, first and foremost
I'm in Muncie, at Lucky Rabbit Tattoos, talking to Dan Stewart, a featured artist at Tattoo City Underground. The town is draped in Ball State banners welcoming students back to campus.
"This is a good demographic," Stewart tells me. "College students and hardworking people." He's in the front room of the studio, working on a full back piece, an album cover from the group Sublime. The guy on the table, college aged, seems unfazed by the whole thing. In fact, he appears to be drifting in and out of sleep.
Stewart views himself as an artist, first and foremost, which makes sense, and which is why tattoo conventions are so interesting for people who aren't necessarily covered head to toe in tattoos. The practice usually starts with being an excellent artist.
"If you're not a good artist first, it's probably not a good idea to get into tattooing," Stewart says. "Most of my guys came from fine arts degrees."
Of course, not many people think that you need to get a fine arts degree in order to give a good tattoo, but it's like any art: you can go to school to refine your craft, but you don't have to. A lot of it is about practice and experimentation.
Tattooing has been steadily moving away from the biker stereotype and is finally being appreciated as a fine art. "It's moved away from 'biker' to middle of the road, for sure," Stewart says. "We're taking it to the other end of the spectrum, making it a totally legit art. Everyone at these shows really acknowledges the art."
Stewart specializes in black and white photographic images, which obviously requires quite a bit of knowledge about several different genres of art. "As a young kid," he says, "I always drew sports figures, and I started doing portraits really early on in my career — it was just something I could wrap my mind around."
In high school, Stewart didn't go anywhere without a drawing tablet; he was always doodling or working on something for art class. After high school, he went into the military as a laboratory technician. This experience taught him a lot about the medical side of tattooing. It also helped him learn how to be organized and develop an extreme attention to detail.
When Stewart decided to be a full-time artist, he got a job in a studio in Findlay, Ohio, and then eventually made his way to Central Indiana with the hope of running his own place. Achieving this goal took a locked-in focus and countless hours of practice. "You've got to put the work in," he says. "Keep an open mind, develop your skill set, do the shows, do the tours. If you're good at home, what good is that?"
For a long time, Stewart loved the challenge of customers bringing in different images that he could master, but these days it's almost switched around: now he challenges his customers. "Someone will bring something in and I'll be like, 'let's make it difficult,'" he says. "I'll spit out this design and people love it. That's the new challenge."
He describes a recent project that really stands out. A guy walked in and said that he wanted a whale. The more Stewart talked to him, the more unique and personalized the piece became. By the time Stewart finished his design, it had evolved and expanded into a whole underwater sleeve scene, and they both were quite proud of it.
"I've been really working hard lately at giving my tattoos an oil painting feel," Stewart says. "I'm also trying to stay true to a photo and creating a lot of depth." He has refined his craft to such a high level that he now teaches advanced black-and-gray portrait techniques.
The only design ideas that Stewart ever turns down are images that go against his morals — anything having to do with racism, for example. Most of the time, the design process becomes a collaborative effort between Stewart and the customer to come up with something that they both love.