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The saga of the three (former) apprentices 

click to enlarge Tattoo artists Laura Black (left), Gerrit Verplank and Dina Verplank formed Firefly Tattoo Collective in 2012.
  • Tattoo artists Laura Black (left), Gerrit Verplank and Dina Verplank formed Firefly Tattoo Collective in 2012.

Last week's cover story on tattoo artist Conan Lea and his studio, Voluta Tattoo, included a few paragraphs on recent drama in his work life. According to Lea, three of his apprentices quit on him last August while he was on vacation, making off with the studio's customer database in the process.

When we started reporting the story last fall, the former apprentices declined to comment on the situation without offering further explanation. After we published the piece, they told us that they had been advised by their lawyer to stay mum because Lea had filed a lawsuit against them, and that, the lawsuit having been dropped, they're ready to talk. In the interest of fairness, we'd like to give them space to tell their side of the story. It's also a good chance to say more about what they're up to now.

First the reveal: the former apprentices, unnamed in the story, are Laura Black and Dina and Gerrit Verplank (sister and brother, respectively), and they together founded Firefly Tattoo Collective last year. Here's their take on several elements from last week's story:

a) According to Lea's account as printed in last week's story, "As they neared the end of their apprenticeship, he asked them to step up their game and submit to a quarterly reviewing process. Then they left." The Firefly artists dispute this storyline, saying that they finished their apprenticeships under Lea and began working as independent contractors a year before they left. They say that Lea placed inordinate demands on them at the meeting mentioned in the story, and that Voluta had become a hostile environment by the time they left. Moreover, they say that only two of the artists - Laura Black and Dina Verplank - quit their jobs at the studio, whereas Gerrit Verplank was fired.

b) They report that they made $75 per hour at the beginning of their apprenticeships, not $125 per hour, as Lea reports in the story. Only two of the artists were making $125 an hour at the end of their time at Voluta; one artist was making $100 an hour.

Lea verified the above facts when reached yesterday, noting that the artists were independent contractors for a year, that Gerrit Verplank was fired and that the stated salaries are accurate (though he disagrees with the notion that his demands were unreasonable, saying that he had crafted an employee evaluation document modeled after those of Apple and Google).

c) They cited Lea's internships on their online biography pages in the interest of "taking the high road" and avoiding unnecessary drama. They have since cleansed their website of any mention of Lea.

d) They didn't steal the studio's client database or compromise clients' personal information when they left the studio. As Black puts it, "When we left, we did not steal any clients, but we let everyone know that we wouldn't be there anymore, and let everyone have the opportunity to do what they wanted to do." Gerrit Verplank adds, "And it was all done through e-mail; there was no stealing of anything."

Lea denies this interpretation, claiming that the artists stole a hard drive containing client information and that, regardless of how the information was used, it was still a theft of property that belonged to him as the owner of Voluta Tattoo.

Short of hiring a detective, we'll have to complete our reporting on this issue with this public airing of opinions.

click to enlarge Tattoos (from left) by Dina Verplank, Gerrit Verplank and Laura Black.
  • Tattoos (from left) by Dina Verplank, Gerrit Verplank and Laura Black.

In the end, the artists are "grateful" to Lea for launching them in the business, but the time had come for them to leave, and they were by no means required to work for him forever simply because they had served apprenticeships under him. "It's like having a baby with someone and then divorcing," Dina Verplank says. "You'll always be grateful for that child, but then doesn't mean you have to like that person."

Their new venture, Firefly, located in a mellow, lilac-painted space in The Academy at Lockerbie, is run as a collective, with equal ownership and equal investment by all three and decisions made collectively. While each may take on just about any piece, they have specific styles and interests. Gerritt Verplank says he's best at "realism portraiture"; a Lincoln tattoo on the back of his business card attests to his skill as an illustrator. Black's work is informed, as she puts it, by "fine, ornate detail"; she's also expert in the art of pyansky, or Ukrainian egg painting, a practice that requires a steady hand and significant investment of time. Dina Verplank, who says she "creates art every single day," is moved to create "colorful, whimsical, flowing, bright" work, both as a painter and tattoo artist, though that's not to say she's not willing to do a zombie tattoo.

In the end, they say they're more comfortable at Firefly than Voluta. "Since we've left, we're better artists; we don't stress," Dina Verplank says. And they're committed to moving forward after their strained departure from Voluta: "This is the last we are going to publicly talk about it," Gerritt Verplank says. "My focus is on my family, my children, my clients and my art."

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