The Art of Ink

Cincinnati tattooists demonstrate the many facets of an evolving industry

click to enlarge Carter Gilliss works on a tattoo design at Designs by Dana in Northside.
Carter Gilliss works on a tattoo design at Designs by Dana in Northside.


umans have been introducing ink to skin for thousands of years. Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old mummified iceman, had more than 60 tattoos, a series of lines created by applying charcoal to strategic puncture wounds. Explorer James Cook wrote about the body art of New Zealand’s Maori tribe in the 18th century, created by carving designs into the skin with a chisel and mallet and coloring the grooves with natural pigments. And the body of King Harold II of England, who died in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was identified by the tattoo over his heart that read “Edith and England,” for his wife and country. 

In the U.S., modern tattooing can be traced back to 1891, when tattooist Samuel O’Reilly of New York created the first tattoo machine by modifying Thomas Edison’s patented Stencil-Pen. (Edison, it should be noted, also had a tattoo: a series of five dots on his forearm.) Since then, tattooing trade secrets have been passed down from tattooist to sanctioned apprentices capable of proving their dedication to the craft.

Despite what the tattoo reality TV shows would have us all believe, unless one has entree into the subcultures in which tattooing originated in this country — which up until only a few decades ago was mainly limited to the military and motorcycle subcultures — we’ll probably never know the full story of a trade that seduces the wearer with the illusion of near-permanence in an impermanent world, not to mention one which has historically marked people as social outliers.

Nowadays, of course, everyone and their mother has a tattoo. Industry confidences that were once shared among only a select few are now available via YouTube tutorials and online certification. And as with many things “counterculture,” when having tattoos became more commonplace, so did the proliferation of approaches to the craft.

There are positive consequences of the increasing normalization of tattooing within popular culture. Today, Instagram, Pinterest and other social media allow people to see what tattoo artists working in a studio or a walk-up shop are doing in real time all over the world, adding to the visual collage we accept as normal or otherwise.

Tattoo shops are cleaner than ever and have entered a sanitary level previously reserved for dentistry and medical fields. Shops are even required to keep logs of spore counts and other sterilization procedures for Board of Health inspections.

It would be next to impossible to cover all of the tattooists who are currently working in Cincinnati and doing quality, custom work. In just the past 40 years alone, the industry has moved from a dying art form with only a couple hundred practicing tattooers to an over-saturated market where you can find a shop near almost any entertainment district, vacation spot or college town. The industry is not only booming, local tattooists say, but also perhaps currently witnessing an aesthetic renaissance.   


Well over a dozen TV shows about tattooing are currently being broadcast around the world, with such clever and original-sounding names as NY Ink, LA Ink, Miami Ink, Ink Master, Best Ink, Bad Ink, each featuring a never-ending queue of deeply profound stories connected to every customer’s requested “ink” design.

In the real world of non-scripted reality, people get tattoos for as many reasons as there are people getting tattoos these days — which is a lot. More than one in five U.S. adults have at least one tattoo, according to a 2012 poll by market research firm Harris Interactive.

Often, tattoos mark a defining moment in one’s life — marriage, divorce, having a child, the death of a loved one, etc. — so people who are inclined to dramatic gestures (and what could be more dramatic than permanently marking your body?) increasingly wear their heart on their sleeve. 

Jason Brunson continues the family tattooing legacy of his parents, Dana and Dot, whose shop includes a museum dedicated to tattoo history.
Photo: Jesse Fox

But the meaning of a tattoo for another person can be as simple as an arbitrary reminder of who they were with on a certain day, what they were doing and why they decided to pull the trigger.

Local tattooer Jason Brunson of Designs by Dana says reality shows have made many people overthink the meaning behind their tattoos.

“Literally, every single person they cast on there has some crazy story about how their uncle is represented by this koi,” he says. “It’s just a koi.”

Brunson pauses, adding, “Sometimes the experience is more than the story.”

Brunson describes the time he got tattooed by “Bowery” Stan Moskowitz, a forefather of New York City tattooing whose own father was taught by Charlie Wagner, another infamous Bowery tattooist who practiced in that notoriously rough neighborhood in Manhattan for more than 50 years starting in the 1890s. Brunson jumped at the chance to get a tattoo by the mythic figure, but he had no plans for the design — the gravity was in the experience.

“He was like, ‘What do you want?’ ” Brunson says. “I was like, ‘I don’t care. Just do whatever you want.’ It was more about getting tattooed by him than it was about what I was getting.”

If tattooists seem to have little regard for a majority of the population’s social expectations, many of the good ones conversely know their history and have respect for the guys who paved the way for them.

Brunson was able to identify with Moskowitz on another level. Both are second-generation tattooers — a rarity in the industry. “Most second-generation people in tattooing don’t continue the tradition,” Brunson says. “It’s a very slim few that actually have over the years, so it’s very rare that the dad, mom and the kid all tattoo.”

This is indeed the case for Brunson, whose father Dana and mother Dot have been tattooing out of their Designs by Dana shop in Northside since 1987.

Dana got his start tattooing when he came back from Vietnam in the ’70s. He learned from a tattooist in Fayetteville, N.C., named Dave “D.C.” Paul, who had been trained and tattooed by Spaulding and Rogers, two early tattooing American entrepreneurs who started an American-manufactured tattoo supply business more than 60 years ago — a “huge name in tattooing” as the younger Brunson says.

When Dana first moved to Cincinnati in 1977, he worked at the only tattoo shop in town at the time: House of Tattoo at Ninth and Race streets. Jason joined the family business in the early ’90s, and the family opened a second Dana’s location in Covington during the early 2000s.


If an aspiring tattooist wants a proper tattooing apprenticeship, he or she should expect to spend months learning about the history of the craft, how to build machines and mix pigments, why designs are drawn in particular ways to stand the test of time and more before they ever get to touch an actual live person with a needle.

At that point, an apprentice might spend as little as six months or as long as five to seven years working side by side with a mentor, mimicking approved designs and gradually building up to bigger and more complicated pieces.

“I don’t think you’ll learn anything in under six months” Brunson says. “If you do, I think you’re getting shortchanged. Honestly, I think it takes a minimum of a year to even kind of understand what’s going on.”

And yet there are various approaches to tattooing which require different kinds of training. For instance, people are doing tattoos as make-up these days (i.e. “permanent make-up”). Learning to apply diminutive tattoos on delicate facial skin to resemble eyeliner, lipstick, filled-in eyebrows and more requires a different type of training than, say, the extended Irezumi Japanese apprenticeships, where tattooers are educated in the highly traditional and very secretive practice of tattooing full body suits onto their clients.

According to local tattooer Mike “the Girl” Curnayn, who has been tattooing for 17 years, the training process to learn permanent make-up is a bit different. Curnayn did her apprenticeship at Glenn Scott’s Tattoo in Dayton — a “classic, old school bike-type shop,” she says — and it was a striking contrast to the training she received almost a decade later for permanent make-up. Although she only spent a month at an advanced training school in Florida, Curnayn says she made it through the course quickly because she had prior tattoo experience.

In addition to conventional tattoos, Mike “the Girl” Curnayn does permanent make-up — tattoos resembling eyeliner, lipstick and filled-in eyebrows — at her Blue Ash shop.
Photo: Jesse Fox

In addition to the conventional tattoos she gives at her shop Hold Fast Tattoo/Permanent Make-up in Blue Ash, Curnayn also tattoos on eyelids, in and on lips, the inside of ears and even through scar tissue.

Factors such as skin pigment, age, health, the amount of freckles or moles one has, even the weather, can affect the way in which tattoos are applied, as well as the way they heal. It’s a nuanced craft, which takes years of dedication and obsession to figure out some of the specific procedural ins and outs.

The equipment Curnayn uses for both her permanent make-up work as well as her conventional tattooing allows her to control needle depth, speed and force of the application, helping her translate her skills into a different kind of bodily decoration.

The specific certifications for permanent make-up and the legalities of tattooing on people’s faces can vary from state to state, so it remains to be seen what the long-term effects of applying tattoos to faces by those with limited training might look like in several years time.


Most tattoo artists would deny that what they do could be considered fine art that just so happens to be on skin. Some classically trained artists-cum-tattooers like locals Carter Gilliss and his wife Dasha feel like, at least in the early stages of their apprenticeship, their art education mattered very little. Both are fine art graduates of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning who regularly showed their work in galleries around town prior to tattooing on a regular basis; they both currently work at Designs by Dana.

“Something Dana always said was that he’d rather train a plumber than an artist because they’re just going to learn the technique,” Carter says. “They’re not going to have an ego, they’re not going to worry about wowing people with art stuff. They’re just going to learn to do the thing as well as they can, which is ultimately more important when it comes down to it.”

For Carter, once he and Dasha had kids, he no longer felt comfortable painting in oils and being covered in cadmium, which requires toxic turpentine to remove. So he switched to watercolor and ink, which is quicker — “You’re always a minute from a stopping point,” he says — and more consistent with the type of flash art he now copies and creates as a tattooist.

When it comes down to it, the thing that most tattoo clients really want is a chance to visibly differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd, and what a better way to do something like that than specialize in your own tattooing style?

Kore Flatmo of PluraBella Tattoo, a local appointment-only tattoo studio, is one such artist who attracts what he calls the “more serious-minded client.” Flatmo’s clients are often willing travel from abroad just to get a tattoo from him, many interested in “large format work, up to and including body suits,” he says. His is a more private and personalized experience than a busy street-accessible storefront could provide.

Flatmo, who just began his 24th year of tattooing, is known for his strikingly realistic-looking black and grey work, which when done in large format can take on sculptural qualities.

Some of Flatmo’s work was recently shown at the Somerset House in London as a part of the exhibit Time: Tattoo Art Today, curated by Tattoo Life publisher Miki Vialetto and tattoist Claudia de Sabe. Yet despite his international reputation as an artist, active gallery practice and the fact that his work is breathtakingly gorgeous, Flatmo does not see himself as a fine artist.

“I’ve always seen and understood tattooing as folk art,” Flatmo says. “One person tattooing another, accessible by all, defined by its lack of mediation and its human error along the way.

“For me,” he continues, “it’s always guided by the idea, ‘This is a tattoo first,’ rather than how much does it look like the subject we’re referencing or, for that matter, how much does it look like the study I’ve created. Ultimately, it’s putting the look of the tattoo first over the idea of using tattooing to create the look of what is rightly praised in various other media.”


Abi Francis got her first tattoo at the age of 20, but it was another decade before she began getting heavily tattooed. At age 33, her body is now about 35 to 40 percent covered in tattoos, and she got the majority after she was 30. Even so, she has gone through the  “insanely painful” and expensive laser process to have one of her tattoos removed, just a little over year ago.

It was a piece she refers to as “shark tooth pizza,” a stick and poke design — a style of tattooing that uses a traditional needle like a sewing needle to pierce the skin — of a shark’s tooth that ended up looking more like a slice of pizza. The one-inch-by-one-inch design on her hand was done by a “very clean” ex-friend in a well-known punk house in Columbus, during a time when Francis says she was “kind of in a weird place,” so removing it was something she wanted to do almost immediately.

Classic tattoo designs on the wall at Designs by Dana.
Photo: Jesse Fox

“It actually wasn’t a difficult decision at all,” she says about making the choice to get it removed. “The person who did it and that time in my life, I didn’t have any good memories of. Also, I have really nice tattoos so it didn’t fit in.”

A healthcare worker who wears scrubs everyday and regularly interacts with patients, Francis says she just wanted to be able to perform her job without distracting her patients with her appearance. “It should never be about me,” she says regarding the tendency for tattoos to become a topic of discussion with strangers.

Because stick and poke tattoos aren’t particularly deep or dark, Abi’s odd little triangle came off fairly well in one sitting. “Now it just kind of looks like I wrote something on my hand a few days ago,” she jokes.

And while she thinks the $225 she spent removing the image was well worth it, if it had been larger and harder to remove (as most machine-tattooed work is) she might have reconsidered the pain and the expense. “I don’t have any tattoos I regret and I don’t regret the one [I got] removed,” she says. “I just don’t wanna look at the memories that it’s linked to everyday.” 

For many tattooers, the idea of “permanence” is less important than having something that looks appropriate for one’s body as it ages.

“I think there’s something really nice about seeing old tattoos that look like old tattoos,” says Carter of Dana’s. “Sometimes people come in [who are in] their fifties or sixties and they’ve got something that’s 30 to 40 years old that they want to cover up or fix.”

Carter says he’s doesn’t typically encourage covering up older pieces, which tell the story of that person’s life as they’ve lived it.

“There’s something much more interesting about a tattoo that looks like it’s had some life to it,” he says.

Brunson reiterates that the experience of getting a tattoo might be what sticks with you more than the piece itself.

“A lot of tattooers think it’s more about them than the client,” he says. “But they’re the ones that have to wear it indefinitely. I see it for a few hours while I’m doing it and maybe I’ll see it again, maybe I won’t.

“I always give it my all to make it the best tattoo possible, but you wanna make it a good experience more than anything.” ©

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