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February 17, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco @lvivanco | RedEye

Dave Kunesh first dabbled in the world of tattooing before he was a teenager.

As a kid, he stumbled upon a tattoo catalogue that his dad, who toyed with the idea of becoming an artist himself, had left behind in the basement. Kunesh, now 40, started drawing designs from that catalogue when he was bored but soon shelved it and turned his attention to airbrushing T-shirts and walls.

When he was 20, he painted a mural at a tattoo shop in Berwyn. He hung out at the shop for a few months and became friends with a tattoo artist, closely watching him work.

The shop got busy and needed another tattoo artist, so Kunesh, then 21, gave it a shot. After a month of training and three practice tattoos on his dad, brother and friend, he took on actual customers and has been tattooing ever since. His star client is Derrick Rose, who has the image of a wizard on his arm along with a reference to his nickname, Pooh. Rose also has a Kunesh portrait of Malcolm X on his calf and a picture of the city skyline on his hand.

“Tattooing is cool and it affords a lifestyle that I can do my art always,” said Kunesh, who goes by his childhood nickname, Shred, and owns Shred’s Inferno in West Lawn. “I don’t have to clock in to a 9-to-5, come home and try to juggle things and doodling here and there. It’s something that is full-on for me.”

The art of tattooing has become big business in TV land too.

What once was TLC’s niche with “LA Ink” has expanded to at least a handful of reality shows on different networks. Oxygen’s “Best Ink” and Spike’s “Tattoo Nightmares” were renewed for second seasons. VH1 started airing episodes of its new series “Black Ink Crew” while Spike recently picked up “Tattoo Rescue” and held a casting call last month in Chicago for the third season of “Ink Master.”

The shows put the lifestyle, industry and competitiveness on display just as much as the artistry itself. 

“It is hard work, and anybody who thinks it’s not is kidding themselves,” said Hannah Aitchison, an artist at Deluxe Tattoo in Lakeview and a judge on “Best Ink.”

She estimates she works about 80 hours a week preparing for tattoos and inking clients. 

Many artists spend the majority of the workday at tattoo shops, holding what feels like a vibrating brick in their hands as they contort their bodies to ink customers at the proper angles. 

As the buzz of tattoo machines rings in their ears, artists try to engage their clients, keep them entertained and distract them to manage pain. 

After tattoos are completed, the artists often are hunched over tables for hours, drawing designs and portraits. In their spare time, many paint in mediums such as watercolor and oil.

Take home pay for tattoo artists vary widely based on factors such as hourly rates and location. The typical salary in the U.S. can range from $20,000 to $47,000, according to payscale.com. But some artists make even more money. 

Shops usually have a minimum fee, and artists set hourly rates for tattoos. Chicago’s Taylor Street Tattoo has a $60 minimum while High Voltage Tattoo in L.A., where “LA Ink” was filmed, requires at least a $200 charge. Aitchison said her typical hourly rate is $200, while High Voltage Tattoo artists charge nearly double. Even the tips fluctuate—many clients pick a random amount, not a percentage.

In Chicago, tattoo parlors, not the artists, have to be registered with the state and licensed by the city. 

Aitchison was working a series of unfulfilling jobs as a single mother when her brother, a tattoo artist, suggested she try tattooing. As a kid, she drew and killed time with a box of crayons. She even had done portraits, illustrations and graphic work for extra money but never pursued an art career.

She started a yearlong apprenticeship, like most artists do. She shadowed artists, learned the technical aspects of the trade, practiced drawing tattoos and cleaned up after people at the shop.

First, she practiced on grapefruits and bananas, but gradually got more experience, practicing on another apprentice and eventually moving on to tattooing strangers.

She’s been tattooing for 17 years. One day, an ex of “LA Ink” star Kat Von D referred her for the show, and Aitchison appeared on the first two seasons. 

She said misconceptions persist about the industry.

“Probably the biggest stereotype is we’re a bunch of party animals who goof off,” Aitchison said. “The guys I work with are as serious as a heart attack about the job.”

What they value is the freedom.

“I don’t have nobody breathing down my neck. I don’t have to wear a crappy uniform. I don’t get paid a minimum wage,” said BJ Storms, 31, a tattoo artist at Code of Conduct in the South Loop.

Storms, whose first professional tattoo five years ago was an image of Beyonce he put on his own thigh, has dealt with strange tattoo requests.

A few years ago, a 6-foot-4 man came into a downtown tattoo shop wanting a tattoo that read “I hate my mom” on his forehead, Storms said.
Storms complied—but only after he pissed off the customer by asking whether he was sure he really wanted the tattoo.

The job itself can be rewarding when the customer chooses the artist over others and is happy with the finished product.

“They trusted my ability to do something on them that’s there for life, and that’s awesome,” Storms said.

lvivanco@tribune.com

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