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Ink life

Think you know about tattoo artists? Think again

February 28, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco, 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 being a tattoo artist himself, had left behind in the basement. Kunesh, 40, who counts Derrick Rose among his clients today, started out 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 Rose, who has the image of a wizard on his arm along with a reference to his nickname, Pooh. Rose also has a 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. "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." Kunesh goes by his childhood nickname, Shred, and owns Shred's Inferno in West Lawn.

The art of tattooing is becoming 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 the "Best Ink" competition show.

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 right angles.

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

After tattoos are completed, the artists are often hunched over tables for hours, drawing designs and portraits for future tattoos. 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 for tattoo artists in the U.S. can range from a low of $20,000 to a high of $47,000, according to payscale.com, an online salary database. But some artists make even more money. Shops usually have a minimum fee, and artists set hourly rates for tattoos. Both can vary in price. For example, Chicago's Taylor Street Tattoo has a $60 minimum fee while High Voltage Tattoo in L.A. where "LA Ink" was filmed charges a $200 shop minimum. Aitchison said her typical hourly rate is $200 while High Voltage artists charge double. Even the tips fluctuate as many clients pick a random amount, not a percentage, they feel comfortable giving.

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 had even done portraits, illustrations and graphic work for extra money but never pursued an art career.

She started a year-long apprenticeship, like most artists. 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. She 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. 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 tall man came into a downtown tattoo shop wanting a tattoo that read "I hate my mom" on his forehead, Storms said. He complied only after he pissed off the man 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 | @lvivanco

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