Artists In The Making: Tattooists Of Heirloom Tattoo Studio

Coming to terms with the high-stakes pressure of tattooing is part of the learning process.

  • clements tattoos

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    Photo: Mia Partlow/WFIU

    Most of the artists working at Heirloom Tattoo Studio are apprentices, learning the ropes by tattooing people they know.

  • woodaman shows off her drawings

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    Photo: Mia Partlow/WFIU

    Becky Woodaman says tattooing gives her an outlet for the skills she learned while training as an illustrator in art school.

Becky Woodaman sits on a comfortable sofa in the lobby of her tattoo studio. She’s surrounded by knick knacks, books, and tables stocked with art supplies.

“We were trying to find a space that invoked comfort. We have a lot of antiques around, it’s kind of a feel of your grandparents house,” she says.

Last winter, Woodaman decided she wanted to learn how to tattoo, so she sought out artists whose work she liked, and asked them if they wanted to open a business with her.

She found three artists, hired an experienced teacher, and together they opened Heirloom Tattoo Studio, which is tucked away above a glasswork gallery on West Sixth Street in downtown Bloomington.

There are no signs for the studio outside the building, and you probably wouldn’t be able to find it unless you knew where to look. This is by design. “I kind of like that it’s hidden,” Woodaman says. “It’s kind of like a secret.”

Learning On The Job

On a recent Thursday afternoon Kae Hutchens stood in the small studio, chatting with her apprentices about the recent tattoos they’d done.

She’s in charge of training all four apprentices, and the amount of responsibility that comes with teaching does not escape her.  “I never thought when I did take on an apprenticeship I would take on more than one at a time, so three to four is quite a load,” Hutchens says.

Hutchens has been tattooing for seven years.  At Heirloom Tattoo Studio she takes on clients as well as teaching the apprentices. She was essentially a backseat driver as the students did their first tattoos. Hutchens says she was “standing in the room, watching them, you need to back the needle off, go slower, do this, do that.”

Someone’s Gotta Go First, Might As Well Be Me

Woodaman distinctly remembers giving her first tattoo.  “It’s the most horrific experience you can ever go through,” she says. “But we started out with fruit, oranges, bananas; that’s a really good way to get familiar with the machines, getting a sense of how deep it should go.”

The first tattoo Woodaman gave under Hutchens’ guidance was on herself.  That’s common. So is tattooing friends, who get free or cheap tattoos. The artists feel more comfortable with people who know their skill level.

On a recent Friday the thirteenth, Cory Clements is tattooing his girlfriend, Erin Brady. He’s been starting slow by just tattooing his friends, and he’s given Brady several tattoos over the past few months.

“There’s so much that goes into it. For one, you can’t really rotate a person like you can a piece of paper. You have to be able to draw curves and straight lines in any direction,” Clements says.

Brady’s swirling hypno glasses will sit on her arm alongside tattoos he’d previously given her, a tooth and a hand holding a quill.  Clements has been tattooing for several months, but he’s been drawing, illustrating, and printmaking for years, and calls tattooing a “natural next step” for his art.

But it doesn’t come without its stresses. Clements says “drawing for me is a very relaxing hobby, I can just clear my mind and draw. It’s not like that with tattooing, it’s kind of the opposite.”

Learning to tattoo certainly has higher stakes than learning how to draw or paint. The marks are permanent, on someone else’s body. But Woodaman says coming to terms with the pressure is part of the learning process.

“It’s a complicated medium that really requires just practice. It is hard when you do your first tattoos, because they’re not going to be good. And I think people need to realize that going into it. It’s going to take a while to get a steady hand and a steady line. But eventually you grow confidence,” she says.

The artists at Heirloom Tattoo Studio will keep tattooing their friends until they feel comfortable taking walk-ins or appointments with strangers. They hope to have open studio hours within a year.

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Special production support for our Artist in the Making series comes from the Bloomington Arts Commission.

Mia Partlow

Mia moved to Bloomington from Louisville, Kentucky in 2002. After completing her BA at Indiana University, she lived briefly in New Orleans, and then moved to NYC to get a master's in American Studies. Now settled in Bloomington, Mia loves working with area organizations in her role as a Corporate Development associate for WFIU and WTIU. She spends most of her free time sewing and trying to tire out her energetic dog.

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