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by Dr. Buono in the November 10 Northern Express. While I applaud your enthusiasm embracing a market solution for global climate change and believe that this is a vital piece of the overall approach, it is almost laughable and at least naive to believe that your Representative Mr.

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Flesh Canvas ... Tattoo artist Curtis Conwell on original art, flash designs & coverups

Andrew Finnerty - June 30th, 2005
In a shop across from the steel buildings that make up Cadillac’s industrial district, Curtis Conwell sits at his desk sketching. This is no “regular tattoo shop” -- we’re in Universal Mutations at 916 13th Street, outpost for the man who is likely to become one of the best and most collected artists in Northern Michigan.
If you care about art, if you’re looking for something untainted by mainstream concepts and ideas, this will be your next stop. Besides the paintings, photography and sculpture this is also a tattoo studio among other things.

NE: Did you focus on art, or tattooing first?
Conwell: Art definitely came first. Ever since I was a teenager growing up in Lansing I wanted a leather jacket and a tattoo. The jacket was first also [laughs].

NE: What was the idea for your tattoo shop?
Conwell: Two years ago I wanted to build a place of my own. I’d tattooed at usual studios for eight years prior. I steered away from flash designs (pictures generated specifically for being tattooed, often not by the artist who is doing the work) on the walls to get away from the novelty of tattooing. My walls have art, and my lobby has comfy couches for people to wait on in a laid back atmosphere.
Tattoos are a very personal thing, and should be as artistic as possible, not just a thing to “pick and stick.” But that doesn’t mean you should be wary of flash artists. Portfolios are important to look at when finding your artist. I’ve just always felt I’m better than just doing flash. It’s different from most of the tattoo shops in the state.

NE: Is it important to see the other mediums of the artist before getting a tattoo?
Conwell: If you get the option, it’s nice. Personal space is a great way to know your artist, especially if it’s their artwork hanging on the walls. Sometimes you don’t get that option, and maybe more tattoo artists will put that out for others.
NE: Do you take the same approach to tattooing as you do painting?
Conwell: No, painting is less permanent [laughs]. It’s a different mind-set, but I do try to incorporate the same style. Painting is a different medium that allows me to see the colors I want in a tattoo. It gives me new perspective to what can happen to a tattoo.
NE: How has the use of the computer helped you?
Conwell: I can scan and copy portraits and have something to trace on the paper without ruining a photo. It’s awesome for cover-ups. It gives me a flat surface to draw on before I tattoo over old ink. I can flip symmetrical pieces rather than draw the second half by hand. This is the first time I’ve had a computer to incorporate into my tattooing. It’s not necessary but nice to have.

NE: Isn’t it weird that tattooing is one of the only forms of art on demand?
Conwell: Yeah, it kind of is.

NE: Has our culture finally accepted tattoos?
Conwell: Not really, but I think allowing people to see tattoos as an individual artistic expression, and not the same thing on many people will help acceptance. The more popular it gets, the more refined it will get, and more individual.

NE: Will tattoos ever get to be preserved and placed in museums?
Conwell: There are places that do that. There was an artist who recently had his skin preserved after he died. I would like to think that someday it will be possible to have something like that in a major museum, even though I know a lot a people may cringe at that idea.

NE: Is art on demand like this frustrating or inspiring?
Conwell: Both inspiring and frustrating, because I do try to create each piece. Some days I’m not in the mood to create on a whim; you can’t always force that kind of thing. I do prefer appointments just for that reason. It gives me time to prepare for the piece, to mull over it and see if new ideas can happen.
With my shop, because there isn’t flash on the walls, some people just walk in and back out. The first time that happened, I was happy to accomplish the goal of this not being your usual tattoo studio. If somebody wants a tattoo, but can’t pick from something hanging up in the shop, that forces him or her to think about what they’re doing. Maybe they shouldn’t be getting a tattoo if they can’t think.

NE: With no flash, how does that hinder the person who wants something specific?
Conwell: Well, soon, I’d like a computer in the lobby to help customers with their ideas. Not too often do I get a customer that doesn’t know what they want.
Wishy-washy people shouldn’t come into this. Very few times in 10 years have I not been able to feel out someone’s interpretation, or not have them like what I drew up.

NE: Is there any chance of seeing tattooing become a college course?
Conwell: There are technical institutes that offer certification. The arena of practice would change for artists. I don’t think it’s something that should be taught, it would cheapen it. A persons desire should be there and a love for art.
I did take a few drawing classes in college for some easy A’s. That doesn’t mean that college art classes cheapen artists. Any form of practicing and creating art is good. Once tattooing hits college, it loses its origin, but that may be because of the college.
Tattooing is therapeutic. Some scientists think some of the cavemen they’ve found with tattoos on their spines may have gotten them for pain relief. Tattooing is a transformation step, and college would just ruin that.

NE: Do the younger kids and families coming to the skateboard shop have a problem with tattoos taking place?
Conwell: We haven’t had any trouble yet. I don’t allow kids to look at the magazines.
But this isn’t the usual tattoo shop with flash all over the walls and in your face. I’m not as forthcoming with underage kids, and 16 is the youngest I’ll go. I waited until I was 18. Usually they have to impress me with how they’re coming at it, unless they’re requesting cover-up work.
Mothers and daughters come a lot together. The longer someone thinks about getting a tattoo the easier they deal with it. For some when they’re emotionally distraught, the tattoos don’t hurt as much. Your mindset will help you deal with or hinder the pain.
Somebody who’s been thinking about it for six months hasn’t spent a long time when you considered some of my own (tattoos) have been eight years before I finally went through with getting them.

NE: How do you like to be approached with a full back piece, such as myself?
Conwell: Bring in pictures, ideas, and thoughts. A theme is good also. Discussing it over the course of a month, and then working on it for a year with each new segment helped me know you were serious. If I draw something huge and nobody shows up for it, I’m out my time for the drawing that never gets presented in the proper way. I don’t charge a drawing fee though, because I’m hoping I can leave my mark on the person. I also don’t want to sit on a person’s money if they don’t come back, especially if the subject matter isn’t what I’m used to.

NE: What is the best/worst reason to get a tattoo?
Conwell: The best reason to get a tattoo is to commemorate the places you’ve been or to mark a place you were at some point in life. It’s also a transformation of the body. It’s a good feeling to know that you don’t have to look the same. It’s a great way to hold onto something, and also for self-expression and values.
A fashion statement isn’t the best reason to get tattooed, it can get annoying, but hopefully the artwork alone or the love of the art, is enough to get a tattoo. Anything that’s not well thought out is bad. There are tons of reasons good and bad, and anyone of them is good.

NE: What will get rid of the stigma tattoos carry?
Conwell: Just getting rid of people’s stubborn mindset. It’s becoming more of an art form that will hopefully become more innovative all the time. And too, as soon as the baby boom generation dies off (laughs).

NE: Is there a return to old tradition?
Conwell: Yes, well – it’s never gone away. The tattoos for cold tattooing (ink tapped into the skin with a needle and mallet); I’d like to create a modernized stainless steel version. It’s a slower process you don’t get to see it often.

NE: Does needle size matter?
Conwell: Needles just dictate how much area you’re going to cover per poke. Tattoo design dictates the needle grouping size. I use between three and 11, and that’s only because the largest tube I have right now is 11. Using a single needle for all aspects of a tattoo (shading, linework) can be damaging to the skin, because it’s being poked more times than it may need to be. I’ve never needed to go smaller than a three.

NE: What matters most when someone looks for a tattoo artist?
Conwell: Look at their portfolio first. Many artists are able to adapt to many styles people want. Depending on what you want to get, look what they’ve done in the past with black and gray, portrait, or color work.

NE: Can you tattoo over scars and chemical burns or moles?
Conwell: Scars can be touchy. Ink spread throughout the whole scar one time; a 30-year-old scar. That’s the only problem I’ve had. Scar tissue doesn’t take ink as well. Half the ink might take, because the tissue isn’t living.
Raised moles I skip over. Freckle style moles I will tattoo over if the work dictates it. If I can skip around it, that would be better. I’ve never been approached with someone who wanted his or her original skin color over chemical burn, but I’d tattoo it in stages. First, I would mix a color to fit their skin tone, let the tattoo heal, and go from there. I could lighten it after the fact, but lightening it up is harder than trying to get it darker.
And then again, joints and moveable areas heal a lot slower than flatter staying services.

NE: Tell me about tattooing without line work.
Conwell: I do what’s required for the piece, but there are pieces where I don’t have to “color inside the lines.” For realism, I may not use an outline, because you don’t see an outline around things in nature. It also helps things stay discreet and less bold. It’s more of a challenge for me without the lines, and I love the freedom.

NE: Tell me about cover-ups.
Conwell: There’s more freedom than most people think. The older a tattoo, the easier it is to tattoo over; it’s dissipated over years. New cells have been given time to grow around the tattoo. People would be surprised at what can be done with the right planning. Distracting the eye from what’s underneath is the key to a good cover-up. You can even make really black ink lighter.

NE: How did you get so good at portrait work?
Conwell: I drew people’s senior pictures in high school for presents. Really though, I just practiced so many different faces. The face is the hardest aspect of the body to master, so I forced myself to practice that.


 
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