A canvas of flesh: Artists bring passion, skill to Northern Michigan tattoo shops

Remember when you'd see a tattoo and you'd kind of cock your head to the side trying to figure out just what it was? The images were usually really, really blurry and the art wasn't always so hot. But, those were tattoos.

But no longer is that the case, for the most part. Tattoo artists aren't just folks who decided they should start inking human flesh for a living. The work being done today is detailed, colorful and turning into their own version of fine art. Many tattoo artists were painters and illustrators before they were tattooists, even here in the northern reaches of Michigan.

Take Ram Lee, of Traverse City, and Dan Pemble, of Marquette, for example. Both of these tattoo artists have outstanding reputations in the towns that they serve. Take a quick look at their portfolios and you'll see why. It's clear that both Lee and Pemble, and many tattoo professionals like them, are artists foremost above anything else.

"It has never been a question of what I would do. I mean, not specifically tattooing, but it has always been about art," says Pemble. "My kindergarten teacher never asked me if I wanted to be a firefighter, or a policeman, or a doctor. Even at that age I knew I would be an artist. The bug never left. It has been a constant focus my entire life. Once in college, I received my (bachelor's of fine arts) with a concentration in illustration."

Pemble's ability to illustrate is clear. From his extremely photorealistic portraits to his incredibly detailed line work, he takes every customer's request as a personal challenge to do his best.

"My focus is first and foremost directed towards my clients' designs," says Pemble. "I try to put as much time and effort into making their piece the best I can."

Lee says that he loves art. It's what has helped him become so passionate about the work he does for others.

"It's a permanent piece of art," says Lee, who had a booth set up at the Traverse City Cherry Capital Convention earlier this year. "You have to do your best work. It's not like a piece of paper where you can just erase it and start over. Everything you do has to be your best because it represents you as an artist as much as it represents the person you tattooed."

Lee spends most of his time inking these days, but that wasn't always the case. For a long stretch in his professional career his focus was fine art and not human flesh. But it was the art, Lee says, that drew him to tattooing fulltime and, eventually, opening his own store in Traverse City.

Both Pemble and Lee have only had their own shops a relatively short length of time. Pemble's Sacred Tattoo, located on Washington Street in Marquette, opened three years ago. Lee's Traverse City Tattoos, located above the Xylo Bistro Cafe, opened just this year.

"It's exciting," says Lee of opening his own brick-and-mortar business. "I love this area. I love the people. I'm glad to be able to have my shop here. It's home."

Like most tattoo artists, both Lee and Pemble have a variety of work done on themselves. And, like anyone should be, they are very picky about who gets to work on them and what gets inked on their bodies.

But that likely comes from how much they care about the "artist" tag in their job title and a lot less to do with being ink enthusiasts.

"I was kind of a late bloomer as far as receiving tattoos goes," says Pemble. "I was an artist first and an enthusiast second. I think too many people in the industry entered because they were enthusiasts first, and then thought they would give the artist part a shot."

While neither Pemble nor Lee discussed the fact that there are lots of bad tattoos out there and nearly as many bad tattooists, both of them said they still find themselves appreciating the art that is being done all around them--and not just with tattoo needles.

"Just take a look around," says Lee, gesturing at artists' alley in the middle of the comic convention. "So many of these guys are amazing artists and I can't believe how great some of the art is. It's wonderful."

Pemble, who has two artists working with him at Sacred, said he doesn't have to go far to appreciate outstanding fine art--in fact, seeing the work his colleagues are doing with mediums outside of ink gets him thinking about diving back in.

"I don't do as much art, outside of tattooing as I wish I was able to," he says. "There is just not enough time in a day. The guys at the shop (Ben DeLano and Micah Gunderson) are consistently turning out amazing paintings and they inspire me to try and keep up."

When Lee doesn't have time to turn to canvas, he applies his skills in another interesting way--he creates custom shoes. His designs have been sought after by both collectors and the casual wearer alike.

"It's funny because you get people who want to buy the shoes and display them at home like a piece of art and showcase them that way," says Lee. "Then you get people who just want really unique shoes to wear. They'll use them and wear them and then they'll come back for another pair. It's really fun and I love doing it."

For Lee and Pemble, it's always about the art. They strive to be the best, constantly learning more about the industry and trying to find way to better serve their customer and to better their skill.

"You're only as good as the last tattoo you did," says Lee. "You've always got to be your best. It's not just for the customer that you're working with, but for yourself and because that's what is expected of you when they come to you for your art."

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor and was born and raised in Michigan. He has several tattoos, including work done by Dan Pemble. He can be reached via email.

Photos by Shawn Malone
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