I started at the bottom of the tattoo industry in 1999 in a street shop. I earned the first seven years of stripes at open door, walk-in parlors. It was hilarious at first. But in time the door--the open door--started to wear on me. Not knowing who would walk in next in what condition. The door dominated my space, my vision, my mind. Drunks, hustlers and even the good folk who distrusted me because of the shop itself. I despise that sort of exchange, the hustle for more art or less payment. This is the worst grounds for permanent art. Who wins this way? The disheartened artist or the client with the uninspired tattoo? Madness.
I realized what made most tattoo shops rough: the vibe. Once past the whole open door hang up, I determined that vibe was everything. Bad vibes are contagious. Artist to client, client back at artist. If you’ve ever walked into a shop like this, you know what I mean. The ill vibe rolls right over you. Eventually artist hates shop hates client hates shop...which is all woven into your tattoo. I needed my own studio where I would create my own vibe. Where I would work exclusively among and upon amazing people.
Good vibes paid off in 2006 when Turner Woodard, gentleman and entrepreneur, allowed me to put my studio in his amazing Stutz Building. I couldn’t believe it. This enormous artist colony, stylishly bustling with every kind of art you could think of and one tattoo studio? Too good to be true. I’ll never forget the day Turner changed the course of my life with a handshake. Good vibes, Turner!
I carried the vibe into Voluta. I designed the studio to overwhelm, to blanket the senses, to soothe the nerves of artists and collectors alike. I set out to create a place where people were shut off from themselves and their fears. I wanted to control mood and fear by controlling the sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations of the client. Since tattoo scares us aplenty, I wanted to soften the lower brain so collectors could enjoy themselves. And so artists would love coming to work everyday.
I made Voluta so I'd have a home for my craft and the people I loved. I wanted to inspire my daughters, to build a thrilling and beautiful backdrop to their youth unlike anything else. I wanted them to be proud of me and to love art as much as I did as a boy. Also, Voluta had to be comfortable for my diverse and longstanding clientele. Grads to Grannys, pastors to pole dancers, proud and gay to straight and narrow. If you could play nice and collect great ink, you balanced Voluta.
I realized in the early days of the web that the clients I loved most found me online. I built conanlea.com in 2000 and maintained it with an ever-swelling portfolio. This attracted my kind of collector: like minds, savvy minds, minds too smart to suffer street shop experiences. I decided in 2003 to offer private and convention tattoo by appointment only, by email and with hefty deposits. Making this a founding principle of Voluta was risky, but for me it weeded out the weirdoes and brought to Voluta only smiling faces. This door, at last, brought me peace of mind. It held out the people I'd never want to tattoo anyway. It brought me closer to my clients and my craft.
I wasn’t looking for a big shop. I never intended to fill the place with ink slingers just to turn a buck. Many great clients waited months for tattoos by me and my one set of hands. I was grateful for those who waited, but I could never catch up. I set out to find some talented folks and teach them to tattoo.
Learning to tattoo at Voluta is probably the greatest way to learn the skill. Those who know the business and the craft are astounded at how swiftly and thoroughly a Voluta apprentice becomes a world class tattoo artist. Nobody gets a chance to rest for long before the next level of learning is upon them. This is hard work.
I tried teaching tattoo, and I failed. A few times. I’m not easy to work for. The ink is forever. Every tattoo that comes out of Voluta bears my reputation. I demand a lot of an artist who wants to be a tattoo professional. This kind of person is hard to find (or maybe it’s just me). Ultimately, I gave up that idea and decided to go with the old-fashioned way of hiring: Find the best and invite them to join. Stay tuned....
I designed the stations, the systems, the processes and the website. Lacking what I needed, I simply invented it, pieced it together or hired someone smarter than me to do so. I compiled software bundles, learned a million new skills and made strategic alliances to make Voluta hum. I watched the technological advances of the industry, and I bought and tried every bit of it.
My close friends said it would happen. The business books I taught myself from promised it. I saw glimpses of it in other great businesses and families. Hard work around solid principles, perseverance married to patience, genuine creative passion, win-win practices...this brought Voluta to critical mass. By the power of so many kind exchanges between clients and artists, the studio took a breath. Voluta Tattoo became a living space.