By Maegan Hafley, Staff Writer. Published April 1, 2011
There is no greater welcome than a “C’mon in, baby doll.” While I hopped up into the second tattoo seat, I watched in amazement as Brandon Turner naturally, yet diligently, gave a husky man a tattoo on his calf. As he stopped to adjust his position, Brandon said with a grin on his face, “Maybe someday I’ll learn what the f*** I’m doin’.”
At age 33, Brandon has become established and recognized for his talent at Inkwell, a local tattoo business located in Fairview Heights. Brandon puts his own personal twist into every tattoo, which makes each one he completes genuine and unfeigned. With Brandon constantly belting out new amazing tats, it’s no wonder he has a line of loyal customers.
Before coming to Inkwell, Brandon hung out with his fellow workers way before he became a professional tattoo artist. As time passed and they grew closer, they all found out they had a common interest: tattooing. Brandon was driven to learn how to give tattoos, so he first concentrated on becoming skilled at tattoo flash on his own. Tattoo flash are usually stereotypical tattoo designs that are drawn to show the artists ability. They are sometimes displayed in tattoo parlors and binders to give walk-in customers ideas for tattoos. “I wasn’t horrible, but I wasn’t good either,” said Brandon. Brandon persevered and made money when he could, but practice was the key.
After practicing tattoo flash for almost three years, Brandon finally was able to get an apprenticeship at Inkwell; however, it was not necessarily under happy circumstances. Unfortunately, Brandon took the place of a former employee named Chris. Chris was a friend of Brandon’s whom he had known for about ten years when he died unexpectedly of a heart aneurism. “He was a good dude, flakey, but a good dude.” In remembrance of Chris, Inkwell currently closes their shop every year on June 16th to party hard. “We head over to Brad’s house, have a huge party, grill up some food, and get shitfaced drunk.”
Despite the situation, Brandon readily took the apprenticeship. “I said I couldn’t work Thursdays or Sundays. They told me they needed me to work on Thursdays and Sundays. Pretty soon, I was working like a bitch.” Throughout his time as a trainee, Brandon was a front guy – the guy who was always there to do what the workers needed, similar to how a receptionist is to an office executive. He would clean the tubes, go get lunch, answer the phones. What is surprising was that Brandon survived “only on tips alone”. “Damn,” I said softly. “Yeah, being an apprentice sucks.” The husky guy turned to Brandon and said, “I bet it paid off, though.” As Brandon reached for some more paper towels, he replied, “It definitely did.”
When Brandon’s first opportunity came to tattoo on a customer, he definitely wasn’t planning on it. A young girl had come in “cursin’ and swearin’,” and claimed to have gotten a tattoo on her neck for only $30, so now she wanted a tattoo on her wrist for only $30. “She was trying to get an $80 tattoo for $30. Everybody got tired of arguing with her, so they let her have it for $30.” Brandon’s co-workers set him up in the room and got everything ready to go. With shaking hands, Brandon performed his initial tattoo. “It actually didn’t turn out bad.” The girl left complacent and never once suspected that that was Mr. Brandon Turner’s first time executing a tattoo on someone.
As I watched him now, I couldn’t imagine Brandon being nervous about tattooing. With such fluid motions, he outlined the husky man’s calf effortlessly. Stopping every couple of seconds to wipe away unused ink and some blood, the husky man squirmed and tried to get comfortable.
My concentration was broken by Luc, a professional piercer at Inkwell, who was asking Brandon if he wanted some “karate food” for dinner. Brandon wanted the usual, with an order of crab ragoon. After Luc left, the husky man looked confused and asked Brandon what they were getting. “Karate food! It’s Chinese food, but we just call it karate food.” I could see why people went back to Brandon for their tattoos. Brandon makes people’s experience of getting a tattoo enjoyable and memorable, with something they could look back on in years to come.
Throughout Brandon’s five years at Inkwell, the most expensive tattoo he has ever done was a particular half sleeve. It consisted of a fu dog, which resembles a Chinese lion figure or a guardian lion, and an intricate Chinese paper lantern. He did it in three separate sections, a total of twelve hours. Since “you can bet about $100 per hour,” the grand total was $1,200.
Brandon has done an array of tattoos; anything a person can think of, he has probably done. As tattoos go in and out of fashion, certain designs come in waves, also. “Last year it was stars. Every fuckin’ girl wanted stars.” Another worker, Darren, was in the room now prepping for another tattoo. “Ah, yes,” Darren sighed. “Stars, stars, stars…” This year, Brandon says it’s lettering. Girls come in wanting bible verses on their ribs or a special saying on the ankle. “It’s always girls, too.”
There is one kind of tattoo Brandon will not do. “I won’t do sacrilegious stuff. That’s just my own thing.” Brandon says the other workers will do it, but that is one thing he won’t agree to.
From the opinions of some customers, workers at Inkwell can occasionally be discourteous. I have never experienced this, but when asked about it, Brandon didn’t deny it. “If someone comes in with a bad attitude, of course we are going to be mean.” Brandon even thinks that there are situations where being rude is beneficial. “Instead of people thinking about the pain and how much this sucks, they think about how big of dicks we are being.” To me, it seems that workers at Inkwell genuinely care for their customers and they would want people to come back.
Others think Inkwell’s prices are on the higher side. Brandon says that of course there are people who would do a tattoo “for twenty bucks and a six pack,” but it’s a case of “you get what you paid for.” He uses the old car analogy: you can either buy the Cadillac or the Pinto. “I would much rather have a Cadillac.”
As Brandon was finishing up the husky man’s tattoo, I asked him if he ever got tired of tattooing. “Yeah, I do, like right now.” He had currently been working on the husky man’s piece for about three hours. “Tuesday is my third day working in a row. It’s the day I walk in and say ‘Ya know, if I didn’t do anything today, I’d be okay with that.’” Brandon is off on Wednesdays, and he said that when he comes back on Thursdays, he is ready to make some money.
Despite the economy, business has been good for Inkwell. Brandon says he hasn’t suffered financially and the market really has had no affect on him. “People that want tattoos are going to get them.” As Darren had been walking back and forth from preparing the seat next to me and getting his ink and supplies in order, he stopped for a second to listen. He leaned over to me and said, “There are two things that people will spend money on when they have no money to spend: frivolous bullshit and alcohol.”
In the Fairview Heights area, there are multiple tattoo shops competing for business. Just down the street from Inkwell is another tattoo place called Screamin’ Demon. When asked about other competition, Brandon said he doesn’t care. “People are usually loyal to their tattoo artist.” Brandon thinks a person gets comfortable with one artist at a specific place and gets familiar with their style, and they don’t want to look elsewhere for another artist. Brandon also says that if he puts forth good effort into a tattoo, the chance of the customer returning is higher. “I kinda hope that the art will speak for itself, ya know?”
Brandon isn’t performing tattoos on people just to beat the competitor down the street; he is doing it because it’s his passion. He takes into consideration what his customers want in order to use his ability to make the best tattoo for them he possibly can.
Starting out with simple tattoo flash and eventually becoming a brilliant tattoo artist, Brandon is devoted to what he does. He is now married to an “awesome chick” and someday wouldn’t mind having kids of his own. Until then, Brandon wants to center on his customers and continue to produce mind-blowing tats. As I pack up my stuff and head out the door I thank him, as usual, and he replies: “Anytime, baby doll.”