Arts » Visual Arts

Drawing on skin



As tattooing gains popularity throughout Indiana, a theme has emerged among tattoo artists: They’re artists by trade. No more tattoo-parlors-as-gnarly-joints where bikers hem and haw their way with a needle; today’s tattoo parlors are run by painters, designers and thinkers who have adapted their talents to this medium.

Here are three artists whose work and interests are indicative of the current state of tattoo art.

Artistic Skin Designs, Westside
4955 W. Washington St., Indianapolis

Monte is only one of the many success stories of artist-turned-tattooist. He grew up in a family saturated by art and creativity, and initially chose to follow graphic design professionally. But when his brother started tattooing and began a handful of companies, including Skinquake, Monte became interested.

“I just kind of got curious, having no tattoos at all,” Monte said. “I stepped foot into one of his locations and was awed by him and the stuff he’s doing.”

That awe grew into a permanent love of the unique art form: Monte has been tattooing for 12 and a half years since then, using graphic design as the functional basis for all of his intricate artwork. Monte considers his work art because, in essence, he’s just drawing on skin. While that may sound simple enough, Monte confesses that tattooing is the hardest medium he’s tried.

“That’s probably why I still like doing it every day,” he said. “It’s a challenge every time.”

Monte himself has tattoos winding up and down his forearms, which he said he had done for various reasons. Some tattoos are simply a form of remembrance of the person who drew them; others are based off of complex and detailed stories. Monte has found that both for him and for others, the concept of life-long commitment is an appealing and exciting facet of receiving a tattoo.

“There is a gratification in doing something that’s going to be on someone else for the rest of their life,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust in that and a lot of responsibilities, but the gratification is very positive.”

Not only are tattoos deeply personal experiences, they also serve to form a bond between the tattooist and the tattooed. Due to the long hours it takes to perfect a large tattoo — which are Monte’s favorites to complete — a close companionship is usually formed between the artist and the customer. Because each piece becomes something personal for Monte, it’s an exhilarating experience for him as well.

One of Monte’s favorite tattoos is a vibrant image of a skull and various ephemera on a man’s chest — a detailed image that took about a month to complete. The customer was moving to Hawaii in a month’s time, so the two came up with a concept and wanted to see how much they could accomplish in the interim. The result is a stunning and moving piece founded on many hours of work and even more memories.

According to Monte, artists worldwide are performing a sort of conquest over tattoo parlors. More and more tattooists have backgrounds — and deeply rooted interests — in art, which naturally translate into the decoration of skin, an ideal blank canvas. But whatever the trends may be, Monte will most assuredly continue pursuing his craft, whether he uses a brush or a needle to manifest his and others’ stories.

Megan Zoeller
828 Broad Ripple Ave., Indianapolis

Megan Zoeller’s successful career kicked off with a series of mistakes. As she said over e-mail, she first got into tattooing when she had her own done at the ripe age of 14 — her first mistake. The second came when Zoeller bought a tattoo machine as a young adult and started tattooing “oranges, myself and a brave friend,” she said. “That was also a horrible idea.”

But thereafter, Zoeller started to make some better choices. She attained a photography degree from Herron School of Art and a counter position at Metamorphosis. Needless to say, she loved it — especially when she received a tattoo apprenticeship there.

As an artist, Zoeller holds a sincere appreciation for both the aesthetics and the meaning that accompany tattoos. As she said, “There is nothing better than seeing a good tattoo placed perfectly on the body.” She also noted that tattoos can enhance the area of the body they occupy and harmonize with the flow and contours of the body.

Although Zoeller is still fairly new to the craft, she is eagerly working toward finding her own niche in this “fascinating and also challenging” art form, she said. She also hopes to remain dedicated to her work in order to improve and to explore other territories, although her favorite style is American traditional, she said.

“I hope to keep experimenting and becoming more confident in a number of different styles,” she added. “Tattooing is one of those things that you are never done learning.”

As Zoeller fine-tunes her skills with the needle, she also hopes to continue working with painting, drawing and photography when time allows; tattooing is merely one of Zoeller’s many artistic endeavors.

Matt Birkla
1285 N State Road 135
Greenwood, IN 46142

For Matt Birkla, tattooing isn’t simply a way of paying the bills or even of expressing creativity, but rather a total lifestyle.

“It’s what I love to do,” Birkla stated over e-mail. Birkla’s interest in tattooing stemmed from a love of the images of the medium, which promptly became a profession — and a way of life — in 1992. He has been working avidly and enthusiastically ever since.

Like Monte and Zoeller, Birkla finds that tattooing is the most challenging form of art he’s ever tried — but it’s worth the difficulties, because it’s a “living, breathing art,” Birkla said. Tattooing allows both Birkla and his customers a form of public self-expression that stands the test of time.

Birkla considers his work unique compared to other tattoo artists because his tattoos are “well thought out” and custom-made. He also said that he does “good, clean, solid tattoo work, with bold images.” He prefers to do large pieces of work, which require more creativity, more hours, and thus more gratification. Back pieces and sleeves accompany Birkla’s list of top tattoos, but he has too many favorite individual pieces to choose just one.

Although Birkla has been practicing the trade for quite some time, he seeks to improve and fine-tune his craft, exploring different styles of imagery. Among the projects he hopes to explore are “color portraits, pin-ups, and horror movies, now and future,” he said.

Regardless of the style in which Birkla works, his images will always be heartfelt, artistic and vibrant.

NUVO’s tattoo contest

Now that you understand quality tattooing, let your own creative voice be heard in NUVO’s first online contest on tattoos. You can enter pictures of your own tattoos and then vote on the pictures that others have submitted at The selected winners will be honored at Bill Levin’s Tattoo Artist Fall Ball at the Vogue Sept. 2.

What: The Tattoo Artist Fall Ball/Miss Tattoo Indiana Contest
Tattoos, contest results plus music by G.B.H., Krum Bums and UP! Scumbag
Where: Vogue Nightclub (
When: Tuesday, Sept. 2, 8 p.m.

Hosted by Rupert
Proceeds of this show will go to benefit Rupert’s Kids,
Tickets are $15 advance/$20 day of show, and are available at Ticketmaster and the Vogue box office.
Everyone who enters will be given a ballot to vote that night for their favorite tattoo, live at the show.
For more info: 317-251-3333 or


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