Madison Gets Inked: Tattoo Shops That Make Madison Buzz

Tattoo artist
Photo by Copper Key Visuals provided by Iron Quill Tattoo

“Thought I would drop a line.” The simple sentence, in my grandfather’s handwriting, is tattooed on my left forearm in black ink. It’s from a letter he wrote in 1945 while at sea serving for the United States Navy. The sentence is placed next to the stamp used on the envelope for the letter. There are plenty of reasons why someone gets a tattoo—sad, funny, beautiful reasons, such as remembering your grandfather. But what are the stories behind the artists who create the tattoos? Madison is full of rich history, and its tattoo shops are no exception.

Great Whale Tattoo and Piercing Co.

When Tim Bradley was a senior at River Ridge High School in Patch Grove, his guidance counselor told him to write a report on what he wanted to do with his life. Tim responded with a paper about becoming a tattooer. “It was handed back to me,” he laughs. Now the owner of Great Whale Tattoo and Piercing Co., located at 408 E. Washington Avenue, Tim is living his dream.

After a move to La Crosse and touring with his metal band, Tim was 24 when he began his apprenticeship in Wausau. He later relocated to Madison and completed some guest spotting before opening Great Whale in 2014, when he was 27.

Tim says Great Whale may feel more laid back than other shops. “Our main vibe here is relaxed and comfortable.” The staff consists of Tim, piercer Will Strickland, and tattooer Jon Jenkins.

“It’s been awesome being in Madison because I’ve gotten to do a lot more of what I like,” Tim says. “People collect the art instead of being overly concerned with representing an image in their head. That gives an artist more leeway to create.” Lately, Tim has been focusing on blackwork and Japanese-style art. “Madison is my first experience where I displayed a lot of peonies in the shop, and now I have a lot of appointments for that.”

Photo by Jonny Mageske provided by Great Whale Tattoo and Piercing Co.

Steve’s Tattoo and Body Piercing

Steve Gold began tattooing in 1975. Born in Madison and an East Madison High School graduate, the 65 year old is the owner of Steve’s Tattoo and Body Piercing at 1205 Williamson Street and co-owner of Spike-O-Matic Tattoo at 651 S. Park Street.

“Tattooing at the time was more or less cartooning,” Steve says. Steve, who worked in numerous shops from Rockford, Illinois, to Corpus Christi, Texas, opened the Williamson Street location in 1985. “For me, I like Wisconsin. Madison’s tattoo scene has gone through so many transitions. When I started it was more traditional. It’s gone from primitive cartooning to a painter style.”

Tattoo art is being inspired from oil painting and acrylics. “We are a breed of experimenters,” Steve says. “I’ve seen tattooers get stuck in a certain style, but you have to be open to everything.”

Looking back at his career, Steve feels grateful to be doing what he loves and creating art people get excited about. “It makes you feel good. Even after 40 years, I can still sit in a chair and my fingers work well. It’s been quite a ride. When I turn 80, I might stop.”

Photo provided by Steve’s Tattoo and Body Piercing

Iron Quill Tattoo

Jes Strickler, co-owner of Iron Quill Tattoo at 525 N. Sherman Avenue, has been tattooing for 13 years. By the time Jes was 17, he lived in four different states, and before moving to Madison, tattooed in Wausau. Jes never thought becoming a tattoo artist was a possibility. “It was a secret society of mysterious biker dudes. It was hard to get into when I wanted to get an apprenticeship.”

But he did. After an apprenticeship in Wausau, Jes moved where he saw a future for himself as a tattoo artist. “Madison worked out perfectly.” In 2014, Jes became co-owner of Iron Quill with Travis Smith. Iron Quill now has seven tattoo artists.

In Madison, Jes doesn’t see trends as much as different crowds of tattoo collectors. He says there are shops that cater to college students who might get smaller, Pinterest-style tattoos; watercolor; or writing. Then there are shops that focus on traditional Sailor Jerry-style of tattooing. Iron Quill has focused on custom art. “More than half of our team does all custom art. I do a lot of sleeves and multisession pieces, not just one-day sittings.”

Over the past 10 to 15 years, Jes has seen a growth in female tattoo artists. Iron Quill recently had someone from Peru do a guest spot at the shop. “She was amazing,” Jes says. “Female tattoo artists will put in the extra effort to show they want to be the best.”

Overall, Jes says the Madison tattoo scene is positive and forward thinking. “I see other artists, in other cities, who are better than me struggling solely because of where they are located. Everyone is super progressive, and that carries over into the art scene, not just tattooing.”

Photo provided by Made You Look

Made You Look Custom Tattoo

Made You Look Custom Tattoo opened in 2013 at 1440 E. Washington Avenue. Owner and tattoo artist John Brown moved to Madison in 2007 and began tattooing in 2012. “I found something in art I loved doing,” he says. “Tattooing is another medium.”

John sees more people learning the definition of a tattoo, “which is self expression,” he says. “People are understanding the quality of this art. You take it with you instead of leaving it at home.” Another ongoing trend at Made You Look is memorial tattoos. He also sees customers becoming more educated with tattoos. “People are putting more thought into the work they want.”

Recently, John says the attitude toward tattoos in the workplace has changed. “People might’ve looked down on those who have tattoos, but now you go to work with someone who has a tattoo and you are more comfortable. It connects professions, races, and ages. Art is always a different way to look at life.”

Continuing to set standards with cleanliness, overall experience, and quality are some of the ongoing goals for Made You Look. “When someone comes in and wants something for the rest of their life, that’s a big responsibility,” John says. “There are those in Madison constantly pushing toward that. This is a city hard to be reckoned with when it comes to talent.”

In the future, John would like to see more tattoo conventions in Madison. “It’s good to be around like minds. No matter where you are, there is always room for growth. If you run out of growth, it’s time to innovate.”

Chelsey Dequaine works as a social media/community specialist for designCraft Advertising and is a freelance writer.