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Great Lakes Tattoo looks forward, back with new Walk-Up Classic

Nick Colella, at his shop, Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago, where he has Chicago tattoo memorabilia and artifacts on display, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

There is an old tattoo adage that reads, “As ancient as time, as modern as tomorrow.” It’s a favorite of artist Nick Colella, who painted it on the front desk of his Great Lakes Tattoo shop where it has become a more or less brand statement. Since opening in 2013, the two-story studio in West Town has been doing things differently, padding the traditional tattooing business with an arts gallery/open community space, a museum of unique memorabilia and, this weekend, hosting the inaugural Walk-up Classic.

GREAT LAKES TATTOO 1ST ANNUAL WALK-UP CLASSIC
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 19-20 (opening party March 18)
Where: Great Lakes Tattoo, 1148 W. Grand
Info: (312) 870-0458; greatlakestattoo.com

The first of its kind mini-convention aims to provide an alternative to monolithic productions like the Chicago Tattoo Arts Convention (taking place in Rosemont this weekend). In contrast, Great Lakes’ condensed version will forgo the dizzying amount of entertainment, vendors and seminars to solely host 20 artists over two days, “most visiting from at least 200 miles away,” Colella says. Clients will have the rare opportunity for first-come, first-serve walk-in sessions with notables like Austin, Texas’s Steve Byrne; Boulder, Colorado’s Marina Inoue; and Toronto’s Glennie Whitehall, all of whom normally have long waiting lists.

Nick Colella in front of a wall of vintage flash from the mid-20th century mixed in with contemporary images created by artists working at Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Flash is the example of an image that the artist can make into a tattoo. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

Nick Colella in front of a wall of vintage flash from the mid-20th century mixed in with contemporary images created by artists working at Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. Flash is the example of an image that the artist can make into a tattoo. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

“We wanted to make it about tattoos again,” Colella says about piecing together the event, which he hopes will be an annual affair. Although the Chicago native has often taken a modern approach in his 22-year career, including becoming a popular Instagram figure, he also has a strong romanticism for the history of tattoo culture, particularly in Chicago.

Colella collects scores of memorabilia relating to the local practice of the craft, which has been around in the city since the late 1800s, and has put together a living museum full of antique tattoo guns and kits, yellowed business cards and walls of photos, posters and vintage flash art that, even today, people still choose as designs.

“I’m on the hunt constantly at auctions and flea markets; it’s obsessive,” he says, unsure of how much memorabilia he owns.

Historical photos document the early days of Chicago tattoo artists and parlors. The photos are among the memorabilia collection of Nick Colella at Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

Historical photos document the early days of Chicago tattoo artists and parlors. The photos are among the memorabilia collection of Nick Colella at Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

“I display as much as I can because I want this shop to be an institution where people can come, not just to get tattooed, but also [to] see the history of the art in Chicago. There’s faces to the names and personalities,” he says, mentioning classics like the late Cliff Raven and Gib “Tatts” Thomas, circus men who were some of the original tattooers that occupied a forgotten stretch of the 400 block of South State Street where burlesque shows, arcades and “other items of vice” lived at the turn of the 20th century, says Colella. He named his shop in homage to the young sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Base who were regular weekend customers and helped to create a thriving hub of tattooing until 1963 when a long-running change in law ensured that only those 21-and-older could get inked.

“At that time the city was trying to raze State Street and clean it up, and one of the ways to do that was to stop those types of businesses from getting customers,” says Colella.

Two vintage tattoo machines owned by "Tatts" Thomas on display at Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

Two vintage tattoo machines owned by “Tatts” Thomas on display at Great Lakes Tattoo in Chicago, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. | James Foster / For Sun-Times Media

The law stayed in effect until 2005, and in the process the tattooing business in Chicago suffered, he says. “It essentially dried up tattooing in Chicago and most artists left and went to the coasts. Chicago became a flyover.”

When Colella started working in the industry in 1994 at Chicago Tattoo and Piercing Company (one of the oldest shops which grew out of Cliff Raven Tattoo Studios), he says there were only seven shops in existence. “There was a lot of politics involved” in trying to get the right license, he says, though it is has changed dramatically over time especially with the rise of reality shows like “Ink Master” and the “L.A. Ink” franchise and more shops in mixed-use areas that have made the practice more accepted and accessible. Colella estimates there are now upwards of 120 tattoo shops in the city.

While it’s good that business is booming again, Colella says, “I don’t want it to take away from what those original guys were doing.” He even goes as far as to photograph seniors with tattoos in order to catalog and document the work they’ve had done.

“Everyone talks about tattoos being so permanent, but they’re really not. They’re less permanent than art on canvas. Once that person goes, you don’t see those [tattoos] ever again,” he continues, rationalizing, “I want people to realize tattooing is something bigger than us. There’s a whole world that came before social media, a generation who did it quietly and put out amazing work.”

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

Posted March 16, 2016.