The venerated halls of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History have housed dinosaur bones, mummies, pristine rare artifacts, and all manner of stately exhibitions in the more than 120 years since its doors first opened.
Today, the museum’s featured exhibit is “Tattoo,” a deep dive into tattooing history, advancements in the practice and the modern explosion in popularity. It’s an art exhibit, featuring photos of the kind of people — those covered head-to-toe in ink — that not too long ago weren’t particularly likely to be seen walking museum hallways.
Move over Sue, the Field’s reconstructed Tyrannosaurus Rex, here come the tats.
IT ISN’T just museums and other typically staid houses of high society that have embraced the decade-long trek tattoos have taken from outlaw insignias to works of fine art.
Here in the Flathead Valley, the tattoo boom has caused a subsequent boom in tattoo shops and brought artists off of traditional canvases and onto the human body. It’s been years since the stigma that limited tattoos to bikers and prisoners gave way to sights of grandmothers and grandfathers getting matching ink.
As the evolution has gone even further, tattoos have become their own personal works of art, and the people who do them respected highly enough to have their work displayed in, well, museums.
“You ended up with this group of guys that started actually doing art on the skin,” Jake Bertelsen, the owner of Bertelsen Art and Tattoo in Kalispell said of the days, more than a decade ago, when the tattoos-as-art movement began in earnest.
“They were doing paintings on the skin is what it looked like.”
Bertelsen, 33, first starting doing art as a student at Whitefish High School, although his greatest claim to fame was having a piece of art stolen before a show.
“That’s kind of like winning, I guess,” he quipped.
When, as an adult, he left the world of construction to apprentice and eventually open his own tattoo shop in 2015, Bertelsen read an article by Jeff Gogue — a respected tattoo artist who boasts nearly half a million followers on Instagram — and became enthralled with the idea of transferring his art into his tattoos. It was around the same time as TV shows like “Miami Ink” and “Ink Master” brought tattoos into the mainstream, and right as the ubiquity of social platforms like Facebook and Instagram helped it explode.
“It went from being something that was ‘tattoo art’ to something that was fine art,” Bertelsen said. “And it’s being recognized as fine art now.”
Bertelsen is an award-winning tattoo artist, honored at a tattoo convention in Boise, Idaho two years ago, and he’s booked out as his shop for the next eight months. He specializes in large pieces and his two-story shop includes a massive drawing room with sketches plastered throughout the walls.
But not all customers are looking to be inked with works of art.
TEMPLE DÉCOR in Kalispell is the grandfather of local tattoo studios, first opening its doors in 2003 under owner Darryl Torgerson. While Torgerson no longer owns the shop — although he and another former owner, Cody Swigert, both still work there — Temple Décor has earned a sterling reputation while blending old school and new school sensibilities.
Charlie Wheeler, Temple Décor’s owner since last November and a nine-year employee of the shop before that, offered a May the Fourth special earlier this month, giving customers a choice of a handful of “Star Wars” themed tattoos to pick from.
While Bertelsen and the tattoo artists of his ilk take a more romantic approach, Wheeler — who is still a talented artist himself — looks at it more pragmatically. His May the Fourth idea was born out of the acceptance of tattoos in what he called “nerd culture” and he squashed the oft-held idea of choosing a tattoo as an emotional experience, at least not all the time.
“Tattoos don’t have to have meaning,” he said. “You can get them just because they look cool.
“I’m covered in fish, aquatic life, because I love animals and nature. But that’s the meaning. It doesn’t have to have a deep, spiritual resonance or anything. And that’s great if it does but it doesn’t have to.”
Wheeler, 35, began as a body piercer, something he still does at Temple Décor, and he learned how to tattoo the way a lot of people do, by sitting down and working on himself.
“It’s kind of a right of passage and it’s horrible,” Wheeler said of self-tattooing. “Because getting tattooed hurts. And when you do it to yourself, you have that whole self-preservation instinct. You’re about to do something that you know is going to hurt and you don’t want to do it because you know it’s going to hurt.”
When Wheeler began tattooing 14 years ago, most tattoos were pulled out of what was called a “flash book,” basically a menu of tattoos that a particular shop would do. They featured mostly bold lines and colors and lacked the shading that many of today’s more artistic tattoos use to create intricate designs.
Wheeler and the artists at Temple Décor adapted — they wouldn’t still be in business if they hadn’t — but the shop still features a few ready-made options and Wheeler still has a personal soft spot for some of the old flash tattoos.
“I started in the end of the flash days,” he said. “When I got started it was the waning period of that and the uprising of the internet.”
THE CHANGING modern perception of tattoos has trickled down to the artists themselves, too.
Wheeler describes himself first and foremost as a guy with a wife and kids. Bertelsen says he hasn’t drank or smoked since he committed full-time to tattooing. And Wheeler even has a particular aversion that seems counter to the entire tattoo world of a generation ago.
“I don’t like dark imagery,” he said. “I don’t like to do demons and scary stuff. I’m not a scary person, I don’t like scary tattoos.”
Scary or not, Wheeler and Bertelsen’s art has kept both men busy and kept both shops on the forefront of the Flathead Valley scene.
“There’s a lot of tattooed people here,” Wheeler said. “We get the kids in on their 18th birthday and we get the 82-year-old grandfather. And you might get them sitting side-by-side in stations.”
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.