These Six Tattoo Artists Are Changing St. Louis, One Body at a Time 

click to enlarge Chelsea Holloway at work.

PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE

Chelsea Holloway at work.

When he talks about his work as a tattoo artist, Sean Baltzell like to repeat an old adage: "Prostitution may be the oldest profession in the world, but the prostitute definitely had a tattoo."

An abbreviated history of the artform lines the walls of Baltzell's storefront at Tower Classic Tattooing. The printed designs known as flash — classic roses, eagles, reapers, tigers, sparrows, skulls, wolves, daggers and pinup dames, the oldies but goodies that you've seen time and again — hang in black frames on exposed brick walls. "That was the Pinterest before Pinterest was Pinterest," Baltzell says.

See also: 6 Top St. Louis Tattoo Artists Show Off Their Work

The selection isn't random; the designs in this vintage collection span decades of the 20th century, mostly the years between the 1940s and '80s.

"I've always been into history, I like tradition, I like things that are being passed down," Baltzell says. He's crafted his flash assortment to reflect this. He seeks out certain artists and hunts for recreations of designs that catch his attention.

To Baltzell, what he's doing isn't so different from what the original tattooed Americans — most often soldiers, sailors and criminals — did when they curated tattoo collections on their own skin: traveling, taking a process inspired by more meaningful rituals in other cultures and choosing the designs they found appealing. He's just looking for the flash that lasted.

"It's almost like the telephone game," he explains. "You can tell, 'OK, well, that guy painted Sailor Jerry's design, and then this guy repainted it.' You can see the change, the evolution or the de-evolution of the design when it gets passed down."

Though our tattoo scene doesn't tend to make it onto "top ten" lists, St. Louis can lay claim to significance in the art form's evolution. One of the longest-running tattoo shops in America, Trader Bob's Tattoo Shop, is located in St. Louis, and was founded by the legendary Bert Grimm, who spent a number of his early decades at St. Louis parlors.

These days, the Missouri Division of Professional Registration records 50 tattoo parlors in St. Louis City and County alone. If you consider the number of nearby shops in Illinois or just outside the county, there are even more artists to choose from. Each of these shops has its own personal flare; many artists follow in the footsteps of Grimm and other iconic traditional tattooers, while others branch out into modern and experimental styles.

We sought out a few of the most interesting, well-reputed artists working in St. Louis today, people who work with teams of just a few artists and who ink a range of looks and follow different philosophies. They are a just a sample of the excellent creators plying the tattoo trade here, but are an exemplary sample nonetheless — one with much to say about the past, the future, the art, and the life of the tattoo artist in St. Louis.

click to enlarge Sean Baltzell believes little is more important than a tattoo's ability to weather the ages. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Sean Baltzell believes little is more important than a tattoo's ability to weather the ages.

Sean Baltzell

Tower Classic

Now 34, Sean Baltzell opened Tower Classic five years ago off Manchester in the city's Grove neighborhood with the hope that other like-minded folks would wander through the door. Before becoming a full-time tattoo artist, his Facebook bio notes that he studied "Party Life" at SIUE. The shop began with just him and a few friends; now he works with a six-artist team. He co-owns All City Tattoo and Alton Tattoo Co. as well, but spends most of his time at Tower Classic, where he built the dark-wooded, vintage-style booths himself.

Baltzell keeps himself busy; he talks fast and taps his fingers as he speaks. He garnished his shop with snippets of the past: ornate frames, Sweeney Todd-style barber chairs, bar stools made from tractor seats.

The funky, natural variations on a design that's been passed down through many artists often appeal to Baltzell far more than a perfectly rendered recreation. He explains: You start out with a skull and dagger, and 30 years later, after dozens of artists and tattoos use it as a jumping-off point, you might find a "folky, weird" skull with a lopsided jaw that, through its journey among so many creators, has gained a sort of charm.

His shop follows a similar sort of logic, using its artists' expertise to evoke the past rather than push trendy new forms or techniques.

"In 30 years, I don't care how technical the tattoo is, with all these little highlights and tricks [so] it looks like a photograph — it's going to be beaten down by time and sun," he explains. That's why the shop won't do "watercolors," which feature intricate line work and mingling colors like the paintings that inspire their name, or other more impressionistic styles. It's not that he hates these tattoos. "Who am I to say that my panther on my arm is cooler than somebody's water tattoo?" he asks rhetorically. They're just not what he does.

"We really try to look into the past and pay homage to the classics, the designs that have really withstood the test of time," he says. "I personally have always loved walking into a shop that has good designs on the wall and just being enamored with them, the antiquity of them or the vintage nature of them, and just really find something that some guy in the '20s or '30s got tattooed on him and that I can still look at, and it speaks to me as well."

And so Baltzell's traditional American tattoos have the same aesthetic as the flash on his walls: thick, black linework, bold colors. His colleagues cover a range of other traditional styles, including Japanese traditional (which look like woodblock paintings on the skin). Everyone applies their own spin to the classic forms.

But just because they value the old ways doesn't mean they're just copy-pasting flash from their walls. The shop specializes in custom work based in tradition — "that perfect fusion," in Baltzell's words, of modern and traditional. If someone comes in and asks for a tiger, he'll page through his tiger flash, find an awesome old tiger and then look at wildlife books and recent tattoos. The result is indeed a fusion — classic styles with contemporary influences.

To Baltzell, there's little more important than a tattoo's ability to weather the ages — on the skin as much as with its style.

"The black is gonna be the thing that's remaining," he says. "I think that's why we tend to drift towards things with heavy black outlines, heavy black shading, because it's truly the structure of the tattoo. That's what's gonna last."

For Baltzell, the popularization of tattoos — and, subsequently, tattooing — has taken something from the art. Before, he says, the tattoo artist was something of a "carny," wandering from place to place.

"The original tattooers, they weren't necessarily fine artists. We're talking about craftsman, weirdoes, eccentric people who were more into it for maybe the money or the spiritual reason," he says. Knowledge was passed down from master to apprentice, and, for awhile, the knowledge was kept close to the artists' breasts. But now designing tattoos has become an increasingly viable career for fine arts students, and the technique is no longer passed just from master to apprentice — it's everywhere, including Pinterest.

To Baltzell, something has been lost in that wave of popularity. "The sacredness or intimacy of tattooing has been compromised slightly," he explains.

click to enlarge "I try not to box myself into a corner," says Chelsea Holloway. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • "I try not to box myself into a corner," says Chelsea Holloway.

Chelsea Holloway

Earth Alchemy

For Chelsea Holloway, however, the "democratization of knowledge" has given her — and others — the opportunity to join a field that once was insular.

"I feel like the more open people are, the better people get, and the more chances minorities get to enter the field," she says. "The more it gives a level playing field so that you don't have to fit a specific white guy profile to be a successful artist."

Holloway, 33, certainly doesn't fit that profile herself. Like most other artists, she's collected tattoos for herself over the years. But as the mother of two children, she hasn't had much time to participate in some of the rites of passage of her trade, traveling all over the globe in pursuit of more styles and skin to put to ink. But that hasn't stopped her from applying her fine arts education to learn the form, producing excellent work, and — after a number of odd jobs and seven years of tattoo gigs — opening up her own shop last year.

Holloway, who grew up in St. Louis County, says she wanted to be a tattoo artist since she was sixteen — perhaps not coincidentally, her age when she got her first ink. "It was totally different," she says. "It was a street shop by a military base, where I picked some tribal [designs] off the wall."

Now she does her work in a much different way. Earth Alchemy Tattoo Collective, her shop on Cherokee Street, stands in sharp contrast to the darker environments of many street shops. It has a totally windowed storefront, soft pastel walls, vintage-looking boxes and framed artwork — what Holloway describes as a "very zen kind of atmosphere."

"It doesn't feel like you're walking into some place where all these super cool people are judging you," she says — an experience she says she's had walking into some parlors herself.

Earth Alchemy was born from Holloway's frustration with the standard tattoo establishment business structure, in which artists generally give a large cut (often around 50 percent) to an owner in exchange for space. She wanted to democratize: share resources, cut overhead costs and work independently, rather than artists giving a percentage to a shop owner. So she opened her "collective," a co-op shop where artists rent their own spaces and control their own business.

Their business model isn't the only thing that's untraditional. Earth Alchemy is one of just two shops in St. Louis that's run by and filled mostly with women. (The other, Lucky Cat Tattoo, opened just this year, staffed by three of St. Louis' most popular lady artists.)

The shop also has no flash, which means all the work is custom, and the artists don't have a stylistically specific framework. That gives them the freedom to explore different styles, different inks, different skins. "I try not to box myself into a corner," she says.

Many of the tattoos she's gotten are traditional, and she loves them. But as an artist, she finds the style limiting. "It's very much a boys' club sort of thing, the code. Traditional is where it all started so it's very important to them to hold onto that," she explains, adding, "And it is a great style." Especially for learning about what works and what doesn't.

Holloway more often works in thinner lines and softer colors, sometimes using a neo-traditional style that modernizes and adds dimension to the art. Her designs are recognizable by their incredibly clean, delicate linework. Some of the most striking are delicate flowers, bright faces, geometric designs washed in pastels.

As a newer shop owner and mother, she hasn't had the time to develop and explore as much as she'd like. But it's all part of a journey; the quest is endless. "I really feel like there's no ceiling as to how far you can take your art," she says.

Holloway says she'd like to create more tattoos she's really inspired by. She recalls being commissioned to design an "alien monster" — something she didn't think would excite her. But she started drawing and loved the experience of imagining the creature from nothing.

"It reminds me of being a kid and what inspired me to get into art in the first place," she says. "So far I haven't been able to use tattooing that way, but it's totally possible. I see artists doing it all the time." She says she hopes she'll be able to build her clientele toward that.

click to enlarge Matt Hodel likes to joke that Ragtime isn't the place for your first tattoo — but it's not really a joke. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Matt Hodel likes to joke that Ragtime isn't the place for your first tattoo — but it's not really a joke.

Matt Hodel

Ragtime Tattoo

Matt Hodel has already reached that point of creative flexibility and control at his shop, Ragtime Tattoo. It took years to get there, but he's found it.

Now 41, Hodel began working at a street shop on the Loop, Iron Age Tattoo and Piercing. "When I started tattooing, there was fourteen shops from O'Fallon, Illinois to O'Fallon, Missouri," he recalls. Not all were superb.

He liked Iron Age, and it taught him a lot. But he didn't like the pace involved with that set-up — the amount of nervous energy with walk-ins, the lack of flexibility, and the randomness of his days.

"You had five minutes to win their trust, to convince them you're not selling them a bag of goods, and get them out of there with a good tattoo. And then you have five more people on the list for that day," he says.

He dreamed of creating large, custom tattoos with clients who'd been tattooed a few times, knew what they wanted, and were willing to wait to let him make his art as perfect as possible. But that just wasn't possible in a street shop. "[Large, custom pieces] can't be that 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am' style of work," he says. "It was a lot like trying to built custom choppers at Meineke."

When he visited a friend in Austria, he found the answer: an appointment-only shop. After working at a south city parlor called Ragtime with its previous owner, Hodel inherited the shop and began crafting it into his own image. Now he says he has appointments booked months in advance.

He likes to joke that the shop isn't the place for your first tattoo — but it's not really a joke. The shop is for the planner, not the drop-in. If the six- to twelve-week wait period feels like too much, on top of that, some consultations require two appointments. The shop tries to limit business to the devoted seeker who wants just the right piece: with no advertisements and no phone, it operates by referral and "total word of mouth."

Hodel has also structured the space to combat a walk-in, ink up mentality — the nondescript, out-of-the-way shopfront doesn't even have a lobby.

At any time in his day, Hodel says, he could run to the store and grab a soda without worrying that a customer might do something dangerous. Part of this is because Hodel's on-the-downlow business model seems to be attracting exactly the sort he wants; many of his clients have been getting tattoos for as long as Hodel's been tattooing.

"I'm not gonna make someone who's been getting tattooed for twenty years sit in a lobby and wait like a little kid," he says.

Owning the shop has also given Hodel the ability to further cultivate his own style. "When you're in a street shop, you always wonder, is someone coming in for your flag or your shop's flag?" At Ragtime (which also operates on a space rental basis, similarly to Earth Alchemy), he urges his artists to "become the product."

Hodel does that himself by sitting down with a client and trying to develop a "strong visual language based on that person's personal experiences." He asks them to list emotions and ideas that they want wrapped into the tattoo. Hodel's work takes a similar aesthetic as Tower Classic, that thick black linework and bold colors, but he exaggerates and emboldens his designs — full-back dragons and ribcage snakes, seething with the emotions that his canvas demands.

Hodel has watched the St. Louis scene grow over the past two decades; he's at the point where he's started inking up children and grandchildren of his early clients.

He points to two particular figures who defined the local aesthetic before his time. Trader Bob's, which moved to its current location on South Jefferson in 1976, developed a particularly St. Louis spin on the traditional style, with one of its owners, Mitch Mitchell, taking the lead. And Brad Fink, the founder of Iron Age, locally pioneered the idea of "giving somebody something different every time they came in."

"Everyone who watched Brad unfold, it definitely set the precedent for how tattoos were supposed to be done in the Midwest," Hodel says. Hodel's work extends from that ethos.

click to enlarge Toph and Ty are the co-owners of Enigma Tattoos. "First time in the history of the world where an artist can maybe gain a little recognition before they're dead," says Ty. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Toph and Ty are the co-owners of Enigma Tattoos. "First time in the history of the world where an artist can maybe gain a little recognition before they're dead," says Ty.

Toph and Ty

Enigma Tattoos

For Toph and Ty, co-owners of a street shop on the Loop called Enigma Tattoos & Body Piercing, tattooing is a more pragmatic affair. Toph says, "We like to try and be able to accommodate everybody who talks through the door."

That doesn't always work out — they do get the occasional request that looks like something out of a "Top 10 Worst Tattoos" listicle, and as artists, they can't justify putting their names (and reputations) behind a hideous design, as less reputable shops sometimes do. "If it's gonna look like shit and my name's gonna be on it, I really don't want nothing to do with it," says Ty, the talker of the two.

The two became business owners just this year, when they bought the shop from its founder after each working there for a few years. A series of punk characters from The Simpsons taunt passers-by on Delmar. Ty plans to add a whole Fox-themed set of flash that includes characters from Bob's Burgers and Family Guy. Classic rock blares in the background.

Both began as fine artists in school — Toph, 38, playing with "a little bit of everything" and Ty, 31, progressing from oils to graffiti to tattooing, where he plans to remain for the rest of his career. (Those one-word names are stage names; in real life, they are Christopher McDermott and Tyler Acey, but use "Toph" and "Ty" for branding purposes.)

"Tattooing is the end-all-be-all," proclaims Ty. "First time in the history of the world where an artist can maybe gain a little recognition before they're dead. You gotta love that." Especially, he says, now that the medium is perceived as an "actual art form."

The shop walls are covered in a pastiche of cultural references — Ty has collected paintings and work by artists he likes, including Toph (who still dabbles in oil painting). The pair like their contractors to be artists in various media, not just ink on flesh. "Artist-owned shop, artist-rounded shop," says Ty. "We want to take care of the artists as much as the customers."

Their bodies of work differ. Toph works with portraits; Ty likes traditional work. They mix flash and custom, and they create all manner of tattoos in all manner of styles. Ty weaves sacred geometry into old flash and builds balanced designs in dotwork and linework, sometimes black and shading, sometimes colors. Toph likes photorealism, and some of his portraits look like they could be real. (Ty calls Toph "a computer scanner," but says he himself "won't touch a portrait.")

"All of our people got little different styles about them," says Ty. Enigma's other two artists like scripts, neo-traditional, and Japanese traditional. That diversity is an advantage, in some ways, over a specialty shop because if a returning client wants a different style tattoo, someone at Enigma is likely already an expert. No need to find a new shop.

"We try and work as a team overall, rather than just a bunch of guys doing their own thing," says Toph.

On the Loop, they field a mix of walk-ins and appointments, and although they do prefer appointments, all that foot traffic can be exciting. "It's not like you're working at a shop that's on an old country highway and there's a gas station up the road and just that mini-mall. Where, oh shit, you don't have a lot of real options on anything. Walk-in customers are gonna be slower and you won't have such a wide variety of art to choose from." In the Loop, Ty says, "You got all kinds of different skin, all kinds of different people, all kinds of different shit."

And Toph says the location has brought by far the best customers he's worked with: "They have good ideas, they have good attitudes." And that's what gets him excited — a flexible customer who will take his advice and let him do his job.

For Ty, the job has a simple appeal: It's somewhere he can be an artist in peace, sit there, and have people come to him because they like his work. "I just kinda do my own thing and try to make my customers happy," he says. "Just trying to make a living doing what I love."

"Yup. Story of our lives," adds Toph.

click to enlarge Chris Sabatino opened Art Monster on Cherokee Street before it was cool. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Chris Sabatino opened Art Monster on Cherokee Street before it was cool.

Chris Sabatino

Art Monster

Chris Sabatino likes to look at his shop's logo, a furrow-browed, tusked creature named Two Tusk, and wonder, "What's he feeling? Why are people attracted to him?" He thinks that the answer, and the thing that draws people off the sidewalks of Cherokee Street into his shop, Art Monster, can be summed up in two words: vicious concern.

Sabatino, 38, never planned to become a tattoo artist. But, he says, "If you have art inside you, you can't help but push it in any direction you possibly can." When it became clear that tattooing provided an alluring path, he opened Art Monster nine years ago — before Cherokee boomed with hipster art initiatives — and set about turning the shop into a haven for the artistically-inclined.

His goal was to try something new. He remembers looking at walls of flash and thinking, "Do I want to pick a sticker off a wall and stick it on my body for life? Probably not." So he set about to make Art Monster "something a little different" — a fully custom illustrative shop, where every single piece is one of a kind.

He started out on his own and let the shop grow as he found artists he wanted to work with. Now Sabatino splits his time between Art Monster and a graphic design teaching post. The shop combines watercolor and geometrical styles with the goal of taking a "fine-art approach to the human canvas." Outside that basic premise, all of the artists follow their own beat. "We each have our own style of doing many different styles," he says.

And for Sabatino, it's really the art — even perhaps more than the ink — that matters. By his approach, they're not all that separate. In his own work, he's creating designs that illustrate the human body, seeking the lines that accentuate various body parts. It's not just a drawing on the skin; he designs the tattoo for the body itself. In photos, the tattoos' geometries move in line with bone and muscle.

"It's a bit of fashion," he says.

Sabatino says some clients come in offering up the tabula rasa of their skin; they don't have an idea for a design, they just know they want the style. And those, he says, are Art Monster's favorite clients.

Tattoos aren't the only custom work that Art Monster does. Downstairs is a fine art studio with tools for painting, metal work, sculptures, airbrushing —"an outlet for other art." Much that comes out of the basement makes its way up to the top floor. Recently, he was commissioned to create a ram's head sculpture for a fan of the sports team. "We're definitely not Ye Olde Tattoo Shop," he says.

He attributes much of his inspiration — and the shop's success — to Rebecca Sabatino, his wife and "the queen of the shop." She doesn't tattoo, but Sabatino says she's an artist in her own right. "She's a dreammaker," he says.

While Baltzell and Hodel point to St. Louis' history of tattoos, Sabatino points to its future — and change. He sees more artists focusing on accentuating the body, and thanks to Art Monster, they often come to St. Louis as visitors. "I think St. Louis is on definitely the up-and-coming of tattoos," Sabatino says.

With today's digital connections, Sabatino notes that it's less important for an artist to be rooted in any one scene or city. Thanks to social media, they can take styles from wherever they want, and learn from each other without barriers — something that can help tattoo artists in a mid-size city both be inspired by, and inspire, the best of the best. "All day long, we are influenced by great artists around the world," Sabatino says.

And what should artists do with that knowledge?

"Blow it up," Sabatino says.

See also: 6 Top St. Louis Tattoo Artists Show Off Their Work

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