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

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

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