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

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click to enlarge Chris Sabatino opened Art Monster on Cherokee Street before it was cool. - 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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