Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Artists and Visual Arts

Tattoo artist inks reputation for detail

March 31, 2008

Hunched over a table, mechanized needle in hand, artist Monte Agee uses black ink to fill in a dragon's tail, part of a larger image he's spent 25 hours on so far.

His canvas: Amy Munguia, 32, a hairstylist and IUPUI student lying belly-down, shirt pulled up and back exposed. The tattoo, a classically textured black and gray depiction of bare-chested women back-to-back with a dragon, won't be finished until she's spent another 15 to 20 hours under the needle.

Munguia sees the tattoo as a symbol of redemption and new life, free of drug addiction. The picture, she says, has become part of her--an artifact of who she was and a sign of who she's become.

For Monte, as he prefers to be known professionally, it's just another day at the office, Artistic Skin Designs on West Washington Street.

Before beginning his noon to 10 p.m. shift, the 33-year-old had breakfast at home and helped his two elementary-school-age children get ready for the day ahead. After work, it'll be more of the same.

Away from the job, Monte is like any other family man. But in his 12 years as a tattoo artist, he has inked everything from pop-culture icons such as the Powerpuff Girls to Renaissance-style portraits of biblical figures and full-color scenes straight out of the children's book "Where the Wild Things Are." One of his most memorable tattoos, he said, is an outline of a size 9-1/2 shoe on a man's butt cheek.

"Trying to piece it all together from sketches to drawing to skin, there is that moment of release where I have to do what I do," Monte said. "It's usually not exactly what [the client] expected, but ... they're usually quite excited" by the result.

On her first visit to Artistic, Munguia shared her tattoo concept: a portrait of a vulnerable woman drawn in classical style. During her second visit, she and Monte came up with the image of woman and dragon. He made sketches on her third visit to determine how to make the image fit, then drew an outline with marker on her back. Finally, on Munguia's fourth visit, Monte put needle to skin.

After about 10 sessions with needle and ink, the image is about half done. Monte handles anywhere from two to 10 appointments a day, and many tattoos--like Munguia's--require multiple sessions.

He schedules appointments two months in advance and charges $150 per hour regardless of the tattoo, about twice as much as he charged 10 years ago and $50 more than the going rate.

A different kind of artist

Winner of more than 30 industry awards, Monte has his artwork printed in tattoo magazines almost every month, and his ever-growing client base keeps him working as much as 60 hours a week. He's one of four artists at the shop.

"[Being a tattoo artist] is spontaneous and exciting," Monte said. "I get to make something different happen every day within these walls."

Monte is recognized nationwide for his attention to detail and the ability to draw realistic images and transfer them to skin without sacrificing quality.

"It's almost like [tattoo art] is what I was supposed to do," he said.

Although he's been a visual artist from a young age, Monte initially didn't see the ever-growing medium of tattoo art as a career path.

Shortly after high school, he earned an associate's degree in illustration and computer design from the School of Advertising Arts in Kettering, Ohio, then spent two years working as a graphic designer.

"I tried to fight [tattoo art] mentally, but the whole time kept being drawn toward it," he said.

But the lure of the medium--as well as the success of his brother, an established tattoo artist known as St. Mark--was too strong to resist. Monte moved to Indianapolis in 1996 to begin his apprenticeship with St. Mark and Junior Purvis, another local needle man.

Monte's artistic talent was evident, Purvis said, from his portfolio of painting, drawing and charcoal work. So Purvis agreed to take him under his wing, knowing he'd only be able to teach Monte so much.

"He's going to surpass both of us," Purvis recalled saying to St. Mark.

But Monte's first piece didn't go as smoothly as expected. His first walk-in client asked him to tattoo a blue dove on her breast. Monte was able to replicate the client's idea on paper, but when it came to skin, he struggled to get the shape right. Eventually, he covered the tattoo up.

"My first tattoo didn't scare me at all," he said. "It was after that I realized I had no idea what I was really doing. I've worked in all different mediums of art, but [tattoo art] is the most difficult."

The texture and moistness of human skin varies from person to person, Monte said, making the tattoo process different each time. Artists also have to deal with drawing around the curves of the body--and clients who can't hold still. To make the process easier, artists apply ointment to the skin, which allows the needle to move more smoothly.

Despite the challenges of the medium, Monte soon caught on, and he's been refining his craft in the 12 years since.

Customer satisfaction

In a field that's seen increased growth and competition the past 10 years, Monte has retained a consistent client base, which he derives mostly from referrals.

"There's a renaissance going with tattoos, and [Monte] is right in the thick of it," said David Allen, an artist at Valparaiso-based Blue Bird tattoo shop. A former graphic illustrator for Los Angeles-based Atlantic Records, Allen got into the business after seeing Monte's work featured in a California magazine.

Monte doesn't feel threatened as more visual artists turn to the field to capitalize on its growing popularity in mainstream society.

"It's more exciting than competitive," he said, adding he always gauges his work against others in the industry.

Despite the recognition he's earned, Monte doesn't tout his achievements. A few plaques and magazine clippings adorn his office walls, mainly to enforce his credibility to clients, but he keeps most of his awards at home.

"I'm not doing anything I wouldn't do on paper. I'm just doing it on skin," he said.

Professionalism is more important to him than ego. The key, he said, is making clients his top priority.

"A lot of it is just taking the time to listen and to try to cater," he said. "You have to take time [to determine what the client wants], whether that takes 10 seconds or 25 minutes."

Monte has been known to turn potential clients away on occasion. Although he prefers not to mention specific cases, he said he's found some tattoo concepts offensive, and he's declined to tattoo the faces of people who he believed hadn't thought the concept through.

But in general, Monte said, people who get tattoos are increasingly educated and prepared for the commitment.

"People try to find [a tattoo artist] like if they were looking for a dentist or a doctor," he said.

Although he already has made his mark in just more than a decade in the tattoo industry, Monte feels he's still early in his career.

"I don't think I'll stop unless my hands or eyes just go bad," he said. "It'll always be there regardless of what I'm open to doing artistically or hobby-wise. I enjoy doing it every day."

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