Ten years after tattoo legalization, local artists reflect on their art form.
In May 2006, Oklahoma became the last state to legalize tattooing. (The practice had been banned for 43 years because of hepatitis outbreaks in the early ’60s.) Starting Nov. 1, 2006, with new health standards in place, local artists wasted no time taking needle to ink. A decade later, there are still plenty of naysayers, but many Tulsans proudly display the masterpieces wrought by artists in the city’s buzzing tattoo industry.
Pen and Ink
Tattooing was still illegal when Dustin Charles graduated from high school, so he never considered it as a profession. Years later, when Charles lost his graphic design job, a friend encouraged him to look into tattooing.
Charles’s right arm is covered in Oklahoma symbols — the original state flag, a scissortail flycatcher and the state motto, seen here.
Charles’ work on apprentice tattooer Stevi Beets is based on an etching by Beets herself. Charles often draws inspiration from vintage illustrations and woodcuts — the older the better.
Charles started by working at Pen and Ink’s front desk, eventually passing the “personality and work ethic” test. There’s no set career path or degree program for tattoo artists, so hopefuls often work pro bono for a chance at an apprenticeship.
Charles’ signature style features heavy line work and mostly black ink. He also enjoys “super-traditional, sailor-y” designs — clunky, but classic.
The Smithsonian’s Flickr page has been an idea goldmine — although luckily, the “stacking” of the skulls was Charles’ doing, not the result of some horrifying 18th century disease.
“I think of tattooing as the last real folk art,” Charles says. Although the artist says he isn’t religious in the traditional sense, he admits there’s a spiritual element to both giving and getting a tattoo. “But at the end of the day it's about making the clients happy.”
Charles finds immense satisfaction in his work. “It’s the mixture of doing something that can last a lifetime with the happiness it brings a person,” he says. “Those two things are super entwined —you can’t really separate them.”
“I really like pretzels,” Charles explains. He got the tattoo the night before his daughter’s birth, making it the only tattoo with an exact date he can remember. The flexibility of his hours as an artist make his a surprisingly family-friendly profession. “I’m on daddy duty all morning. My wife’s a school teacher, so she takes care of her in the evening.”
Jeff Crow, truck operations manager at Lone Wolf Banh Mi, shows off some ink. Crow says he was drawn to Charles because of the unique way he renders inanimate objects.
“Late nights on the food truck, things get rowdy,” says Crow, remembering one night when a coworker was searching for a crowbar to open the truck’s hood. “I’ve got your crowbar right here,” Crow said, flexing. The joke stuck. Charles’ artwork just made it official.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be this big,” Crow says. “I was pleasantly surprised. I like Dustin’s linework, the weight of it.”
Black Sheep Tattoo
Alexandria Gantz prepares to feel the pain — though she later says Kasey Wolfenkoehler, a.k.a. Wolfkiller, has an incredibly light touch.
Wolfenkoehler continues her work on Gantz. The roses will soon be surrounded by a black lace pattern inspired by Gantz’s wedding dress. “My grandmother raised me,” Gantz says. “The final thing we did together was plan my wedding before she passed away.”
Gantz knew she wanted to get roses and lace to memorialize her grandmother. “Her name was Billie Briggs. I just called her Grammy. She was a woman of all tales.” Beyond that initial idea, Wolfenkoehler came up with the colors, each of which hold special meaning for Gantz — pink for her grandmother's breast cancer battle, yellow for her brother's military service, blue for her father's cancer battle, green for her fiancé’s favorite color.
Wolfenkoehler is one of only three female tattoo artists in Tulsa. She credits her mother with fostering her love of art. “My mom was always buying me supplies and pushing me,” Wolfenkoehler says. “Toward the end, she was bedridden with fibromyalgia. I’d paint at the edge of her bed. That’s the reason I kept doing art, because it made her so happy.”
Color work is Wolfenkoehler’s calling card. These are just a few ideas she hopes to make permanent on clients soon. Wolfenkoehler admits there are challenges to working in such a male-dominated industry, but says she doesn't let it get to her. “I don’t engage too much in it, I just focus on doing my art the best I can to show them women can do just as well as men can.”
Gantz stresses even popular tattoos — anchors, infinity signs, and yes, roses — have a unique meaning for each person who has them. “Other people have roses, it’s not the first rose tattoo, but mine are close to me. It’s like a piece of jewelry I don’t ever have to take off.” Gantz got these ribbons done by another artist upon her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis.
To pass her final exam, Wolfenkoehler had to create a tattoo — on herself. “I was brought up in the old school work,” she says. “Those old school tattoo artists, they want you to know how deep to go, and to hurt yourself before you hurt someone else.”
“Art Creates Us” was Wolfenkoehler’s first tattoo. “I threw up in the parking lot before they ever touched me because I was so scared.” The blue rose tattoo memorializes her mother and brother. Though she initially studied to become an art therapist, Wolfenkoehler ultimately ended up working the front desk of a tattoo shop after dropping out. However, her talent soon caught her boss’ eye, and he offered her an apprenticeship. “When you’re working on people, they open up and tell you what’s going on in their lives,” Wolfenkoehler says. “So in a sense, it’s an art therapy session.”
Cherry Street Tattoo
Myk Karasek’s extensive art background is apparent. “I’m the kid whose parents got him stacks of paper, markers, crayons, pens,” he says. Though he dropped out of school to pursue music, the skills he learned now come in handy. “I love oil painting so I approach tattooing like that — it’s my comfort zone,” he says. “You can’t get certain tones with a one-time-pass tattoo that you can layering over time.”
Karasek is an independent artist renting space at Cherry Street Tattoo, but aspires to own his own shop someday. Over the years, Karasek’s right arm has been filled by different artists he has worked with, so each element bears a distinctive style.
Josh Dunn wanted to commemorate his time in the Army, and was inspired by his love of science fiction to get a “biomechanical cyborg” arm. Once they had the concept, Dunn let Karasek run with it. “I trust your ability to make a piece of art,” Dunn says. “It’s what you do.”
“My experience in the army shaped who I am today,” says Dunn, beginning to choke up. “It changed my life.” The clover symbol was done 12 years ago. Dunn’s two best friends got the same one, and Dunn was determined to incorporate it, not cover it up.
Karasek now exclusively does custom work. He never imagined he would be making a living as a tattoo artist.
Karasek describes his style as illustrative realism.
Dunn’s “serial number” is a combination of his wife and dauther’s birthdays. Eventually, Karasek will make the numbers appear stamped into the metal.
“Using the flow of the body, it’s the ultimate canvas,” Karasek says, explaining that transferring a two-dimensional idea to a three-dimensional human body is more like sculpture than drawing.
Karasek’s workspace is plastered in intricate, evocative drawings of Greek gods, feathery fowl and mysterious maidens. Don’t get too attached, though — anything on the walls has already been tattooed, and Karasek won’t repeat his work on another client.