Additional reporting by Paige Lloyd and Teran Powell.
His tattooed hands clasp a steaming coffee cup. His right hand reads “Mother” and the left, “Father.” Each word rests on two roses cut apart, representing how his parents’ marital split was for the best. Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” blares in the background and Jon Bartels, 26, a tattoo artist at Walker’s Point Tattoo, leans back and recounts seven years of experience and the 20,000 tattoos he has inked.
Bartels discovered at age 14 that he wanted his art to make a lasting impression.
“I wanted to do something that was permanent, something that would last,” Bart says. “I grew up spray painting on buildings where things would get rolled over and nothing ever seemed to last.”
At the age of 18, Bart found a way to showcase his art in a long-lasting format: tattooing.
During a two-year apprenticeship at Milwaukee’s Atomic Tattoo, Bartels learned valuable skills, such as how to not cross-contaminate. He worked on drawings daily and other tasks to prove his worth to his teacher.
“I would run errands, clean the shop, and basically become a slave to the artists in order to prove to the artists how much I wanted it,” Bartels says.
As his skills evolved, Bartels moved to Walker’s Point Tattoo where he has been for five years.
“Everyone gets along and people see that when they come in to the shop,” Bartels says. “It is a comfortable place with no drama.”
Bartels is open to tattooing in any style, including Traditional (heavy line strokes and solid colors), Japanese Traditional (deep cultural meaning), Black and Grey Realistic, and Neo-Traditional (heavy saturation, minimal shading).
“As long as the tattoo has a bold outline, is bright, clean, and will last a long time, I like it,” Bart says. “The Traditional tattoos come from sailors and even hookers when they would be drawing images such as hearts, daggers, anchors or eagles. Images that have a solid, bold look.”
Thousands of tattoos drawn by Bart are walking around Milwaukee, with the bold outlines he prefers. Among them are a few crazy requests beyond belief.
“The worst I’ve drawn is a teddy bear holding an AK- 47, giving the middle finger,” Bart says. “It was wearing a hat that had a weed leaf on it and there was a heart underneath it that said ‘I love drugs’.”
Bart continues to make bold outlines, but even bolder artistic statements. From street graffiti on abandoned buildings to working a a successful tattoo shop, Bart’s own versatility has continued to evolve as an artist.
Despite the evolution and his own dedication as an artist, Bart remains modest about his own work, often avoiding taking success too seriously. He still values
the little things in life, and gets a kick out of looking down to a huge Samurai tattoo on his left calf–because according to Bart, “ninjas are cool.”