Beyond Skin Deep: The Tattoo Artist

Jesse Neese got his first tattoo at age 20, so he often jokes that his kids have to wait until then, too.

Why settle for just one tattoo when your entire body can be a canvas? Jesse Neese, the owner of Nuclear Ink in Omaha, Nebr., considers his entire body one tattoo.

The art of tattooing dates back to the beginning of mankind. It developed a somewhat seedy reputation, but modern artists with high hygiene standards now offer beautifully crafted, customized designs.

Neese, a father of two and former high school art nerd, has been inking thousands of customers for 12 years. His schedule book fills up months in advance; his larger projects, like full back pieces, can take multiple five-hour sessions.

Below, he reveals how the profession has helped bring him a sense of community.

Title: Owner, Nuclear Ink
Age: 37
In the business for: 12 years
Graduated from: University of Nebraska at Omaha, degrees in studio art and dramatic art
Pricing: $125 per hour
Previous jobs: salesman; waiter; customer service representative

What inspired you to pursue tattoo artistry? I saw a lot of bad tattoos around me, and I thought I could do better. If a permanent mark is going to be made on your body, it should be done well.

Neese often receives religious requests, such as this tattoo of Saint Michael.

How did you get started? At age 18, I went into every shop in town, asking to learn how to do tattoos. I didn’t have an “in,” though. So I got a few tattoos and an art degree, and forgot about wanting to be a tattoo artist. About 10 years later, I ran into an artist I used to know, and set up an apprenticeship with him. We eventually opened a studio together, and I bought his part of the business in 2003.

Does your theater background help with tattooing? There’s a lot of lighting involved in theater, so that gave me a good eye for light and shadowing with tattoos. For example, I use shadowing to give tattoos a 3D illusion. I also have lots of experience with costuming, which gives me an advantage with larger tattoos that flow around the collar.

What’s the preparation procedure for tattooing? I work with people to design the tattoo to fit their body. I take paper and measure out the space of the tattoo – sometimes, I’ll draw the design out on paper beforehand, and other times, I’ll just draw it right onto the skin with a marker. It’s easier to draw right on if a tattoo is wrapping all the way around the arm.

Do you numb people before injecting ink underneath their skin? I don’t believe in that – it’s not necessary. If you’re not willing to put up with the fact that it hurts a little, you don’t want it enough.

How long does the process take? Larger tattoos can take multiple four- to six-hour sessions, each a few weeks apart.

Neese typically works until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. in the evening.

Craziest tattoo you’ve ever done: I don’t consider anything crazy. But I’ll never do the same tattoo more than once, unless friends or family want matching ones.

Your work looks heavy on fantasy art. I never want to get stuck in doing just wildlife or dragons. I run the whole range, from black and gray to color and from realism to crazy cartoons.

What do you think of the “tough guy” stereotype of tattoo artists? For the most part, [tattoo artists] are the nerdy art kids from high school – the ones that were picked on and messed with. We’re the ones that really love and enjoy artwork.

Something people don’t know about the job: How much work it is. I spend all day tattooing, then come home and fall asleep on the drawing table. Some say they only draw in a good mood, or when they’re upset – you can’t do that as a tattoo artist.

How many people have you tattooed? Anywhere from one to five per day, six days per week, for 12 years. So that’s thousands of tattoos in my life – I can’t even count how many.

How many tattoos do you have? I consider my body one tattoo – it’s an open space. I have some medieval engravings, totem animals, goblins, and Hot Rods with my wife, kids, and myself racing off in a cartoon buggy.

Various AC/DC tribute tattoos.

Do you tattoo yourself? It’s a mix of doing it myself and letting others do some, since it’s difficult to reach most angles.

Any music while you work? Nothing slow and mellow.

Favorite part of your job: Growing up, I never felt part of my community or the bigger picture. Now, I meet everyone in my community. I’ve tattooed local police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and fast food workers.

What tattoos do the firefighters get? Many get the Maltese cross, but just as many get other personal designs.

Do you think it’s important for tattoos to have deep meaning? Not necessarily. Some TV shows make it seem like someone needs to die in order to get a tattoo. That’s negative; I’d rather get a tattoo to celebrate someone.

What does your office look like? It’s pretty clean, with white walls, a few murals, and lots of my own artwork – like poster-size photos of back tattoos I’ve done.

One of Angelina Jolie

1. Focus on becoming a professional artist: get an art degree and do as much artwork as possible. Consider joining the Alliance of Professional Tattooists (APT), which has a code of ethics I strongly believe in.

2. Get tattooed. You’ll learn a lot about how the process works and what it’s like to have one. It’s also valuable for a tattoo artist to have a tattoo he’s not happy with; it teaches you the gravity of the business, and keeps you in check.

3. When pursuing an apprenticeship, be professional: don’t show half-finished sketches on notebook paper. Instead, show a portfolio of finished artwork.

For more of Neese’s work, check out his art galleries and Nuclear Ink’s Facebook page. All photos, unless stated otherwise, are courtesy of Jesse Neese.

Another way to get inked: this No Joe Schmo is a permanent makeup artist!

3 thoughts on “Beyond Skin Deep: The Tattoo Artist

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