Arts & Culture

These South Tacoma artists will rep T-town at prestigious Seattle Tattoo Expo

On days off, Kirk Hjelmstad and his family like to visit the graves of tattoo artists.

They’ll spend time in the cemetery and take rubbings of the headstones which the Hjelmstad’s later frame and hang on the walls of their South Tacoma shop.

Those aren’t even the most unique objects you can find inside South Tacoma Way’s Homage Tattoo.

A display case with vintage medical equipment, posters of early 20th century circus acts, and a taxidermy menagerie, including a bear, a snake, an owl and a deer sporting a top hat and sunglasses decorate the interior of the shop.

In the spaces between, Hjelmstad has framed hundreds of original tattoo prints, dating back to the early 20th century.

For Hjelmstad, the decorations are all about honoring the history of tattooing and the iconic artists of the past who paved the way.

“What I’m trying to do is make it so everything hanging up is original,” he said. “I have stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s.”

Hjelmstad, his wife Melissa, their 13-year-old son Merik, and their friend and business partner Matt Steward, 32, all head to the Seattle Tattoo Expo this coming weekend, representing Tacoma as featured artists.

Over a hundred tattoo shops from across the country, as well as shops from Germany, Poland, and Mexico, will send artists to the Expo this year.

Though the group has gone to the annual event many times in the past, this will be the first time Melissa Hjelmstad and Steward will be featured. The shop will book appointments and tattoo customers at the Expo all weekend.

“It’s a big deal to get invited,” Steward said. “They bring in tattooers from all over the country, probably from all over the world. The people that are going know that everybody they’ve brought is going to be top-notch. It’s a huge honor.”

Though primarily centered around tattooing, the event also will feature live music and performances, including a burlesque show. Seminars on maintaining tattoo machines will help artists hone their craft.

Kirk Hjelmstad said he’s been attending the Expo since it started in the 1990s and has gone nearly every year with Melissa and their children.

He said he loves the sense of community at the Expo, spending time with tattooist friends and watching their favorite artists get recognition for their work.

The Hjelmstad’s will bring another group member to the Expo this year: their large taxidermy fox, which sits in the back room of their Tacoma shop.

“He comes with us to all the conventions,” Hjelmstad said, recounting a time a few years ago when a photo of the family, with Merik holding the fox, made it into a tattooing magazine.

“We walk around with him at the conventions, and people sometimes turn around and catch a glimpse and get startled. And then I’m like, ‘Shhhh, he’s sleeping,’” he laughed.

The group is thrilled to represent Tacoma at the event. Only one other studio, The Black Bison Tattoo Studio, will send featured artists to the event this year.

“I love Tacoma,” Hjelmstad said. “I really appreciate the preservation of Tacoma … the people that actually care about it and it’s history.

Steward agrees.

“It’s great. Tacoma’s awesome. We need to represent in Seattle more often,” he laughed. “They’re all coming down here so maybe we should go take over up there a little bit.”

‘Not really work if you like it’

Kirk Hjelmstad, 40, can still remember the first time he encountered tattooing. His lifelong passion began during a visit to Tacoma.

“My dad had parked in downtown Tacoma,” he said. “He just happened to park in front of a tattoo shop. I finally looked over (and) I saw a guy who I’ve now found out is Rex, and he was tattooing a topless gal. I just remember being overwhelmed.”

That chance encounter sparked Hjelmstad’s imagination. He started drawing tattoo designs and asking his parents to take him into tattoo shops. When his parents couldn’t take him, he’d go by himself.

“At a really young age I was walking into tattoo shops to get thrown out,” he said. “It would become a game to see how long I could make it before they would throw me out. I would ride my bike super far to go to a tattoo shop.”

After time, Hjelmstad said, the people in the shops began to recognize him.

“They might let you hang out for a couple of minutes or take out the trash or something like that,” he said. “You’re getting there long enough to be able to stare around and hope you can see something you want to draw.”

Melissa Hjelmstad’s fascination with tattooing started at a similarly young age.

“When I was a kid, my grandpa had this giant tattoo on his arm, so I thought that was kind of cool,” she said. “I was real artsy as a kid; I drew a lot (and) started painting when I was a teenager.”

Her interest in art led to her getting a couple of tattoos, then starting to draw tattoo designs for her friends. Once she was drawing designs, learning to tattoo herself was “natural progression,” she said.

“I was like, hold on: I know how to draw them; how about I learn how to do them?” Hjelmstad said.

Raised on the East Coast, Hjelmstad moved to Washington in 2006 and got her first tattoo apprenticeship in Olympia in 2008. After that, she never looked back.

The group created Homage Tattoo a little less than three years ago. Melissa Hjelmstad and Steward had previously worked in a shop two doors down, but when Kirk Hjelmstad joined the group, they decided to relocate and start a shop as a group.

“This is definitely the best shop I’ve ever worked in because we’re all so close,” Kirk Hjelmstad said. “It’s just like family. The customers appreciate the vibe. People can come in here and relax and have a good time.”

Merik spends time with his parents in the shop and is learning to tattoo as well. He’s working to build his own tattoo machine and has done some of his first tattoos on his parents.

They all seem to love what they do.

“I get to have fun all day everyday,” Melissa said, smiling. “I get to do what I want to do. I think that the most important part is having fun and enjoying what you do. It’s not really work if you like it.”

‘Tattooing has given me everything’

The group works long hours at the tattoo shop. Kirk Hjelmstad begins each day at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 1 a.m. or later.

He says that many people don’t understand the hours which go into tattoo art, especially the behind-the-scenes work drawing the designs customers request.

“I get ready, draw, go to the gym, come to work, draw, get the shop clean, draw, then do the tattoo, draw in between appointments. Then you go home and you draw. On your days off you draw.”

Anywhere between one and 10 clients will come to Homage Tattoo each day, and most come in with designs in mind that they want. He said most designs they’ve taken off Instagram, Pinterest or other websites.

Hjelmstad said it takes hours to transform those designs into tattoos which will look good in the locations people want them, and especially to make sure they will age well.

“If we were to really round out how much we make an hour, it would probably be like six bucks,” he said. “We have absolutely no lives. This is it.”

Hjelmstad doesn’t mind the long hours and says he loves his work.

“For me, tattooing has given me everything; it’s made me who I am,” he said. “I’ve learned most of my lessons in tattoo shops. I’m trying my best to give back to tattooing the way it’s given to me.”

Seattle Tattoo Expo

Where: Seattle Center Exhibition Hall

When: Aug. 16, 2-10 p.m., Aug. 17, 12-10 p.m., Aug. 18, 12-8 p.m.

Cost: $20 for a day pass, $50 for a 3 day pass