Tales of Gods & Monsters - Gunnar

Published: 29 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 210, April, 2012

Who would’ve thought that a wizard, an outing to one of the world’s greatest museums, and a closer look at the surrealist works of Salvador Dalí, could lead to the formation of a tattoo artist? You learn something new every day…

“In hindsight, I’d say my dad may have been responsible,” says Columbus Ohio-based tattoo artist, Gunnar, when asked about the origins of his affinity for art. “When I was a kid, he did a drawing of a wizard for me on a wall in my bedroom; I remember making him cut out the wall and take it with us when we moved. He also took me too the Dalí Museum and the Smithsonian when I was young. I didn’t pursue art till much later, but that may have been where my interest began. I doodled as a kid, but I never took it too seriously. I was too into skateboarding at the time.”

Even so, Gunnar went on to opt for an art minor in college, but is quick to admit he didn’t rely too heavily on formal training for the bulk of his skills. “Most of what I have learned is from tonnes of practice and trial and error. I read a lot and I practice more. Plus, I have also been fortunate enough to have some amazing artists as friends, that helped a lot.”

What he did get during his time in school, believe it or not, was the opportunity to become a tattoo apprentice. “Tattooing wasn’t something I initially pursued. I was lucky because it found me,” he says. “I began really becoming fascinated with tattooing and art during my apprenticeship.

“I served two different apprenticeships before I began to tattoo. The style in which they taught and tattooed was completely different, which I am glad I experienced.  Tattooing and art are very personal, and although there are specific techniques that are essential to both, there is a lot more to be gained by having an open mind. When I first started tattooing I wasn’t doing much art, I drew flash, but that was it. I didn’t start painting till five years later.”

Gunnar began taking on his first clients while still in college, but then graduation came about and brought with it a short-lived bout of, what some might call, responsible thinking.

“I decided to try a few jobs that required my diploma. I realized that I loved to tattoo too much and a suit and cubicle wasn’t my path in life, so I pursued a career in tattooing.”

And he did so even though his first work on anyone other than himself – Gunnar’s initial experience putting needle to skin marked his body with a small black spade – was a cause for speculation.  

“I was ten times more nervous when I did my second tattoo – a barbwire band on a friend of mine. It was not very good. Both the people I apprenticed for had their doubts that I would make it in this industry. They thought I sucked, but I think that lit the fire for me to improve. I wanted to prove them wrong.”

Honing his personal style throughout the years, as his creativity became increasingly emboldened, Gunnar ended up in a place that has often been described as the perfect balance of cute and creepy.

“I never set out to create work considered ‘cute and creepy’, it was how people described my art, so I just decided to use the label that was already being provided. I never draw with an intention to fit a particular mold. I draw in whatever style helps the image best suit the idea and meaning. I try and stay diverse if need be. The cute and creepy work is really done for the fans of that style. It is what people like to see from me and it comes naturally.

“When I first started, my early work was color pin-ups, cherubs and neo-traditional. My ‘style’ began to show itself around the time I started painting. My good friends at the time were guys like Eric Merrill, Jime Litwalk, Cleen Rock One and Hoffa; they had such distinct style and I really admired that, so I found something I really liked and pushed it. I was heavily influenced at the time by artists outside tattooing, like Joe Sorren, Todd Schorr, Mark Ryden, Bernie Wrightson and Jack Davis, so it really was a hybrid of tattoo art and various painting styles. That and having two baby daughters and watching a lot of Disney! Plus, I am a horror movie buff, so the creepiness made its way into my work.”

Just don’t expect to see any of that creepiness in his two personal favorite tattoos. “My daughters tattooed me a few years back. They chose what I was getting, drew the images and made stencils – I have a kitten and a unicorn.”

Gods and Monsters: Tattoo Shop Hopping

Although a native of New Britain, Connecticut, when it came time to open up his own shop, Gods and Monsters Tattoo Studio and Art Gallery, Gunnar opted for Columbus, Ohio. Then he embraced the warmer climates of California. Then he headed back to Columbus. Confused? No need to be, here’s how it happened.

“It was an amazing time of growth for me, but the artist I started Gods and Monsters with moved and after that it wasn’t the same, so I closed doors when the lease came up. I wanted to move on and grow as an artist. My friends Adam ‘Honkey Kong’ Hathorn and Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins lived out that way and I wanted to work around them. And California is Mecca for everything I loved about art, so I moved. Unfortunately, I had too much stuff in my personal life that I was dealing with to really get the most out of the experience.

“I moved back to Columbus to be by my kids. Gio, owner of High Street Tattoo, has a great shop with a great group of guys and it has been a good fit. I didn’t want the responsibility of owning a shop initially, I just wanted to rebuild and focus on my own career. For a long time, I didn’t want to open or run a shop again, but I have thought about re-opening Gods and Monsters. I would love to create an artistic powerhouse and work around artists that are trying to push the levels of tattooing and art. That’s what was great about Gods and Monsters, it was where I developed my style; I’d love to offer artists that same experience.”

Side Notes: Painting & Children’s Books

With so many years of tattooing behind him, it seems only logical that a moment to breathe and step back would be needed every so often, and for Gunnar, such moments of separation have been key to his continued growth and success.

“I’ve walked away at times to clear the mind or be sucked up by the dramas of life. I work non-stop on my craft, so sometimes I get drained and have minor burnout, but tattooing is my passion and love, so I always come back. [But] to be honest, the breaks are very important because I tend to come back really refreshed and some of the information I have taken in finally has time to settle and be comprehended so that I can apply new techniques and strategies. I think those breaks help my work from becoming stagnant or ultra repetitive.”

A need for change and new outlooks are also, at least in part, why Gunnar is never away from more traditional forms of art, like painting, for too long. Not to mention it just makes sense from a business standpoint.

“I always say, I tattoo for others but I paint for me. It’s how I balance my life. All I want to do is create, so the medium isn’t what matters, it is the expression of ideas. Art outside of tattooing is important because it allows you to test ideas without practicing on skin. That and the fact that there are only so many tattoos you can do, so for me it is nice that I have a side income outside of tattooing alone. Tattoo artists need a backup. If I can’t tattoo, I need to make sure I can make a living.”

On top of all that, Gunnar is also currently working on a children’s book. Yup, you read that correctly.

“I wrote a story a few years back called Lilith and Thatch. It’s a dark little story about friendship and greed. I have been waiting to illustrate it because I want the art to really be amazing, so I wanted to hone my skills before I tackled that part. We should hopefully see it completed in the next year or two. It’s my baby, so I’m taking my time.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Altering the Industry

It seems today’s tattoo industry is just as often defined by its talented artists as by the drama between them that mainstream media chooses to exploit. So the question is, given the chance, what changes would Gunnar make to tattooing’s current state?

“This is one of those dangerous questions, I may piss people off, but it is what it is. I’m pretty over ego cliques, I haven’t been in high school for years, I’m an adult, so the cool guy cliques are lame. I’ll hang out with anyone, although I tend to be drawn to people that like to push the limits of their art, but being dismissed solely on style or status is ridiculous.

“I’d also like to see us as artists take control of how our industry is viewed. To have casting directors and TV producers that know nothing about tattooing define us. Well, it’s nothing less than appalling.”

There’s also something to be said for tattooers who complain about having to deal with difficult clients.

“It’s part of the gig,” notes Gunnar. “If you don’t like people, then this is the wrong artistic medium. It would be like hating to talk on the phone and then getting a job at a call centre. Tattoo artists really can be cry babies. We find stuff to bitch about all the time. When we’re busy, we complain. When it’s slow, we complain. Maybe we just need to come to realize this job is pretty amazing and without those ‘pesky’ people, we wouldn’t get to do it.”

Promoting Hope Through Ink

Last September, Gunnar wrote on his blog that he made “a conscious decision to no longer promote negativity in the art I create” and he plans to stick to his word.

“I’ve had some clients in the past that wanted work that was ultra depressing, almost like a visual suicide note, and it bummed me out. I don’t mind monsters and graveyards, but I’d rather promote hope over despair.

Tattoo Showdown: Ohio vs. California

“California is vastly different from Ohio in regards to tattooing. The amount of talent out there is staggering. That’s not to say Ohio doesn’t have talent, it has had and still has some really talented folks, but California’s collectors help make tattooing something exciting. They follow tattooing and they know what separates artists. In Ohio, there is still a huge lag in people’s understanding of quality work.”

Story to Tell

“Story to Tell was an idea I had a year or so ago to begin this large-scale collaboration project while travelling. It’s turned out to be a very difficult project to pursue because my schedule is so hectic and it proved difficult to get others to follow through on it once I left town. The project may have just been too large – live and learn.”

High Street Tattoo

872 North High Street 
OH 43215

Contact: www.ArtOfGunnar.com


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Gunnar