Ironclad Tattoo Co. - The Real Detroit

Published: 29 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 221, February, 2013

Portrayed by mainstream media as a place ripe with desolate areas and where poverty and violence abound – just think back to the 2002 hit film 8 Mile, starring local rap superstar, Eminem – Detroit may be used to its bad rep, but if there’s one thing we learned from our visit to Ironclad Tattoo Co., it’s that you can’t always believe what you hear, or read.

Well, as for 8 Mile, I can’t really say much. It is what it is, a lot of strip clubs for the most part, but living in this area I kind of lose sight of what the rest of the world’s perception of Detroit really is,” says tattoo artist, Keith Grodi, one of three co-owners behind Ironclad Tattoo Co.

“I hear things from time to time about how bad it is and how dangerous it is, but I do not find that to be the case,” he continues. “Detroit is a very special place and I believe it is just somewhere you have to spend a good amount of time to appreciate it for what it really is.”

It makes sense then that when Grodi and business partners, Mike Moore and Mike Bagwell, were thinking of opening up their own tattoo and piercing studio, leaving their old haunt, Eternal Tattoos, behind, they didn’t look further than Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.

“I started working for Eternal Tattoos about eight years ago and I was super excited to start working with [tattooer] Tom Renshaw,” remembers Grodi.

“Then, about three years later, Mike Moore started working there as a body piercer and it didn’t take too long for the two of us to become good friends; our personalities were pretty opposite, but sometimes that’s what it takes to balance each other out.

“One big thing we had in common was our drive to be better and our overall work ethic, so, over time, things just ran their course at Eternal and we both wanted to move on to do our own thing, our own way.

“Mike Bagwell came into the picture because he had apprenticed under Tom for about a year a few years back, so when Mike Moore and I were talking early on in the process, we thought he would be a great fit at the new shop. When we approached him about it, he showed interest in being an owner as well, so that just settled things for us and it all worked out great.”

Renshaw was the first non-business partner artist to jump on the Ironclad bandwagon and the total tally is now up to two piercers – Mike Moore and Chase Suarez – and four tattooers – Keith Grodi, Mike Bagwell, Brent Swosinski and Matt Lambdin – since the shop’s opening back in August of last year.

We decided to sit down with Keith Grodi and up-and-coming traditional artist, Matt Lambdin, to get the lowdown on Ironclad Tattoo Co.

Introducing Mr. Keith Grodi…

“Actually, I got into tattooing in kind of a strange way. A few of my friends were getting some lowball, cheesy tattoos from random artists, and soon after they started bugging me to start doing them, probably because they didn’t want to pay for them anymore,” laughs Grodi.

“At the time, I kinda got myself into a little problem with gambling on football games, I dug myself a bit of a hole, so I got a small loan from the bank to pay off the bookie. After I paid him I had a few bucks left over, so I bought a kit from Spaulding and Rogers from the back of a magazine.”

Although he had been artistically inclined from an early age – “I remember drawing a ton of Iron Maiden album covers; I was obsessed with Eddie” – picking up tattooing was a whole different animal, and as Grodi admits, “unfortunately, I learned the hard way; I am 95 percent self-taught. I went and got a tattoo from some guy in a kitchen and watched his every move. I felt like all I needed was to watch one time and I could take it from there… classic mistake.

“The next three, four years were very tough and I made a ton of mistakes and pretty bad tattoos. And, to be honest, I would like to forget those first five years because I am not proud of them, but at the time, I didn’t really know any other way and thought I could do anything. Boy, was I wrong.”

That first-hand experience and the fact that he chose to learn from his mistakes, working non-stop to better his craft and become a fine artist may be why the current number of individuals who think they can just pick up a machine and become rich and famous riles Grodi up.  

“I have a very strong opinion on this subject,” he starts, easing his way in. “There are way, way, way too many ‘artists’ out there these days, and although it was only 20 years ago when I started, I don’t remember it being like this. It was still somewhat overcrowded for the tattoo demand at the time, but when the whole tattoo TV trend started, it took it to a whole new level.

“Now, the biggest problem is two-fold. First off, tattoo supplies are made way too available to the general public. With the growth of people wanting to start tattooing nowadays, there are far too many supply stores popping up all over the place. We have at least four or five just in metro Detroit – why in the world are there five supply stores in one metro area? It makes no sense to me at all. And most of the suppliers out there are fly-by-night operations, selling garbage supplies to meet the demand of the kitchen artists buying one tube and one needle at a time.

“Secondly, we have a vicious cycle occurring of unqualified artists, shops and recent apprentice graduates taking on apprentices of their own, and it’s usually because some random unknowing ‘artist’ with high hopes is willing to give them money. It’s kind of like kids having kids who never really had the right parenting from the beginning, if that makes any sense. In a nutshell, it’s people without the proper training trying to train others.”

Which is not to say that all hope is lost and all of us tattoo-loving folks with standards are doomed.

“I actually believe that Michigan is a pretty good place for the tattoo scene,” adds Grodi. “We have a lot of great artists of all types and styles in the Metro Detroit area. I also think, for the most part, there is a pretty great harmony between the good and established artists in the state; we all seem to get along very well and have a special respect for one another.”

Introducing Mr. Matt Lambdin...

“I can’t really pinpoint a time when I was first attracted to art,” says Lambdin, trying to recall his tattoo roots. “I remember my brother had a book filled with how-to-draws of superheroes, I also used to buy blank hats and draw skateboard company logos all over them; not really sure why, [but] listening to aggressive music is probably what exposed me to tattoos. My mom had gotten a small yin-yang on her ankle, but I never thought much about it. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think much about tattooing almost until I got into it myself.” Which was no easy feat.

“I hate to say it, but I can’t deny it, I went about learning in the complete wrong way,” he says. “Right after I graduated high school, I got my hands on a couple of junk machines and went to town on myself and all my naive friends. I know, it’s the typical scratcher story, but after I realised that I wouldn’t learn anything by teaching myself, I got a formal apprenticeship that led me down the right path.”

Just last year, that path almost took Lambdin to a completely different city when, at the last minute, the opening of Ironclad Tattoo Co. ended up putting his tattoo journey on a totally different course.

“I had actually just got back to Michigan from a long bicycle trip with a friend, meanwhile trying to decide if I wanted to pursue tattooing here or go somewhere entirely new,” he remembers. “I was set on moving to Brooklyn and had a spot in a shop lined up and everything, then I got an email from Keith Grodi, telling me about this new shop opening up and that there’d be big things happening, so I figured I’d meet with the crew and see how it went.”

Catering to a range of clients with a variety of tastes – “I don’t think the area itself has many trends” – and desires – “I actually got an inquiry to tattoo a man’s shaft the other day, but what’s odd these days?” – Lambdin is standing behind his decision to not leave for New York.  

“Now I’m here and I love it. Being at the new shop hasn’t been very difficult, in my opinion. The walk-in rate isn’t the greatest, but I try to keep busy booking ahead of time. I also don’t think the countless shops all around Metro Detroit affect us much. I’m just doing my thing and hoping I get noticed from that alone.”

When asked about all the misconceptions attached to his city of choice, Lambdin laughs, “well, let’s just say that I live off of 8 Mile, and I think I’m doing alright! It’s just like every other major city, except a little desolate in areas. I know this place has a reputation, but I don’t think much of it.”

The shop itself is also keeping him happy, pushing thoughts of Brooklyn far out of his mind.

“It’s very roomy and we all have our shifts set up to make sure we don’t get too sick of each other,” says Lambdin, then laughs, “most of our time is spent giving each other shit and talking about how Mike and I are the best-looking ones there. And tattooing, of course!”

Grodi on setting up shop

It comes with all the trials and tribulations of any other shop trying to stand out in a crowd. I personally have a pretty solid following, but opening up and trying to showcase yourself and the entire studio’s talents is quite a task in a pretty saturated market, but so far, so good!

Lambdin on artist oversaturation

I don’t like to be the one to decide who can and can’t be a tattooer. It’s really up to them and if they’re good, they’re good. If they’re garbage and people are still interested in getting work from them, then I’m happy to not have to service those people.

Ironclad Tattoo Co.

3871 Rochester Rd.
Troy, Michigan
(248) 528-0810


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Ironclad