Get Inked At The First Annual Walk-Up Classic At Great Lakes Tattoo This Weekend

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 18, 2016 5:50PM

Great Lakes' owner, Nick Colella, at work (photo courtesy of Nick Colella)

For Chicagoans, getting a tattoo from a nationally-renowned artist can often mean a cross-country road trip (not to mention a months-long stint on a waitlist). Not so this weekend, though. This Saturday and Sunday, Noble Square's Great Lakes Tattoo will host its 1st Annual Walk-Up Classic, where visitors can get tattoos from greats on a first-come, first-serve basis—and anyone can browse for free.

More than 20 artists from around the country, all of whom live more than 300 miles from Chicago, will come to town to work the event. Visiting artists will include Beau Brady from New York City, Brad Fink from St. Louis, Jennifer Lawes from Toronto and Scott Sylvia from San Francisco. Though they're not doing custom designs, each artist has created their own flash sheet—a board or paper of original, pre-set designs—just for the Classic.

The event is the brainchild of Great Lakes' owner Nick Colella, who has been tattooing in the city since 1994. He's seen firsthand how Chicago tattooing conventions, and local tattoo culture, have changed over the years. This Walk-Up Classic is inspired, in part, by his nostalgia of old-school tattoo conventions.

“I hate to say [modern conventions are] commercial," Colella told Chicagoist, "but there is just so much other stuff going on at these conventions now that tattooing has taken a backseat to the piercing, the suspension, vaping and whatever else they can fit.”

Colella fondly recalls the smaller conventions he frequented earlier in his career: “They were a good time to meet new people and to reconnect with old friends,” he said. That's gotten less feasible at modern conventions, though, which are both bigger and less important. With social media, Colella said, advertising with a convention booth is no longer a must.

Great Lakes' interior (Carrie McGath/Chicagoist)

He misses the simpler times, though, and you can tell from his shop. "There are nods to the [history] of tattooing in Chicago all over the space," Colella explained. "The stripes on the wall match the stripes that were on the wall at Hollywood Arcade on State Street in the 1950s."

In the 1950s heyday of Chicago's vice district, located mostly on State Street between Van Buren and Roosevelt, tattoo artists like Tatts Thomas and Ralph Johnstone worked in "studios" within arcades. They would frequently ink sailors coming in from the Great Lakes Naval Base in their “studios,” often as small as reception desks, set up like pop-ups within arcades and art theaters.

In another homage to historic Chicago tattoo artists, Colella has hung the walls at Great Lakes with their old flash sheets, and still tattoos modern customers with their vintage designs.

The Walk-Up, though, will hinge more on the flash sheets visiting artists' made for the event. Robert Ryan, one of the owners and artists at Electric Tattoo in New Jersey, told Chicagoist he created his designs around a theme. “The sheet I made is a blend of Western classic carnival and Eastern esoteric mysticism," he said. "All images I would love to tattoo.”

Dan Smith, the owner of Captured Tattoo in Tustin, California, will attend with a flash sheet focused on classics.

“The classic tattoo designs like girls’ faces, roses, daggers, hearts and flags will always be the backbone of Americana tattooing,” he said. He tends to create these traditional images while remaining open to images "from current events, events in history, ideals and beliefs, song titles or lyrics and even... logos or symbols.”

Steve Byrne, the co-owner of Rock of Ages Tattoo in Austin, kept bells and whistles to a minimum on his Walk-Up flash sheet.

“I tried to keep it nice and simple," he told Chicagoist. "There's a little Texas flavor in there, too, as I'll be the only person coming from that region.”

Great Lakes Tattoo is located at 1148 W. Grand Ave. The Walk-Up Classic is from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. First come, first served. Pricing will be determined based on the design and the artist.