|| Artist trades construction tools for tattooing needle
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ROCK ISLAND – John Kautz has been drawing and creating art since he could hold a crayon.
"It's pretty much just been a love affair right from the get-go," he said.
Now, the 37-year-old Rock Island man tattoos at The Jaded Gypsy in downtown Rock Island.
Mr. Kautz said he became "very curious" about tattooing when he was in his teens, and the more he learned, the more he knew it was an art he could excel at.
As a teen, he was "pretty heavy" into painting and attended art camps at the University of Iowa during summers. When he turned 18, he began getting tattoos on parts of his body easy to hide from his parents, he said.
Mr. Kautz decided to make tattooing a career. He sought apprenticeships at area shops, but there were few in the area in the 1990s. Those where he found opportunities "didn't seem like the place to be," so he decided to wait and "joined the real world," he said.
He got into masonry and flat-work with LK Behncke Construction in Davenport. "Construction, oddly enough, was beneficial" to a career in tattooing, because it taught him "to appreciate the process of how to be meticulous, exacting and confident in rendering," he said,
Mr. Kautz also studied at Scott Community College and continued honing his art skills, studying at area museums with local artists and doing some "due diligence" on his own.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Kautz met Ron O'Tool, who had "whispered" something about opening his own shop in Rock Island. When asked if he'd like to learn how to tattoo in the shop, Mr. Kautz said his response was "Hell, yeah."
He joined the shop when it opened in 1999, working construction by day and tattooing at night. "If you want something bad enough," he said, all of the work is "worth it."
Mr. Kautz did his first few tattoos on himself. "I was too excited to be nervous." He also practiced on friends and family, "people who are very forgiving."
As his experience grew, so did his knowledge and techniques. The skin, he said, "is a very unforgiving canvas." It changes over time with age and from exposure to the elements, so whatever work is put on the skin needs to be done with that in mind.
When he was making enough money tattooing to pay the bills, he quit his construction job and began tattooing full time. "The last 14 (years) just blew by."
Last fall, Mr. Kautz decided to leave O'Tool Design to work at The Jaded Gypsy, which recently moved from Watch Tower Plaza in Rock Island to 217 18th St., Rock Island.
He said he walked "away from a good thing" but needed something with a fresh perspective.
You have to "keep on raising the bar for yourself; otherwise, you're just going to stagnate."
Being a tattoo artist isn't punching a clock, Mr. Kautz said, adding that "often, you have to take work home." Pieces can be "fun and simple, very carefree," he said, but other times, "you have to sit down and develop an entire sleeve."
It's like putting together a puzzle, he said, except "you have to create the puzzle pieces," too, while keeping in mind how the work will look down the road. For instance, you wouldn't want to tattoo a portrait on an elbow, he said. "It's all about form and function."
Mr. Kautz said he also has to keep up his education about blood-borne pathogens and the like to safeguard himself and his clients.
He said his job gives him the chance to meet people from all walks of life, from all different backgrounds.
It wasn't long before he thought, "This didn't feel like work at all."
He said it just "felt right" from the moment he held his first machine. "I love my job. I actually can't wait to get to it most of the time."
Mr. Kautz said he can't believe he gets paid to do what he does, and, if it weren't for paying bills, he doesn't think he'd charge.
Most days and nights, you'll find Mr. Kautz in his green, poster-, picture- and painting-covered room, a machine in his hand and a client in his chair, or in the back of the shop, at a lighted table, drawing a blueprint for a piece that will last forever.
He said he'll be tattooing for as long as he can. "Until my hands and eyes fail me."