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O'Tool brings art, design connection to tattoos
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Ron O'Tool started his first tattoo business 12 years ago with his Rock Island shop and opened a Davenport location two years ago. Mr. O'Tool, shown here in his Rock Island location, splits his time between the two shops.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Derrick Reuther of Rock Island has Ron O'Tool tattoo a bear on his arm at O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo in Rock Island Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Mr. Reuther had a Chicago Bears football emblem on his arm that needed updating and had Mr. O'Tool add a bear with claws.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Ron O'Tool of O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo in Rock Island creates a bear tattoo for Derrick Reuther of Rock Island Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Reuther had a Chicago Bears football emblem on his arm that needed updating and had O'Tool add a bear with claws. O'Tool started his first tattoo business 12 years ago with his Rock Island shop and opened a Davenport location two years ago.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Ron O'Tool of O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo in Rock Island creates a bear tattoo for Derrick Reuther of Rock Island Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Reuther had a Chicago Bears football emblem on his arm that needed updating and had O'Tool add a bear with claws. O'Tool started his first tattoo business 12 years ago with his Rock Island shop and opened a Davenport location two years ago.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Derrick Reuther of Rock Island has Ron O'Tool tattoo a bear on his arm at O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo in Rock Island Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. Reuther had a Chicago Bears football emblem on his arm that needed updating and had O'Tool add a bear with claws. O'Tool started his first tattoo business 12 years ago with his Rock Island shop and opened a Davenport location two years ago.
ROCK ISLAND -- Growing up with a pencil in his hand, Ron O'Tool never dreamed he'd one day hold a tattoo machine instead.

But "from the moment I tried it, it was just like -- more," the Bettendorf man said. "There's something really liberating and exciting about it."

In 1999, he opened his first shop, O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo, in Rock Island. In January 2010, he opened his second store in Davenport.

Looking back over his 18 years as a tattoo artist, Mr. O'Tool credits his artists for his long-standing, profitable businesses.

"They are the ones that made me successful, not me," he said.

O'Tool Design has become a bit of a household name in the community over the years, especially with younger generations. It's hard to believe it wasn't Mr. O'Tool's plan all along.

When he was younger, he had a taste for creativity but didn't have an outlet. After graduating from college in 1993 with a degree in graphic design, he said he did the whole "starving artist" thing until his friend, Jason "Wind" Nelson, suggested he give tattooing a try.

"I was not someone that had a lot of tattoos," Mr. O'Tool said, adding that he was intrigued, nevertheless.

He remembers not wanting to tattoo after earning a degree in graphic design, but once he got ahold of a machine, that was it. The connection between art and tattooing was there; he said it "didn't hit me until I tried it."

Mr. O'Tool began to look at tattooing as an opportunity to sell paintings every day, he said. "I like money; I like to be successful," he said. He found that, with tattooing, "the harder I worked at it, the more I could achieve."

He built up his portfolio and was hired at a Quad-Cities area shop called the Electric Ink Pen. After a short while, he moved to All Pro Custom Tattoo in Davenport, where he met Alex Pompa, an artist who later would work for years at O'Tool Design.

Never satisfied in shops where he didn't have control, Mr. O'Tool decided to open his own in an old TV repair shop at 4010 18th Ave., Rock Island.

Mr. Nelson came on to help "pioneer" the shop; joining later were Mr. Pompa and John Kautz, who Mr. O'Tool called his "rock."



The four ran the shop for several years before Mr. Pompa left to open his own shop. Later, Mr. Nelson also left to open a shop.

Word-of-mouth continued to spread and business boomed. "We were growing out of our skin," said Mr. O'Tool, and he decided it was time to open a second shop, at 214 W. 4th St., Davenport.

The decision wasn't an easy one. "I didn't want to lose the quality (of our work)," he said.

In the meantime, Mr. O'Tool had made connections with artists Ryan Kistenmacher and Matt Sorensen, who were tattooing at another area shop and looking for a change. That gave him the push to open his second shop, he said, adding that "the stars had to align."

At first, he was concerned that having two shops would have an adverse effect on the camaraderie among his employees, but the closeness among co-workers has not suffered.

"It's two locations, one family," Mr. O'Tool said.

The Rock Island shop has four artists and a piercer. The Davenport shop has five artists and a piercer, and also offers silk screening, vinyl graphics and more, keeping up with the progressing industry.

"Being an artist, I definitely don't live in reality," he said, a grin coming to his face. He goes to work wearing what he wants and can listen to music he likes. But that doesn't mean he doesn't put in work.

"If you want to make it these days, you better be ready. Only the strong survive," he said.

Mr. O'Tool said he has met many people from all walks of life. "It's awesome. You never know what the hell you're going to get," he said, smiling and shaking his head. "That's the best part about this job, man, is the people. You just never really know who's going to walk through that door."

Mr. O'Tool has tattooed everything from little color pieces to elaborate wildlife scenes. He's "touched people's lives" with tribute pieces and pet portraits and helped people cross off items from bucket lists.

Sometimes he said people want tattoos for all the wrong reasons, such as pieces featuring the latest trends or bands of the moment. He said he typically attempts to talk people out of tattooing a significant other's name and initials, but he tries not to judge. "(You) don't have time in your life to fix everyone," he said.

The tattoo he was working on this day was for Craig Baltzer, of Bettendorf. On his right arm, Mr. Baltzer was getting an owl with two stars beneath its wing to represent his two children, and the saying, "Owl love you forever."

Ready to work, Mr. O'Tool sat down at a table and began to draw, using a photo Mr. Baltzer brought in for reference.

"A little more out -- with the head right here," Mr. Baltzer said, gesturing on his right arm.

"What's he doing? He's just flying, right?" Mr. O'Tool said.

"Yeah," Mr. Baltzer replied.

The two discussed the ways in which the lettering could be worked in. "Maybe through smoke," Mr. Baltzer suggested.

Soon after, the two were back in Mr. O'Tool's room, and he was busy readying the tattoo space. With a tongue depressor, he spread a slab of Vaseline onto a freshly lined tray to hold several tiny cups of ink.



After applying a stencil to Mr. Baltzer's arm for a point of reference, Mr. O'Tool tweaked the design with an orange Sharpie marker.

"Relax your arm now, like I'm not even here," he said.

Mr. Baltzer sat in the chair, and Mr. O'Tool readied his machine.

"We're ready to rock, brother," Mr. O'Tool said, the tattoo machine buzzing as it began to glide across the skin.





Living the dream

Who: Ron O'Tool, tattoo artist and owner of O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo, with shops in Rock Island and Davenport

Quote: "If you want to make it these days, you better be ready. Only the strong survive."





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  Today is Monday, Sept. 15, the 258th day of 2014. There are 107 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: The Rock River Illinois conference of the Methodist Church will hold its annual sessions this week in this city. About 200 ministers are expected to attend.
1889 — 125 years ago: The Brush electric company had prepared a new schedule of rates to become effective Oct. 1, with slightly increased rates to consumers.
1914 — 100 years ago: The Rock Island Aerie of Eagles made plans for the laying of the cornerstone of a new $50,000 Eagles Home. W.C. Maucker is to be master of ceremonies.
1939 — 75 years ago: Col. Charles A. Lindbergh spoke on "America and Foreign War" in a neutrality debate over nation wide radio hook-up.
1964 — 50 years ago: Two awards of the National Safety council were presented to the city of Rock Island today at noon at a meeting held in the YWCA.
1989 — 25 years ago: The final tallies are not yet in for the summer 1989 Quad-Cities tourism season, but officials are expecting the number of visitors to the area to be at least as good as, if not better than, 1988.






(More History)