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The Illustrated Man 

Dino Tovanche on what it takes to be a tattoo artist...how the business and clientele have changed...and working in sensitive areas.

Dino Tovanche owes his tattooing career to peer pressure. Growing up on the east side, he was friends with brothers Jimmy and Jonny Hayden from the neighborhood. When the two opened up their first Focused Tattoo location 14 years ago, they bugged their old friend to take a crack at the art form. Tovanche eventually relented, and became part of the team as Focused opened four shops around the city. This fall, the chain opened its latest location on West 9th Street in the Warehouse District. Tovanche is now a partner in the new location, where we caught up with him between appointments.

Did you have a background in art before you started tattooing? And does that help?

Yeah, I actually went to Cleveland State, and my concentration was in drawing. It's a big difference. You definitely have to know how to draw to tattoo, but even with that, there's a lot of line work in tattooing. So if you're not used to doing straight lines, you're going to be kind of screwed, and you're going to struggle a little bit. Obviously, it's not a forgiving canvas, so you can't really screw up. The things you learn in drawing you can transfer to tattooing, but technically it's a different thing. You have to worry about needle depth, how to actually put in color, how to do smooth shading, so there's a lot involved in it.

Do you get a lot of people who come in just wanting ink, but without a concept?

The first thing I say to them is, what's cool to me might not be cool to you, so you've got to give me some kind of idea that I can roll with. I'll ask them questions like, "What's your background?" and "What are the things you like?" A lot of times people who cut hair will get scissors; sometimes we'll get nurses, and they'll get cardiograms.

It's surprising that there aren't many tattoo shops downtown.

This is the first one. And when we applied for our zoning the first time, they denied us. We had to go to the appeals board. They were pretty much open to us being here. I think they felt the same way we did, which was that some of these old zoning laws on the books are outdated.

At the hearing, we had one person speak against us for being a negative element. The thing people don't realize is that tattooing has really changed over the years. It's way more of an art form now, rather than just some gang or Russian Mafia affiliation. People get things for very personal reasons. If you look at my arms, that's my father who passed away, and my mother, she's still alive. I had family up here, and this is on my father's gravestone. It says "Eternal Love." This is for my son, my daughter, my other son, so all this is very meaningful. It's personal. One of the things I told the appeals board is that people of all walks and ages are getting tattoos. We've tattooed people who are 80-some years old. We've had grandmothers coming in getting it for their grandchildren.

One of the most important tattoos I ever did was for a mother who came in with her 17-year-old son. He had leukemia. They had done everything they could do, they had a bone marrow transplant that didn't work. It was on his bucket list to get a tattoo. He got a swallow with his mother's and grandmother's names. About four or five weeks later, I wondered what happened, because he was supposed to come in to get it touched up. And his mom came in and said he'd passed.

Was it a gamble to open up a downtown shop?

I suppose. This is different than any other shops we've had. Obviously, being downtown is a big thing. We've always had a certain clientele that have known who we are. I think we come here and it's a little different, because some of the people in the area don't know who we are yet. And we're trying to cater to a different crowd. We're trying to reach out to some of the young professionals that are living downtown now. I think with everything that's happened downtown, the revitalization, all the plans that are going on in the East Bank of the Flats and the casino, it's just the right time for us.

The recession has taken a bite out of a lot of businesses. Did it impact the tattoo industry?

No, not at all. If anything, our business grew during the recession, for a lot of reasons. Number one, I think tattooing in general has just become more popular. Number two, we've always put out a good product for a fair amount of money; we're not really trying to kill people's pockets. I think a lot of it is also who we are and how we deal with customers. A lot of times people come in and say "Man, I was at so-and-so tattoo and the guy was a real dick." They'll say how much of an asshole this guy was, or that guy. But we treat our customers really well. I think the problem with a lot of tattoo artists, especially the older ones, is that they think they're rock stars.

What's the craziest area you've tattooed?

The craziest area? I did this cheetah print right next to this girl's fricking labia. And it was kind of strange, because her boyfriend was right there. She's moaning and stuff, and he's like, "This guy is making you moan more than me." It was just uncomfortable for me. And it was a hard tattoo. The skin is really soft, and in order to make a good tattoo, you have to really stretch. And it's hard to stretch down there.

More by Kyle Swenson

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