Art is not always on a canvas. And its inspiration can take many forms. Rachel Otwell introduces us to a central Illinois tattoo artist named Kevin Veara who has an unexpected side:
Nestled in between a convenience store and a small group of apartments in Springfield is Black Moon Tattoos. It’s a cozy space, Kevin Veara’s artwork and photographs of his family hang on the wall, as well as his Master of Fine Arts diploma. Veara’s the owner here. He’s 50 years old, but his appearance doesn’t allude to his age. His hair is short and he sports mutton chops and thick dark-rimmed glasses. It’s a look that would have him blending right in with the hip crowd of a big city. He’s decked in tattoos, Japanese inspired ones, including lightning bolts coming out of his elbows. Right now, he’s covering up one on a returning customer.
VEARA: “John had a Chinese character on here that represented, something that he would like to move past let’s just say. So, I’m doing traditional Japanese waves over it, and so we’re hiding the old tattoo.”
John Ketchum takes a break from being pierced by the tattoo gun to chat.
KETCHUM: “I just started coming to Kevin about, what, two years, two and a half years ago … And it’s just, I guess it’s trust, and one of my best friends came here so I saw his work and liked his work, so you know where you can go.”
Veara says most of his clients come from word of mouth, and it must be working. His waiting list can stretch on for months. But tattoos aren’t his only passion.
Veara lives on the Sangamon River, quite literally. His small home in rural Edinburg is built into a hill overlooking the river bank. The land is a safe haven for wildlife, including his personal favorite, birds.
VEARA: “At the thistle feeder that is a male gold finch … up on the suet feeder, that’s a female hairy woodpecker, you usually don’t see those very much, but I have a lot of hairy woodpeckers that hang out here. And then that one right there is a male red bellied woodpecker, they like the suet. And then we have all the hummingbirds.”
Veara’s studio for painting is also located here. Different from the confines of his tattoo shop, his desk at home is about four feet away from the bird feeders. He’s more than just another fan of the outdoors. His work has been shown across the country – from New York to Kentucky. In grad school he did abstracts but he’s found a calling in painting, you guessed it, birds.
VEARA: “I guess my tattooing style actually comes out in the pictures. I almost view them as decorative, they’re realistic, but I don’t think a bird artist would consider them realistic enough, I take liberties with them, you know, to make the painting better I think.”
Veara says some people don’t expect him to be the kind of person who’s so interested in wildlife.
VEARA: “For most people I know that are tattooists this comes as a complete surprise. I’m not sure what the stereotypical tattooist is, but I’m not him … I don’t ride a motorcycle, I never was into drugs, excessive drinking, things like that. I’m pretty straight-laced when it comes down to it.”
Back at the tattoo shop, Veara explains that it was his first tattoo he received of a crow that got him into this business in the first place.
VEARA: “I decided to go into a tattoo shop to see how much it would cost to fix this tattoo I had on my back that was of really poor quality. And when I went in there they saw the drawings I had done and just asked me had I ever thought of doing tattoos, and one thing led to another, and I was like, you know what? What the heck, I never thought about doing tattoos but it seemed like a window of opportunity, that I should at least give it a shot.”
Veara says when he started giving tattoos twenty years ago, tattoo artists weren’t really considered artists at all. So the fact he knew how to draw was an asset:
VEARA: “Back then it was mostly just flash, you have a picture, you make a stencil, you put the stencil on and just follow- it’s almost like a coloring book. So it was kind of that attitude toward it. There’s, you know, nothing wrong with that, I kind of enjoyed that aspect of it … you know, a Tasmanian Devil’s a Tasmanian Devil, so live it up.”
At his studio and home Veara talks about his paintings. They are very colorful, and the plants often look menacing – like neon alien predators.
VEARA: “It kind of represents the environment that we’ve created for some of these animals. You know these animals are just trying to make a go of it and the environment has been altered in some ways to where it’s almost impossible for these things to live. So I’m kind of concerned with habitat, that’s why one thing I do is I’m restoring this whole area, I own like 7 acres along the river and I’m restoring it, and replanting a bunch of stuff and making it very, very animal friendly.”
Veara is considered a local expert on wildlife, he gives guided bird hikes at the nature preserve Lincoln Memorial Gardens.
VEARA: “The bird hikes I think … have become something I feel like it’s almost like my civic duty to share my knowledge, and I think I’ve helped people kind of get an idea about the world around them and see them in a different way … I feel like I see the world differently by knowing so much about birds.”
Veara says tattoos are a way for him to make a living, but he’s not a huge part of the scene. He’s proof that not all of those who take part in tattoo culture let it define them, and that you really shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, no matter how much ink is on it. From along the Sangamon River, I’m Rachel Otwell.