Grand Rapids tattooist and songwriter Alex Brooke opens up about her own ink, about tattooing musicians ‘who always look cool’ & prepping for the process. Plus, some Michigan musicians share their tats.
SCROLL DOWN FOR A PHOTO GALLERY AND SOME SELECTED MUSICIANS’ TATTOOS
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I’m sitting in a chair at Brenda Sue’s Tattoos & Fine Art Gallery on Grandville Avenue SW in Grand Rapids, just down the road from Founders Brewing Co. You can smell the hops before you walk in the door.
There’s a blizzard outside, and inside I anxiously await the buzzing needle that Alex Brooke is ritualistically preparing. I have other tattoos, but there’s something about the pain in conjunction with the permanence of such a decision to inject ink into my skin that gets me worked up every time.
But then I’m calmed by the fact that life is fleeting and could be cut short at any time. Why not utilize this walking canvas to showcase beautiful artwork that resonates with me?
This existential and slightly morbid thought gets me to take some deep breaths and relax a bit.
Alex is also a calming presence in her own right. She’s been tattooed nearly 30 times herself and has tattooed plenty of folks. In 2019 alone, she tattooed 500 people. This year, because of COVID-19 and becoming newly pregnant, that number is around 180, but still climbing.
Amid these staggering numbers are more than 50 musicians. In the music community especially, an Alex Brooke tattoo is a badge of artistic passage, an incredibly hip and stylish one at that.
She’s also happens to be a musician in her own right. In the past, Alex has released music under the moniker Red Rio, a grungy folk-rock project. She is currently working on a handful of tracks which are in the mastering phase that will be released as singles under her own name, likely this year. She’s also been part of Founders’ FBC All-Stars and formerly was a member of The Koh Kohs.
“Music is such a form of self-expression and creativity,” Alex offers. “And, you know, by extension, tattoos are the visual representation of that creativity and self-expression.”
THE ‘GRAVITY OF HAVING ARTWORK ON LIVING PEOPLE’
A tattoo artist since 2016, Alex is as graceful with a needle as any painter with a brush. And she’s always booked up. So I feel lucky to be sitting in this chair.
The tattooing begins at my wrist and it feels like fire. Eventually, though, my arm goes numb and adjusts to the sensation, and then we’re smoothly rolling and talking as though we were old friends.
A few months later, I meet Alex at a coffee shop on Grand Rapids’ West Side and we chat some more between her tattooing appointments. I ask her what it feels like to have so many pieces of her artwork strolling around town.
“It’s kind of surreal. I try often to sit myself down and think about the gravity of having artwork on living people. I find myself in a place of gratefulness for that. It’s just really amazing…and sometimes it’s nerve-wracking, because I will always continue to get better,” Alex says as we sit huddled in a greenhouse behind Rise Baking Co. on an early spring day.
“I see tattoos from early on in my career, and, you know, there is going to be a part of myself that cringes. But then also a part that tries to teach myself grace. You know, I see flaws in my work, that people who have them usually don’t. It’s humbling and like, really cool.
“I try to stay grounded. I don’t want to be some pompous ass, right? But it is exciting. It’s cool for sure. And I’m really grateful that people want to wear them. And when I see a tattoo, it just reminds me of the conversations, the good conversations that I’ve had with people.”
Alex is covered in tattoos, although you wouldn’t know it on this particular day. She’s wearing a black jean jacket, accented with earth tones, adorned by a sheriff star on her right shoulder.
Her tattoos though, both large, intricate pieces, as well as small figurines, are everywhere. There are the self-inflicted hand-poked tattoos on her feet that she learned how to do in Hawaii with a sewing needle.
Her favorite piece, however, is a large mural of chickadees on her right bicep. It’s her favorite tattoo, inked by Johnny at Wealthy Street Tattoo.
“I would go take walks in my parents’ woods when I was younger all the time. And there was a time where the sun was kind of shining behind me, so I could see the shadows cast on the ground in front of me,” Alex recounts.
“I saw a little bird hopping around on a branch. So I held really still. I just kind of waited there. Then all of a sudden the bird starts flitting around and it lands on my head! It’s making cute little chickadee calls and it’s just bouncing around, and then it flew away. It was amazing. It’s kind of all-encompassing, like, just loving nature as a child and art as well.”
TATTOOS ALL ABOUT ONE’S PERSONAL STYLE: ‘MUSICIANS ALWAYS LOOK COOL’
With her career at an all-time peak, Alex’s life has changed considerably from the stick-poke days. Her fine-line representations of flora and fauna are especially popular. She’s wildly busy.
I’m curious about any negative experiences she’s had. I’m also wondering about her thoughts on what makes a tattoo bad.
There are blowouts, which occur when an artist presses down too hard resulting in the ink being sent below the top layers of the skin, spreading the ink out in a haze. Then there’s “awkward placement,” like placing a tattoo on the forearm that appears upside down when the arm is lowered at rest.
She’s had patients pass out cold. There’s the classic few too many drinks, or smoking weed beforehand, which only heightens sensitivity to the needle. She offers some sage advice.
“Just go to someone whose work you’ve seen. I have some shit pieces on me. So I mean, I get it. And I love impulse tattoos. But yeah, be careful,” Alex says. “There’s a way to do it. There are so many pre-tattoo tips. No alcohol. Probably no weed. For the best experience. And your mileage may vary.”
Ultimately, she insists, “tattoos are part of your personal style, you know?” And that’s particularly true for musicians.
“The cool part about this job is tattooing people from all walks of life, but it is really enjoyable for me to tattoo musicians. Everyone’s creative process is so different. I learn quite a lot with each conversation,” she says.
“Musicians always look cool. If you’re into fashion and music and art … it’s pretty badass. It’s pretty cool to be a part of that community.”
MUSICAL INK: MICHIGAN MUSICIANS SHARE THEIR TATTOOS
Are you a musician with a tattoo that you’d like to share with Local Spins? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a photo of your tattoo and the story behind it. We’ll add it to our ‘Local Ink.’
Chris DuPont (Ypsilanti singer-songwriter) – “For me, getting a tattoo is an opportunity to be fully present and embodied, since the sensation takes up so much of my attention. I get a tattoo every time I wrap up an album project, as a way to reward myself for the work and put a time stamp on it. Most of my ink was done by Zera Anderson at Brite Idea tattoo, and I love her vision. Fun fact: I have a little tattoo of a whale under a night sky, and three of my tour mates also got this same tattoo. It was a cool way to bond over the experience of seeing the country together.”
Read more about DuPont: Chris DuPont ‘uproots and replants’ with ambitious, dark new indie-folk album
Hannah Rose Graves (Grand Rapids frontwoman for Benzing-Graves Collective) – “This masterpiece is a collaboration between Alex Brooke and me. I wanted a piece centered around my dog’s pawprint. We used my favorite photo of GusGus under a Japanese cherry blossom tree to create this design. Now I can truly say, I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Learn more about the Benzing-Graves Collective on the band’s Facebook page.
Emilee Petersmark (Member of Grand Rapids’ The Crane Wives) – “I recently got this tattoo from Alex Brooke at Brenda Sue’s right here in GR. I’ve gotten a handful of tattoos in the past, but this feels like my first piece of ‘art.’ I used to worry about having visible tattoos, but now I feel so excited to show this one off.”
Check out past Local Spins coverage of The Cranes Wives online here.
Enrique Olmos (Local Spins writer, leader of Neon Birdhouse) – ”I’m enchanted by Alex’s tattooing. I used to think all my tattoos had to have this extensive symbolic meaning behind them (and some do). But now I mostly care about whether or not I resonate with the visual representation of the artist’s work. Alex’s art deeply moves me.”
Read more of Enrique’s Local Spins features, profiles and reviews online here.
PHOTO GALLERY: Alex Brooke by Anna Sink