TUSCOLA — After graduating from college with a fine arts degree, Ainslie Heilich had to figure out what to do with her life.
She knew she wanted to make art for people, not galleries. Art that wouldn't be purchased and then resold.
As an artist, she wanted direct transactions between herself and people. And she wanted to create accessible fine art.
So she became a tattoo artist.
She didn't go back to school — the Tuscola-based artist will tell you tattoo schools are just a money-making scam.
Instead, she worked a four-year apprenticeship at a shop in New Jersey before striking out on her own in 2007 in Stroudsburg, Pa.
A couple of years ago, she and her partner, Laura Davis, moved to Tuscola, about 30 miles south of Champaign. There they established in April 2012 the shop Vintage Karma.
On the main floor of the former Oddfellows lodge, Davis sells items made by herself, Heilich and other artisans. In a loft tucked away in back, Heilich does her tattoo art.
Tattoos have become relatively mainstream in the last decade or so, particularly among women — even Mattel gave Barbie, for her 40th birthday in 1999, a dainty butterfly tattoo.
Now more women than men seem to get tattoos, whether in discreet places or not. Famed tattoo artist Ed Hardy once said his clientele from the 1960s through the '90s increased from 5 percent to 60 percent female.
In a 2012 Harris poll, 23 percent of the women who responded said they have a tattoo, compared to 19 percent of the men.
Heilich shrugs off the statistic, saying there are more women than men.
So does Sailor Bill Johnson, vice president of the National Tattoo Association. He said women tend to take the time to respond to polls. Men typically don't.
Yet while more women definitely are going for body art, sometimes all over, female tattoo artists remain a minority. Their numbers are growing, though, Johnson said.
Despite that, Heilich is definitely a rarity in downstate Illinois.
She draws clients from the area as well as from out of state and is known for her artistry and her skill at covering up or revising bad tattoos.
Feel the pain
James Zimmerman, 36, of Urbana recently went to Heilich for his fourth tattoo, his first from her (or any female tattoo artist).
He had her finish from the elbow up on his left arm his "sleeve." A "sleeve" tattoo covers all of the arm, except for the hand.
On the inside of his arm, Heilich painted a background behind the "signature" of Henry Rollins, a spoken-word artist who started the hard-core punk band Black Flag.
"He's someone I admire very much. Meeting him was like meeting Elvis," said Zimmerman, who had the musician sign his arm after meeting him a few years ago.
While Heilich used her tattoo machine, covered with plastic to keep things sterile, Zimmerman kept up a steady patter about tattoo art, culture and artists.
Perhaps that helped distract him.
"It hurts. It's not unbearable," he said. "The average person can stand the pain.
"It's time, though, for the macho facade to drop. Does it feel great? No."
"You shouldn't be afraid to ask for a break," said his fiancee, Katie Dixon, who was waiting to get her fifth tattoo — her first from Heilich, and again her first from a woman.
"Some people get dizzy. It's a shock to your body," said Dixon, who works as a medical assistant.
That's one reason Zimmerman and Dixon were patient and didn't have Heilich finish their tattoos in just one visit. This was their second trip to Vintage Karma.
"It's a commitment from both the artist and client," Heilich said.
A Violet Ray
For Dixon, Heilich was finishing a tattoo on the inside of her left forearm. It reads, "I'll ride the wave where it takes me," a lyric from one of Dixon's favorite Pearl Jam songs.
The text is set on a picture of waves in shades of blue.
Like her boyfriend, Dixon seemed unaffected by the pain. But unlike him, she rested quietly in the reclining chair, her eyes shut, while Heilich did her magic.
A few days later, Karen Smith of Mattoon took her turn in the black recliner. She grimaced and intermittently cried out "ouch." At one point, Smith asked for a break.
She compared getting the tattoo to being cut by a razor. Everyone is different as to how he or she will tolerate the pain.
For the uninitiated, Heilich keeps in her shop a Violet Ray, invented by Nikola Tesla in the early 20th century.
It imitates the prick of a tattoo machine. Upon contacting skin, the Violet Ray emits a high-frequency, low-amperage spurt of static electricity.
It feels like a razor-sharp pinprick.
Heilich was tattooing Smith's right ankle — the ankle and other joints tend to be more tender than other places on the body.
Smith, who's 49 and also works in the medical field, already had a small tattoo of Tigger from a male artist on her ankle.
She came to Heilich for her second because she wanted a woman to do it — and because like other new clients, she had heard good things about her.
A memorial, Smith's new ankle tattoo depicts a purple ribbon to honor her late grandmother, who had Alzheimer's. And a pink ribbon to pay tribute to her mother, a breast-cancer survivor.
"We did the design together," Heilich said. "She showed me what she wanted and didn't want."
The artist did two thumbnail sketches first and then a working sketch. She placed that on the chair, next to Smith's ankle, while applying the pigments underneath Smith's skin.
Memorials a staple
Memorial tattoos like the one Smith had are a staple for tattoo artists. Customers might have the name and birth and/or death date of a loved one tattooed on their body.
Zimmerman, for example, has his daughter's name and birth date on his arm.
Otherwise, tattoos are as varied as the people who get them.
For example, a Champaign woman recently had Heilich tattoo on her upper back a plumeria, with various shades of color in the petals, against a blue background. The flower grows on trees in Hawaii, one of the client's favorite destinations.
Other recent images that Heilich created on skin: a key, a Grateful Dead bear, a cat inside an oval frame, a human skull, Edgar Allan Poe, a feather, and birds.
Her style tends to be more painterly than those of other tattoo artists, featuring shading, splatters and other effects.
Heilich, who's 33 and has a bachelor's of fine arts degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, said more people with academic art degrees are becoming tattoo artists.
"Previously, it was seen as more of a trade," she said.
Unlike most fine artists, Heilich and others in her line of work realize their art is ephemeral. That it changes on the skin as the person ages. And disappears once the person dies.
Heilich's fine with that.
"In 75 years my art will be gone, and I'll be gone, too."
What does a tattoo cost?
It depends on the time involved, says artist Ainslie Heilich. On average, tattoo shops charge a $50 minimum and an hourly rate of $100 to $150 per hour.
Expect to pay thousands of dollars for a full sleeve or back piece. The money covers not just the tattoo but also overhead, preparation and supplies.
Besides her own shop, Vintage Karma in Tuscola, certified/licensed tattoo artist Ainslie Heilich recommends in this area:
No Regrets, Champaign
It's Just a Little Prick, Decatur
Iron Tide, Danville
Finishing Touch, Mattoon
Need a tattoo removed?
Heilich recommends Jack Morton at Rethink Your Ink in downstate Marion