Ink, Inc.: Tattoo shop owner leaves indelible mark on local economy

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Jacob Jones, 20, is about to have one of his forearm tattoos filled in with black and gray flowers. Brandon Zitlow, Jones’ friend and the owner of A Dead Anchor Tattoo, prepares for the job. Jones, a singer/songwriter, already sports several of Zitlow’s tattoos, and he’ll likely add more. “It’s just part of being a rock star,” Jones jokes.

Jones is Zitlow’s first canvas of the day. He hands Zitlow a signed waiver form and takes a seat. Zitlow has already spent several minutes prepping the workspace — covering an armrest with plastic wrap, sanitizing the area, and inspecting the tools. Jones lays his arm across the armrest, and Zitlow proceeds to wash and shave the area he plans to ink.

Because Zitlow is left-handed, he will typically work from the lower left-hand corner of a design diagonally toward the top. “That’s so you don’t lay your hand across your stencil,” he explains. “Clients do leak some plasma and a little bit of blood on my glove during the process, and you don’t want that to smear the design.”

“We draw random things that come to mind that we find funny or unique, and then we hope someone might like it,” said Brandon Zitlow.

Dipping his tattoo tool, or “tube,” into a tiny vial of white ink, he carefully traces along the inside outline of one of Jones’ existing tattoos, adding depth and definition. The ink is gravity-fed and pools slightly on the skin, but Zitlow quickly wipes it away. The tattoo machine itself is surprisingly quiet.

The round tube apparatus Zitlow uses can produce varying degrees of ink thickness and holds up to eighteen needles. “There’s also a Magnum Shader,” he explains, “which is more like a wide paintbrush.” It can hold between five and 50 needles, depending on the desired result.

Does it hurt? “It doesn’t feel good,” admits Jones, laughing as he watches Zitlow work, but he doesn’t flinch. Jones has done this enough to understand that the pain is relatively short-lived.

Elsewhere in the shop, Froad, another artist, is busy sketching an intricately detailed design of a stylized skull and owl on a pad of paper. He’s creating it specifically for a customer scheduled for the following day. Froad nods when asked if he’s always been artistic. “I was the kid who got in trouble in high school for drawing on people,” he says, smiling.

Zitlow’s story is similar. Admittedly, he wasn’t the best student at West High School, but he later found his passion through art. The 30-year-old has been a tattoo artist for 10 years and bought the business from its previous owner in 2012. Four months ago, he moved the shop to its current Monroe Street location. It’s making a profit, he says, but it still has a long way to go. “I’m halfway between an amazing career and making enough money.”

He credits the show Miami Ink with sparking a renewed interest in tattoo art. “It caused a big boom in the industry in 2006,” Zitlow said. “From then on, tattoos became more socially respected. People are no longer hiding their tattoos, so we’ve changed the world a little bit.”

Painting with pride

“I love this art more than anything,” Zitlow says. After years of carving out his own artistic niche in Madison, he believes his unique style is finally getting recognized by body-art fans. “I do two different styles — portrait realism and new school: cartoony figures with exaggerated proportions, big eyeballs, bobble-head figures, skulls with hearts for eyes.”

He might spend two to three hours a day sketching original designs, usually of “cutesy, creepy Halloween” art. A favorite of his was a sketch of a skull with the top of the head split open and a UFO sucking the brains out.

“I do it in a cutesy way,” he insists. “We’re artists. We draw weird stuff.”



Tattoos are as unique as the clients who sport them, he notes. “I’ve never repeated a tattoo unless three friends come in wanting the same thing in three different colors.” He’s also strict about not copying artwork without permission from the original artist. “Even if you buy a print, it doesn’t mean you can make a tattoo of it,” he notes, adding that some of his own designs have been stolen. “People should respect custom art and be inspired rather than take it.”

Getting a tattoo at Zitlow’s store requires a one-on-one consultation. “It’s important to meet with a client in person and see their facial expressions when you talk to them about designs,” Zitlow says. “Someone might want a rose, but there are hundreds of rose designs.”

He’s been tattooing since the age of 19, after completing a one-year apprenticeship under another artist. In fact, he says, most tattoo artists learn the trade from other artists.

The health department checks tattoo shops regularly to ensure that proper procedures are being followed. Artists must be licensed, and while masks are not required, gloves are.

While some might worry about shared needles or uncleanliness, such concerns are unfounded these days, Zitlow insists. “Technology has been on our side. Everything is disposable, including needles.” Stainless steel items are sterilized in a pressurized autoclave, and additional equipment is wiped with a disinfectant prior to proceeding.

Shop talk

Located just down the street from Camp Randall, A Dead Anchor Tattoo caters to a lot of students (except during sporting events). It tends to be busiest in February, “when everyone’s back from the holidays with their new holiday money,” and October, before it gets cold. Summer business slows as the student population drops.

In Wisconsin, you must be at least 18 to get a tattoo. With parental consent, piercings can be done earlier. “We’re really closer to the beauty industry than the medical world,” Zitlow says.

Men tend to prefer large tattoos on arms, legs, and chests. Women, who represent about 80% of Zitlow’s clients, often bring a friend or a group of friends along for moral support, or simply to create a party out of the experience. They tend to prefer smaller designs in the upper bra-strap area, the lower pants-belt area, or behind the ear — places employers and parents won’t readily notice or object to.

Two of Zitlow’s female clients are in the process of getting full-leg tattoos, which could require as many as 50 visits each. The number of appointments is determined by the size and complexity of the artwork, and also by factors such as one’s budget and one’s tolerance for sitting still. It’s not unusual to schedule sessions around customers’ paydays.

“Like anything, money is a factor,” Zitlow says. “That’s what changes how long something takes. Sometimes that’s in our favor, sometimes not. We are artists and love to do what we do, but sometimes budget can really affect that.”

A Dead Anchor Tattoo has three tattoo artists and one piercer on staff. All are independent contractors. A walk-in tattoo client will likely spend up to two hours in the shop and pay between $100 and $150 an hour for the work. “We do a lot of $50 to $80 tattoos as well, but on average, tattoos run in the $100 to $200 range.”

A common trend right now is lettering, Zitlow says. Words of encouragement, like “Believe” or “Stay Strong,” are popular, especially on wrists.

“Some people get tattoos because they love body art, illustrative pictures, or they just appreciate art,” Zitlow says. “Then there are the life-event tattoos, celebrating children or grandchildren, but sometimes people just have the itch to do something completely different.”

Trends come and go as well. For a while, Zitlow said, people were having the words “your name” tattooed on their rear ends. “It was a bar joke,” he explained. “We did quite a bit of those. It was popular and ridiculous, but the fad faded.”

That’s probably a good thing.

A Dead Anchor Tattoo
1925 Monroe St., Madison, WI 53711
608.819.8287  |

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