Robert Ryan is a tattooer who combines a unique blend of American traditional with Eastern religious iconography. Nick Colella has forged a wide-reaching reputation with his tattooing and the opening of his studio; Great Lakes Tattoo, Chicago. We jumped at the chance to interview the both of them about Robert’s upcoming book The Inborn Absolute, which will have its opening exhibition at the Great State Gallery within Nick’s Chicago studio.
The Inborn Absolute
The Inborn Absolute releases on August 10th, 2016 through Featherproof Publishing. In anticipation of the release, Ryan will head to Chicago for an opening celebration with longtime friends at Great Lakes Tattoo in their Great State Gallery, located at 1148 W. Grand Avenue in Chicago, from 7pm to 10pm on Saturday, August 6th. The exhibition will remain through September 3rd and will be open during Great Lakes Tattoo’s normal business hours, all week long from 12pm to 8pm.
The Inborn Absolute exhibition will consist of 20 brand new paintings by Robert Ryan hanging in the Great State Gallery, along with a digital slideshow featuring Ryan’s personal collection of images of his travel and tattooing. The book itself will also be available for purchase in advance of its street date, and the paintings and prints will be for sale. For more information on the opening reception and The Inborn Release exhibition, please visit www.greatlakestattoo.com.
Interview By James McCauley
Photography provided by Robert and Nick
Hi, Robert. So The Inborn Absolute is almost ready for release. What have the last few months in the lead up to that been like?
It’s been a process. I was nervous the day my advance copy showed up; I took a deep breath and cracked the cover and was pleasantly surprised what a beautiful job the folks at Featherproof and Mandible did with the layout and design of the book. They really didn’t cut any corners in the making of this book. The response has been so positive. I’m really moved that it’s being received so well. That all being said, it’s a way I have never put myself out there before. A book is a very different way to have what you Express, Feel and Believe to be digested by the world and it’s been humbling lesson to say the least.
The book and your art as a whole approaches tattooing and being tattooed as a deep and more spiritual process. Can you tell us why you feel that’s important to your craft?
I think primarily Tattooing is a multi-leveled exchange between two people. The tattooer is interpreting a visual expression that the person is wanting to wear on them for the rest of their stay in this body. Personal Archetypes are being channeled from the sacred to the profane. There is pain involved, Money is exchanged, Intentions are set, Trust is given, Guidance and care are explained. How are tattoos not a spiritual process? Much like all things can be seen as a spiritual process if ones heart perceives it to be that. For many it can be anti-social, fashionable, elitist, obsessive and even material – this is also fine. It’s one of the many trappings of all creative expression.
How did you transition from your early years painting and writing music into tattooing?
Tattooing has been present the entire time I have been painting. Music came earlier for me and has been informing most things I do since I was a child. Music exists in everything.
Dan Higgs and I played about 500 games of chess instead of tattooing my ribs. Tom Yak pulled a dead raccoon out of our ceiling. We have tattooed rock stars, hit men, outlaws and soccer moms.
How do these different pillars of your creativity inform one another on a daily basis?
When I was younger I would compartmentalise Music, Tattooing, Painting, etc. I thought they should exist in different worlds. Now I tend to view it all as one moment towards any kind of self realisation or understanding I might be able to make in this life.
Was there a ‘lightbulb’ moment in which you knew that you had to make the book and the exhibition, or had it been bubbling under for some time?
I have been discussing making this book with my friend Tim from Weatherproof for a few years now. Last year I did my first solo show at The Great State Gallery and that got the ball rolling. That’s why it’s great to bring it back full circle and do the book release in the space.
Your work fuses traditional American tattooing heavily with Eastern religious iconography. How did you first find yourself gravitating towards this style?
I was introduced to Vedanta and the practice of Sanatan Dharma when I was 16. This Vedic systems have been very important to me since I was young, but my path deepened about 10 years ago so it became more of a dominant theme in my work.
Do you feel like you’ve learned more about yourself as an artist over the journey that The Inborn Absolute has taken you on?
I hope that I have, because self realisation is the highest goal. Making this book has been another component in the greater journey for me as much as it has been an important time in my life. Mostly I hope it reaches people in a positive way.
Travel has been a big part of your career, visiting many places such as India and Peru. What’s your favourite place to visit and why?
Both India and Peru are beautiful places to visit. There are Teachings, Stories, Songs, Rituals, Energies and Holy places that have been maintained with Decency, Respect and Devotion in both India and Peru.
In Varanasi, India the flame that lights each funeral pyre at the cremation grounds at Manikarnika, where people come from all over the world to die and be burned at, has been maintained for over 2,500 years! This is a conservative estimate, many say 5,000 years. When visiting places like Varanasi or Mach Picchu in Peru you are connecting closer with the source.
The exhibition for The Inborn Absolute is being held at Great Lakes tattoo from August 6th, by your friend Nick Colella. Can you tell us a little about how you guys met and how important that connection has been to you?
I met Nick probably about 10 years ago at a tattoo convention but had been aware of his work for a lot longer. He is someone who has always given a lot to tattooing and has such a deep respect and awareness for the craft that you just knew about him. So it’s been really cool to get to know Nick and his family on a friendly level over last few years. They are the best! I love working with him and getting to spend time with him and the entire crew at the shop and Great Lakes is one of my favourite shops to work at.
Could you tell us a little more about the new paintings you have to show off at the exhibition?
Right now the show is being exhibited in San Francisco at Adrian Lee’s ATAK Gallery and is moving to Great Lakes next week. All the paintings in the show were done in one sitting, and as one movement. Many of the Deity paintings were painted on specific Holy days and small prayers and rites were made in the process.
I’m sure many of our readers are dying to know what machines and ink you use at the moment.
Lately Bert Krak, Dan Kubin, and Mike Pike machines. Pigment I use: Luna, Time Tells, and some Spaulding Rogers and National powders I have mixed.
Lastly, could you tell us your favourite story from your years in tattooing?
Such a hard question. There are so many great ones. Shop life is great; one day the door at the shop swung open and large Siberian husky walked in followed by Thom Devita who I had never met before. Zeke Owen slept on our shop basement floor for a month because he was afraid the contents of his broken-down cube van would be burglarized. Dan Higgs and I played about 500 games of chess instead of tattooing my ribs. Tom Yak pulled a dead racoon out of our ceiling. We have tattooed rock stars, hit men, outlaws and soccer moms. We have survived floods, blizzards, and zoning boards and I still work with same two guys I learned from 20 years ago. It’s kind of one big story.
Hi, Nick. How’s everything coming together for exhibition?
The exhibit is coming together great, The promos have got out and we have been getting a great response on social media as well.
Where did the idea come from to hold the exhibition at Great Lakes tattoo?
The idea to have the exhibition for the book release was really formed from Robert and Ben Fasman from FeatherProof Books. Robert has shown as the gallery before and also has tattooed at the shop so it was a natural familiar fit.
How did you first get into tattooing, did you do an apprenticeship in the early days?
I have been tattooing for 23 years all in Chicago. I served somewhat of an apprenticeship but was tattooing full time in a shop after about a year in.
I started getting tattooed so no one would talk to me and now everyone wants to talk to me because I’m tattooed.
Who have been some of the biggest influences on your work over the years?
My work is very traditional American so my influences follow that lineage of tattooing. I mostly try and focus on Chicago tattooers and Chicago history but my main influences would be Tatts Thomas, Ralph Johnstone, Sailor Jerry, Cliff Raven, Mike Malone, and Ed Hardy.
It can be really difficult for artists to find ‘their style’ within tattooing. How did you approach this in your early years?
I found my style when I actually took the time to look around me at the shop I started in, it was filled with amazing hand painted flash from Cliff Raven and Dale Grande and it was everything I had ever thought tattoos were supposed to look like.
Chicago is obviously a massive part of who you are, is there anywhere else in the world you would prefer to tattoo?
Great Lakes tattoo is one of those super-shops. So many great tattooers all in one place. What’s it like getting to be around some of the best on a daily basis?
We have been together for so long and gone through so much together that these guys and girls are all my family, so we are as tight as family and can go at it like family. It’s an amazing place to come to every day.
‘Cleanliness and civility’ is the shop motto. That’s pretty solid life advice in general! How did that come about and feed into your idea for the studio?
‘Cleanliness and Civility’ came about when my wife and I were out looking for different cases and fixtures for the shop. We were in an antique store and found this old sign that just said ‘Cleanliness and Civility’ and we both decided that’s exactly what we wanted in a tattoo shop.
The Great state gallery is a really unique feature of Great Lakes. Showcasing history, art, memorabilia and more. Was that always something you’ve wanted to have in a studio?
I wanted to make GLT an institution from the beginning, the gallery space just helps that vision. We were looking for a space to have the shop and when we came onto this spot we knew it was perfect.
What machines and ink do you use at the moment?
I use Scott Sylvia machines and Time Tells Pigment by Angelo Miller.
How have you seen tattooing change since you’ve been around?
I started getting tattooed so no one would talk to me and now everyone wants to talk to me because I’m tattooed.
What are you favourite things to tattoo?
Traditional American imagery.
Lastly, could you tell us your favourite story from your time within tattooing?
I’m not sure if this is a story, but I’m proud to be part of the last generation of tattooers who really got to see it. I’m proud to come from a lineage of tattooers who just tattooed every day. Tattooing pre-social media and TV shows, pre-Instagram and tattoo celebrities – the tattooing that was really magical. The tattooing that is way bigger than all of you.
Find more of Robert and Nick at;
Order the Inborn Absolute at:
A huge thanks to Stephanie Marlow at Indie Publicity for facilitating this interview and connecting us with Robert and Nick!