Portrait of a tattoo artist

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The face of Rose Jones has been seen around the globe, immortalized in the glossy, colorful pages of international tattoo magazines.

It’s a curious achievement, considering Rose is not the scantily clad young pinup normally favored by such publications.

She is a 74-year-old grandmother — without a single tattoo.

Rather, Rose is a tattoo.

Her warmly creased smile is permanently etched into the skin of her grandson, Shawn Jones.

Rose raised Shawn as her own son; his parents weren’t around to do the job. In 1996, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body, leaving her in a wheelchair. The tables turned, and Shawn became the caregiver for his grandmother.

The 30-year-old Detroiter wanted to create a tribute to her to symbolize his love and gratitude. He decided to have Rose’s portrait tattooed above his heart.

“I got it on my heart because my grandmother is my heart, she’ll always be on my heart, and I wouldn’t even have a heart if it wasn’t for my grandmother,” says Shawn. “She taught me a lot and I owe her everything.”

For such a poignant piece of art, Shawn wouldn’t settle for anything less than the best.

So he went to the greatest portrait tattoo artist in the world.

An unlikely icon

It’s not a stretch to call Tom Renshaw the best; he has an arsenal of trophies and awards inscribed with that very accolade — more than 350 of them, from international tattoo competitions. In 2001, he was named “Best Tattooist,” “Best Portrait” and “Best Realistic” of the Golden Star Awards, which draws the most accomplished artists from around the world. Held once every three years, it’s one of the most prestigious and comprehensive tattoo competitions.

However, Renshaw is possibly the unlikeliest tattoo icon you will ever meet.

With his scruffy burnt orange beard and perpetually twinkling eyes, Renshaw bears a striking resemblance to the late Jim Henson.

The comparison is not as strange as it may appear. Through years of devotion to his unique art form, Renshaw has touched the lives of many.

The 40-year-old inkslinger co-owns the Electric Superstition tattoo studio in Berkley, just a few blocks from his childhood home. He loved drawing as a kid, producing black-and-gray photorealist sketches of childhood heroes such as Jimi Hendrix.

But drawing was just a hobby for Renshaw. He took art classes throughout his education, but pushed the sketchpad aside during the pursuit of his degree in criminal justice at Michigan State University.

After graduating, Renshaw donned a suit and tie each day while he designed state-of-the-art security systems for hotels. The tie, as it turns out, was just a bit too tight around the collar.

“I just needed a change of life,” he says. “I felt stuffed into something that wasn’t me. If you’re in a position where you can take a risk, you should. I took a chance.”

A big one. Renshaw was already familiar with the tattoo community through friends — he received his first tattoo, a Harley-Davidson design, in 1985. Fed up with the corporate life, Renshaw quit his job and flew to a tattoo convention in Anaheim, Calif., to receive a portrait of Jim Morrison from Brian Everett, one of the premier portrait tattoo artists of the time. Upon his return, Renshaw started an apprenticeship at Eternal Tattoos in Livonia under the shop’s owner, Terry “Tramp” Welker. His apprenticeship lasted less than a week — after starting on grapefruits, Renshaw moved on to real skin just a few days later.

“I remember I was shaking,” he recalls. “I was trying to do a straight line, and it wasn’t as straight as I wanted it. It was on this guy named Leroy. Poor Leroy. Everyone who ever started, started on Leroy.”

Ten years later, Renshaw finds himself among the privileged elite of the global tattoo community.

Right off the bat, Renshaw knew he wanted his tattooing to focus on the photorealism he favored in his youth. He began to hone his photo duplication to perfection on living, twitching, bleeding canvases, creating elaborate, finely detailed portraits of humans and animals. Very early in his career, he found himself inking a particularly evocative piece.

One of Renshaw’s clients lost his wife in a traffic accident. A few months later, the man came in and requested a memorial portrait of his late wife, whom Renshaw had once tattooed.

“I guess I knew then that I had chosen a very serious area of tattoo,” he says.

Tattoo therapy

Matt Cox was a good kid — valedictorian of his high school, honors graduate from MSU, an enthusiastic aspiring songwriter and musician. When he traveled to Russia through a study-abroad program at MSU, a friend captured a photo of Matt playing guitar in Moscow’s Red Square, jamming away under the Byzantine architecture.

He died unexpectedly at the age of 22.

“The coolest thing about Matt was we never got to the point where Dad was a jerk,” says his father, Rich Cox of Pittsfield Township. “We were always best buds.”

After his son’s death, Cox searched for a way to keep his son’s memory alive. Although he had no other ink, Cox was intrigued by the permanence of a memorial tattoo.

He learned of Renshaw’s reputation for portraiture, and sought him out. The two agreed on the photo of Matt playing guitar in Red Square.

“I was truly overwhelmed with the results, the likeness being almost eerie,” says Cox. “Tom’s caring approach over this difficult time for me was greatly appreciated, and we still keep in touch. He took more of a personal interest, rather than just producing a piece of artwork. He got in and understood what it meant to me, and that allowed him to do a better job.

“While nothing can eliminate the pain associated with the loss of a child, anything that even remotely helps can prove invaluable to a grieving parent.”

That sentiment rings true with Scott Cashero of Livonia.

His son, Scott Jr., was killed in a car accident three years ago, just a few months shy of his 20th birthday. After the funeral, a slew of Scott Jr.’s friends and family members got tribute tattoos, mostly small designs that contained the young man’s name.

Cashero, who was already tattooed, began contemplating a memorial portrait of his son. “I didn’t want to just get a name; I wanted to get something different,” he says.

He first came across Renshaw’s craft in a Sports Illustrated article that detailed the tattoo artist’s work on sports stars including Dennis Rodman and former Detroit Tiger David Wells. Cashero scheduled an appointment, and brought in dozens of photos, which he and Renshaw pored over and discussed at length. They finally selected a candid snapshot of a beaming Scott Jr.

“My son always had that kind of smile. He was a happy kid.”

The tattoo sitting was cathartic for Cashero.

“Afterward, it was a really good feeling. I even cried, and I think I saw Tom with a few tears in his eyes.

“Now, when I’m reminiscing or thinking of my son, I can look at it and it brings me a smile. Everybody handles the death of a child differently. My wife still has a hard time looking at pictures, and we don’t keep many in the house. But now she’s comfortable with the tattoo.”

Renshaw says he is humbled and honored that grieving people find his portraits therapeutic.

“Sometimes you can see the metamorphosis in the person, as if a weight is being lifted,” he says. “There’s an amazing change. With some people, you can see a lightness in their step as they leave. “Many people have said it’s changed their life for the better. It gives a positive spin to something that was up until that point very negative.”

Still, the sessions can be trying for Renshaw.

“It’s many things — rewarding, enlightening, and it’s also heavy. It’s heavy on them and it’s heavy on me. There’s an exchange of energy that occurs, and it can be very draining for me. If I do many emotional tattoos in one week, by the end of the week I might be wiped out.”

For Renshaw, an integral part of the memorial tattoo is communication. He often meets with his clients at least twice before the actual tattoo session. From the initial meeting to the final product, Renshaw will spend hours discussing the tattoo, and the underlying emotions, with clients.

“I’m totally there for them throughout the process. It’s important that the tattoo is done well, but what’s maybe more important is the interaction and the time I spend with them. The relationship comes first. I want them to leave feeling like they have a world-class piece of art, have made a friend, and had a wonderful experience from start to finish.”

Renshaw lives in Berkley with his girlfriend of nine years, Sandy, and their two English bulldogs, Clyde and Dozer. His home is decorated with raw wood furniture, which he built from scratch with a friend, and his photographs of Alaska.

The man who is considered the best of his craft is unassuming and garrulous, almost impossibly genuine. He’ll eagerly talk for hours on any subject, especially one of his primary passions — nature. Each summer Renshaw travels to Alaska for fly-fishing and to enjoy the wildlife. He hopes to one day purchase property in Vancouver. In addition to his human portraiture, Renshaw is heralded as the industry’s premier wildlife tattoo artist. His portfolio contains pages upon pages of snarling gorillas and prowling leopards, each so animated and detailed it appears the creature could spring from the appendage it adorns.

The tattoo industry is highly competitive, and like any other business, can be cutthroat at times. Ascending to the top can be an arduous climb.

“I got in before the big rush [of tattoo artists]. Things are different than they were 10 years ago. Honestly, I’m just fuckin’ lucky that there are not a lot of people who do what I do,” he says with a laugh. “I just found a niche.”

Although Renshaw only does custom work — the crème de la crème of tattooing — he doesn’t belittle “flash,” the pre-drawn images that adorn the walls of most tattoo shops. Those “point and pick” tattoos — hearts, dolphins, skulls — are often dismissed by the tattoo elite as being too common and insignificant.

“If they [clients] like the tattoo, that’s what counts,” says Renshaw. “I don’t think we’re here to choose who gets what. Tattoos should be here to enhance our lives and make them better.”

He’s usually booked two to four months in advance, and only does a handful of tattoos a week, due to their intensive nature, with the majority of tattoos taking three to five hours. Some sittings, however, can last 10-12 hours.

Renshaw has an hourly rate of $175 (a ballpark fee for the average tattoo artist is $100 an hour), but often considers each tattoo on a case-by-case basis.

“You spend so much time with the person, and get to know them and like them and sometimes you can’t help but want to give them a break,” he says. “It just ends up not being about the dough all the time.”

For Renshaw, the merit lies in the respect of his colleagues.

“I’m not rich, I don’t live in a big house, but I could walk into any tattoo shop on any continent, and they would know who I am, and want to show me around town,” he says.

“I’ve heard people refer to my work as ‘a Renshaw,’ and that’s an honor. That’s more indicative of fine art. More people are starting to consider tattooing as art — and it is art, on the toughest canvas ever created for an artist.”

Friendship born in ink

Jim Wells of Lake Orion was never close to his father. “We had different values, different ideas,” says Wells, 55. “I wanted to do my own thing and live my life my own way.”

In 1999 Wells’ father had a stroke he would never recover from. His parents had moved to Arizona, so he flew out West to care for his father. It was only in the last few months of his father’s life that the two truly bonded.

Three months after his father’s death, Wells visited Renshaw to have his father’s face inked into the flesh of his upper left arm. Wells is a Vietnam vet, and his father a World War II vet, so he chose a portrait of his father in uniform.

“I look at it every day when I stand in the mirror shaving, and I think about my dad,” Wells says. “He and I are now a part of each other, and that’s something we
didn’t have before.”

On Memorial Day 2002, Renshaw did a second portrait on Wells, one of his son. The tattoo sits on his left forearm, just below the portrait of his father.

“My son and I are real close,” says Wells. “We have a relationship like I wish I could have had with my dad. Now I will always have my son with me, even if he should decide to move away.”

Just a few weeks ago, Wells had his third Renshaw portrait — of his mother.

“This way I can show people my family,” says Wells. “I don’t carry a wallet full of pictures, I carry them on my arms.”

Wells says he and Renshaw formed a close friendship over the many hours of inking.

“He and I are still friends, and I know we’ll be friends for a long time to come. He’s one of those people who just truly enjoys what he does, and he really cares. Once you get to know Tom and be his friend, it’s a true friendship.”

Renshaw speaks fondly and frequently of the sharing of emotions that occurs with his tattoo subjects. He keeps in touch with the majority of his clients after the tattoos are completed, and many become close friends.

“Tom is one of the nicest guys in the world — anyone who knows him will tell you that,” says Bob Tyrrell, a tattoo artist at Eternal Tattoos in Roseville. “Anytime I get tattooed by Tom, it’s the best experience in the world. He’s always smiling, and he puts you in a good mood every time you see him. Anyone who’s been tattooed by him knows what a great experience it is.”

Tyrrell, who is highly regarded in his own right, is a sort of protégé of Renshaw’s; he studied under him during Renshaw’s days at Eternal.

“I wanted to get into portraits and realism, and he sort of took me under his wing,” says Tyrrell, who’s inked Kid Rock’s back. “He helped me out more than anybody the whole time I was tattooing. He’s really a giving person.”

Tyrrell also works in portraiture and has created memorial tattoos. He says it’s one of the most challenging styles of the art form.

“A lot of really good tattoo artists won’t do portraits. You have to have a lot of patience to do them, and it’s a very slow process. It can also be stressful, especially when you’re working on someone’s family member or someone who has lost a loved one. You want to do it right. Some artists would rather do celebrity portraits, because it’s less personal.”

Tattoo artists are a regular part of Renshaw’s clientele, especially artists who specialize in black-and-gray realism. Reed Leslie, a realism tattoo artist from Alaska, sought out Renshaw by reputation, and now bears more than 40 hours worth of his work.

“He’s one of the best teachers I’ve come across in the industry. I’ve been tattooed by guys from all across the world, and Tom is still my favorite,” Leslie says. “He’s not full of himself, like you’d expect a guy who’s the best tattoo artist in the world to be.”

Leslie is sometimes reticent to have his custom ink published in tattoo magazines, for fear other artists will copy the piece. “But in Tom’s case, it doesn’t matter — they could never do that anyway,” Leslie says. “One of his big cat tattoos was published, and four different artists tried to rip it off, but it never looks the same. He’s one of a kind.”

Face to face

Shawn Jones went to Renshaw for his first tattoo, the gaping mouth of a great white shark, lifted from the cover of National Geographic.

“The way this shark looks, I feel like this sometimes, like lashing out, because of the stress I have in my life. Taking care of my grandmother can be really hard on me, but it’s something I’ve got to do.”

Not long after, Shawn decided to get the portrait of his grandmother Rose. The day he received the tattoo, Rose was in the hospital, having just suffered a seizure. Immediately after the sitting, Shawn rushed to the hospital to show Rose the final product.

“I lifted up my shirt and showed her, and her eyes just watered up,” says Shawn. “Sometimes I can’t help but think about when it’s her time to go, and now I know she’ll always be right there with me. And I’m glad I met someone like Tom who helped me accomplish that. Without him, I’d still be lost and searching for this monumental plaque on my body. He’s really made an impact on me and my life, and my grandmother too. He’s like a part of our bloodline now.”

On a blistering cold Super Bowl Sunday, Renshaw is meeting Rose for the first time, at the home she shares with Shawn, his wife, two children, and an aunt.

Rose sits in her wheelchair, clutching a Kleenex in her good hand. She smiles often, revealing the glimmer of a gold tooth, but remains silent. Though she remains mentally agile, her speech is slurred, due to the paralysis of the left side of her face. Shawn says she was so excited to meet Renshaw, she was up at 4 a.m.

Renshaw enters, wearing his characteristic grin, and greets Rose, telling her it’s an honor to make her acquaintance. Rose’s face lights up.

Shawn embraces Renshaw in a rough hug, and the two eagerly discuss the tattoo portraits of Shawn’s daughters that he plans to get.

Renshaw tells Rose it’s fascinating to meet her in person, having spent hours upon hours studying her photo.

“I know that face,” he says warmly.

He then tells Rose that her portrait has been published in tattoo magazines all over the world.

“All over the world?” Rose asks.


Rose says nothing and smiles.


To view more of Tom Renshaw’s portfolio, visit his Web site at www.tomrenshaw.com.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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