When I got my first tattoo, my family had mixed reactions—my mom helped me scope out the studio with general excitement and support, my brother had no comment, my dad pretended it never happened, and my eight-year-old cousin told me that he would take me somewhere to get “this inappropriateness removed.” But despite the hype over a small symbol on my back, I realized that tattooing is a unique art form in more ways than one. The application and training is intensive. The relationship between the customer and artist is extremely personal. Yet working with ink and skin is often not considered an art form at all. St. Paul is booming with art galleries, music and performances on every corner, but its art scene also includes a huge range of tattoo artists who are experimenting, creating and improving on a beautiful and underappreciated art form.
Brandon Heffron, owner of Beloved Studios, has been in the tattoo business for 18 years—traveling, painting, tattooing, mentoring and now owning his own tattoo shop settled right on the corner of Snelling and Como. His shop, Beloved Studios, is coated from floor to ceiling in vibrant paintings done by Beloved’s tattoo artists, and the studio even has a cozy loft on the second floor fit with an art gallery, a consultation room and a few of Brandon’s unfinished paintings.
Growing up, Heffron never imagined he would be a tattoo artist; in fact, he had his heart set on becoming a hockey player, playing it all through high school and focusing on the sport for his career. “That didn’t work out due to injury,” Heffron said, “but I always knew I had some artistic abilities, and at that point I realized that this is something I could do.” He immersed himself in the tattoo world shortly after, meeting artists, asking questions and traveling to conventions and seminars while working odd jobs and making his way through school. “It turned into this thing that I never envisioned it could be,” Heffron reminisced.
In 1998 when he began tattooing, there was little opportunity to find good apprenticeships and mentors, and information about the business was scarce. “At the time, the whole tattoo culture was completely different,” Heffron said. “People were less willing to share their knowledge like they do now.” He worked hard to develop his clientele and improve his skill set, learning from artists around him and practicing on his friends and family. “Whenever you’re starting out in tattoos, it’s really good to have a good support system around you. I had a lot of friends who were willing to sacrifice themselves,” he said.
Through practice and experience, Heffron’s style evolved from basic techniques into more complicated and colorful works. “I leaned more towards the realism side of things,” Heffron said. “The challenging pieces are a bit more exciting to me. The more dimensions you can put into a piece, the more real you can make it look, the more attractive it is to me.”
Just standing in Heffron’s work station, one can tell that his work expands beyond skin and ink—every inch of the walls is covered in vibrant and imaginative paintings. “I never got into painting until after tattooing. When I realized that some of the techniques were very similar as far as application, things started to overlap,” he said. “Whatever you could draw and paint, you could do on skin.” He found more freedom in his paintings than the stricter structure of tattooing, as tattoos have to look a certain way to hold up over time. “There are a lot of things that go into a nice piece of work and make sure it’s going to stand the test of time structurally that aren’t there in a painting or drawing,” he said.
In my time with Heffron, he stressed the importance of bridging the gap between the art community and the tattoo world—they’re not and should not be mutually exclusive. While tattoo culture has become more mainstream since Heffron started his work, he still believes there are negative stereotypes associated with it. “Really, the best artists in the world are doing tattoos in this day and age,” he says. “Whether we do it on canvas or skin, we’re still artists. Tattoo artists are still artists.”