Nick Colella Interview Great Lakes Tattoo Highlark


This month, Nick Colella and the team at Great Lakes Tattoo bring us the 1st Annual Walk-Up Classic, an event that will run along the lines of a traditional convention, minus the gimmicks. For two days, some of America’s most respected artists, united by a no-frills attitude and love for their craft, will showcase their work and tattoo clients on a first come, first served basis. 7 Great Lakes artists are on the lineup, including Nick himself, and the remaining 13 guests will be arriving from different corners of the country and Canada. (See list below).

The mantra behind the convention is based on Colella’s perception of the modern tattoo industry- how its events often stray from their original purpose, which is to focus on the art and the people who make it happen. This Walk-Up is going to be classic in that it will not only provide a space for artists and aficionados to come together, but it will do so openly and honestly, adopting Great Lakes’ motto of “Cleanliness and civility.” Available tattoos will include those from specially designed flash sheets, and from the vast selection at Great Lakes. An opening party and flash preview is scheduled for the evening of March 18th, while the event itself is taking place March 19th and 20th, from 11am to 7pm on both days. The March 18th date is a great chance to find out a little more about what makes Great Lakes Chicago’s landmark shop- they boast a diverse group of permanent artists, the Great State gallery (an arts and events space) and a hugely worthwhile collection of tattoo memorabilia.

The 1st Annual Walk-Up Classic is a re-imagination of contemporary tattoo conventions, bringing the culture back to its roots, and ensuring the type of environment that helps tattoo art evolve among both artists and admirers. Great Lakes’ debut convention is definitely recommended for those who want to dig deeper than the surface and experience genuine creative vision firsthand, without the somewhat tedious nature that events of this scale often assume.

We caught up with GLT owner and tattoo artist Nick Colella to learn more about GLT, a shop that embraces and honors Chicago’s tattoo history and tradition.


Nick Colella / Mike Dalton / Mario Desa / Erik Gillespie / Kevin Leary / Miles Maniaci / Matt “Beatdown” Ziolko


Bill Baker (Toronto, ON) / Beau Brady (New York, NY) / Steve Byrne (Austin, TX) / Greg Christian (Cleveland, OH) / Chip Douglas (Long Beach, CA) / Brad Fink (St. Louis, MO / New York, NY) / Mikey Holmes (Charlotte, NC) / Marina Inoue (Boulder, CO) / Jennifer Lawes(Toronto, ON) / Robert Ryan (Asbury Park, NJ) / Dan Smith (Tustin, CA) / Scott Sylvia (San Francisco, CA) / Glennie Whitehall (Toronto, ON)


Q 1 || What impact has working in the same city you grew up in had on you, both as an artist and an entrepreneur?

Chicago is an amazing place — to live, grow up and raise a family in. Its history, both in tattooing and politics, is one that is pretty crazy. I’m just very happy to be a part of it.

Q 2 || How do you make your shop’s atmosphere the best it can be? What are the key components of a comfortable shop environment, both for artists and their clients?

Before my wife and I even started looking for a shop to open up, we took a long hard look at that shops we really loved and what inspired them. We also tried to figure out what they had that was so attractive, not only aesthetically but for work environment as well and tried to meld all the ideas into one. Couple that with my strong sense of Chicago tattoo history, civic pride and the aesthetics of the old arcades and tattoo shops of the 40’s and 50’s in Chicago and we came up with what is now Great Lakes Tattoo. We wanted a real “whoa, look at this place” feel as you walked in the door and we continue that with the individual work stations and antique tattoo history on all the walls and completely original hand painted flash throughout the entire shop.

Q 3 || In regards to American Traditional, why do you think the style has increased in popularity so much? What drew you to it in the first place, and do you think any of its original meaning has gotten lost in translation through the years?

I feel that the popularity of American Traditional tattooing has increased so much due to its strong imagery. There were always images that quickly evoked some sort of thought, they were images of life and death or love and loss and other parts of a person’s life, but they did it in a way that was simple and perfect. The average person can understand a heart with banner around it or a tombstone with a name on it. The images weren’t designed to be amazing works of art, they were designed to convey quick messages without having to read a bunch of words. The images were for workers, craftsmen, soldiers and everyday people at that time.

Q 4 || After over two decades of experience, is there any area of tattooing you don’t feel confident in?

There are a couple of areas that aren’t my strength, but I have no problem referring a tattoo to one of the great artists around me when they can do it better.

Q 5 || Personally, what is your most treasured article of tattoo memorabilia and how did you come by it?

The most treasured pieces of tattoo memorabilia I have are the personal machines of Tatts Thomas. These machines tattooed countless people down on South State Street in Chicago and really helped shape the look of the tattoos that came out of the city.

Q 6 || Can you talk a little about the mantra behind the upcoming GLT Convention? Specifically, how will it address the art of tattooing without giving in to the corporate undertones? While planning the convention, was there anything you had t0 compromise?

Conventions have always been a love/hate relationship with me. It’s amazing to go to another city and tattoo; you get to reach a wide range of people, meet new friends and see a lot of your old friends from other shops and hang out and catch up. Most of the time you are trying to work in a cramped convention hall with a bunch of bad lighting and some not-so-great cover band playing way too loudly. You are trying to get tattooing done, sell merch and visit friends all while balancing eating crappy convention food and avoiding all of the yahoos who either buy booths as well or just want to “come out to see the freakshow.”

Each year there are more and more booths sold to non-tattoo-related vendors just trying to cash in on the tattoo crowd. I was just tired of doing the same grind and bitching about the same stuff, so we decided to change what we did and see if our friends would want to skip the big convention and just have a smaller one in the shop, that way we could be more relaxed and enjoy our time together. So, we came up with the Great Lakes Tattoo Walk Up Classic. This will be the maiden voyage and we will see where it goes from here.

Q 7 || What is the best way for today’s members of the tattoo community to preserve tattoo culture, as well as the code and originality that comes with it?

I don’t know the best way for everyone to do it, but for myself I take tattooing very seriously. I was given a gift and it is my job to take that gift and work as hard as I can at it; to make the work of the generations before me not be taken lightly. The tattooers who did this job before us didn’t have it as easy as we do and they contributed so much to this craft. We should be forever grateful.

Q 8 || What would you say was the pivotal time period for tattooing- what events or occurrences have changed the industry the most so far, both positively and negatively?

I think the invention of the electric tattoo machine was a hugely pivotal time for change in the tattoo business. It made tattooing for the masses quicker and more precise as compared to hand tools. It changed everything.

I think the internet has had one of the more negative impacts on modern tattooing. There are so many free references and unsupported expertise that people take as gospel when in fact they will make for a terrible tattoo.

Q 9 || To go along with the last question, what was a pivotal moment for you as an artist- what changed the way you saw the industry or your own work, or was it more of an elongated process?

Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell was going on or what I was doing for the first 10 years. I mean, tattooing was still a mystery to me at that time; the whole process, history, knowledge—everything. There really wasn’t an exact moment that things clicked but I always knew I was being allowed to exist in this thing that was very, very special.

Q 10 || Finally, other than the convention, are there any events coming up at either Great Lakes Tattoo or the Great State Gallery that you’re especially looking forward to?

GLT is a very special space. When we decided to open, I wanted an instant tattooing institution in Chicago and I think we are well on our way to that. We have this amazing gallery space that constantly has shows and readings going on, both tattoo and non-tattoo related. This year, other than the Walk Up Classic, we are really excited for shows from Dan Smith and Shaun Topper, Raking Light Projects, a collaboration with Deadly Prey Gallery, and we are working out some details for a show on Roy Boy. It should be an amazing year.


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