It’s a bit cliché but true: behind every tattoo lies a story. They’re points in time laid painfully down in ink, memories of love and loss, drunken dares and thoughts about who we are or who we want to be.
Ram Lee remembers the first tattoo he ever got.
"Mine was a wolf," he says. "This really little wolf howling on my upper left arm that everybody in the industry wants to cover for me. But I said you can frame it because there's only one first tattoo, and I'm not going to cover it."
Ram says he was young when he got the wolf - a little drunk, too. But 30 years and several more tattoos later, Ram now owns Traverse City Tattoo.
Ram makes tattooing look easy. With each movement of his hand the tattoo machine seems to glide effortlessly along. He’s friendly too, chatting with his customers and putting them at ease in the tattoo chair as needles set ink into their skin.
"When I got into it, I instantly fell in love with it," says Ram. "And I fell in love with black and gray tattooing like the realism."
Ram looks comfortable when he is tattooing. You can tell he enjoys it. As he uses his machine to make the outlines of a tattoo, it’s clear he’s in a creative space. His eyes are focused and his tattooed forearms flex lightly, like it does when you draw.
Ram says tattooing has afforded him some of the best relationships he’s ever had. In fact, it’s how he met his wife.
"Well, when she came in, she had been in a week earlier with some guy who I had tattooed. And then she came back, and I just asked her, 'How's your boyfriend's tattoo healing up?' and she laughed and said, 'that wasn't my boyfriend.' And I was like, 'sweet, so when are we going out?' And we've been going out since."
Learning the craft
What’s it take to be a successful tattoo artist? Tattooing.
Ram says you work and work and then work some more. You have to be humble, pay your dues and respect those who came before you.
"I learned I think the best way anyone should learn," he says. "I used to make my own needles. I used to build my machines. That's how I learned to tattoo. I couldn't do a tattoo on skin before I could make my own needles, build my own machine."
It’s often said that it takes 10,000 hours to master your craft. That’s the equivalent of 416 days of straight practice. What’s not said is that for artists like Ram it can take 10,000 hours plus years of more work before you make it, years of dedication before your client waitlists fill up. And Ram will tell you it’s never easy.
"Something always seemed to come up, and it always seemed to almost throw a wrench in my plans," he says.
Balancing family and work
One of those unexpected wrenches arrived in the form of devastating news. In 2000, doctors told Ram and his wife that their son had been diagnosed with a rare birth defect. Ram had just started working full-time at a tattoo shop in Toledo, which wasn’t going so well.
"I went to work for Brian, and then that went sideways, and then boom we got hit with my son having a birth defect - a real rare one in his hips where he was growing crippled. So from the age of four to 13 he had 13 surgeries. And in three of those surgeries, they broke his femurs, and he was in a body cast for two months from chest to toes, and that's when my career slowed down."
At the time Ram was traveling a lot for work. He’d rent a booth at one of the many tattoo conventions happening across the country, pack up his tattoo equipment and hit the road.
"There were times when I was scheduled to be at a convention, and last minute I'd have to back out because of an emergency surgery to where I actually got the nickname from some artists as Scram, and it bugged me because it's like, 'guys, I'm not missing these shows because I'm trying to blow them off. I'm missing them because my son's going in for these major surgeries.'"
The story of Ram’s dedication to his family is marked clearly on his chest in ink - a birthday gift from a young artist, his son.
"Yeah, so when my boy was 10, I had him tattoo me," says Ram. "He did my Pearl Jam - my little stick figure Pearl Jam guy. I'm a Pearl Jam freak."
Ram says a drive to succeed pushed him forward in hard times.
"I would say one, I didn't want to fail," he says. "I mean, to me it's art. And I love art, and I really believe tattooing made me a better artist."