Polly Sills looks like a “normal” person. We’re sitting inside Door County Tattoo, a one-room tattoo parlor on Kentucky Street in Sturgeon Bay. I probably look pretty ordinary too. The one thing we definitely have in common? We both have tattoos. She has several. I have one, but it’s big enough to earn a little respect for the pain I endured.
“You never can tell who has tattoos. Tattoo fever can hit anybody. They’re addictive,” says Sills. She speaks softly, slowly formulating her thoughts. “Tattooing goes back thousands of years. There’s always been the instinct to decorate oneself. There are also the outlaw aspects to it – like in prison – which are appealing, in a way. The way tattooing is perceived – whether it’s good or bad – that’s what makes it interesting. There are a lot of hidden, mysterious elements to it.”
Sills discovered her love of tattooing from a fine art and graphic art background. The language behind all the Americana imagery inspired her. Sills and friend Debbra Macdonald started a t-shirt company called Imp Ink, where they specialized in hand painted and silk-screened shirts with images based on old tattoo designs.
“We had a lot of fun and met a lot of people in the tattoo industry. [Then] I met Mike Malone, an older-timer in the field, and he offered me an apprenticeship. It used to be a closed industry, and that was the only avenue to get in. You had to be allowed into the industry,” Sills says.
Tattooing proved more challenging than Sills anticipated. Having a good teacher was key to the development of her technique. Malone, an amazing artist and friend of the legendary tattoo artist Sailor Jerry, taught Sills the importance of a strong outline and bold color.
“Mike would reinforce keeping the tattoo strong and clean, with defined lines,” Sills says. “Make sure the detail doesn’t muddy it – it’s not too fine, small and tricky. [You have] to have reverence for the fact that it is a tattoo – don’t let your ego get in the way with the artwork.”
After her three-year apprenticeship ended, Sills, who attended Ephraim Kindergarten spent much of her childhood in Door County, was excited to come back home and open up shop.
“When I opened up in 2001, I was excited to have the first-ever tattoo shop in Door County,” recalls Sills. “I opened the doors, got in touch with the health department, and then everyone’s grandma started coming in. My first client was a police officer. They were ready for it here – people were ready to see it as an art form, not as a low-life thing.”
The most popular tattoos? Lately, the trend favors words – quotes, names, and different languages – instead of images. Many people want to be tattooed on the ribs or the foot. The cross, Sills notes, is the number one symbol people want. She adds that many people in the Midwest ask for wildlife tattoos.
“I do a lot of wolves and deer. I never knew how to draw a trout, but now I do!” Sills says with a smile.
Most people don’t consider tattooing a customer service job. In fact, customer satisfaction plays a crucial role, as a tattoo lasts a lifetime.
“You have to first figure out what the customer wants, understand where they are coming from,” Sills says. “Then translate it into something that’s going to be a good tattoo. If it absolutely won’t make a good tattoo, then I try to talk to them out of it. Usually you can find a way to make it work. At the end of the day, it’s a service job. You have to give people what they want, within reason.”
The challenges behind tattooing don’t stop with being an artist who accommodates a clients needs and wants.
Sills says, “On a personal level, it’s an extremely difficult job. It’s like being a counselor or therapist, a dentist – because you’re hurting them! – and an artist. And you’re not allowed to make a mistake. Every stroke is permanent, and every stroke it causing pain. It’s a weird gig!”
The ability to perform for an audience, be it customer, friend, or family proves another unusual aspect of tattooing, and one many visual artists don’t have to contend with.
“I used to be a little more of a passive, shy person. I had to learn to take charge of that and be almost like the shaman in a ritual,” explains Sills. “You have to help them through this process; you have to make the client feel comfortable.”
Sills has a gift for making folks of all ages feel at ease. These days, she says, there are more middle-aged women coming in for the tattoo they’ve always wanted. Tattoos have become more mainstream, more acceptable and for these ladies, it’s time.
Theresa Evans, owner and instructor at Stone Path Yoga, said, “I always wanted to have a tattoo – my entire life. Finally, on my 42nd birthday – without telling anybody, not even my husband – I decided I wanted to get one as a present for myself. Polly helped me with ideas about placement. There’s a lot of emotion around tattoos. I thought about it for 30 years before I did it. It wasn’t just a spur of the moment thing.”
People get tattoos for many different reasons, but generally they do it at some crucial juncture in their lives.
“It gives people comfort. Or makes them feel strong. It can be a coming-of-age thing. Some kind of self-empowerment after a divorce, or a loss, or a major change. The rites of passage, you know? That’s when I see them, when they’re going through something,” says Sills.
That was certainly true for Evans, who got her second tattoo from Sills while she was helping her husband through his chemotherapy treatments.
“Last year when I my husband was going in for chemo I started building this tattoo down my arm with Polly,” Evans said. “It started with a bird holding a banner that says ‘Pete,’ my husband’s name.”
Evans continued, “The tattoo tells the story of going through that year of cancer and chemo. It was really a healing thing for me. I felt like I needed to record this major event that was going on in our lives. Polly was so respectful of the process; she knew the importance of it for me. She knows how a tattoo’s going to lay on the body. I have a lot of people who say, ‘I’m not really into tattoos, but I love yours.’”
After more than a decade in business, Sills has tattooed whole generations, and has watched kids grow up and become old enough for their first tattoo. All these years later, Sills feels like she has learned a lot about her craft, and has a place in the Door community.
“I’m the tattoo lady everywhere I go. It’s kind of funny,” laughs Sills. “I hope I’ve helped change some stereotypes, too, because I’m a nice tattoo lady!”
Door County Tattoo is located at 325 Kentucky Street in Sturgeon Bay. For more information call 920.746.0999 or search ‘Door County Tattoo’ on Facebook.