Business as usual

David Rubin

D. J. Heimerl, owner and
founder of The Bear Spot Tattoo,
states his purpose with a few simple
words: “I’m an artist.”
Heimerl, known to most as
“Bear,” has been in the tattoo business
for over 20 years. For a time,
he lived in Las Vegas, working at
the well-known Sin City Tattoo Co.
For the past eight years, however,
he has worked out of his
studio on College Avenue, located
just down the street from Taste
of Thai and the annex known as
Con West.
Bear is a fairly well known
figure on the Lawrence campus.
In the past week, I’ve learned that
if you mention the “tattoo artist
on College Avenue” to enough
students, you will inevitably be
rewarded with at least one of the
following: a look of recognition, an
exclamation – “Bear!” – and an
anecdote about his work.
Upon entering The Bear Spot,
one might notice two colorful
screens running a slideshow of
past triumphs: that is, designs that
showcase the best of Bear’s work.
The back room is also bound to
draw one’s attention, arrayed as
it is with serious equipment and
all manner of official licenses and
You won’t notice any awards
or plaques, but that’s not because
Bear hasn’t won any. His designs
have placed well at tattoo conventions
because his clients have
attended them and promoted
Bear’s work on his behalf.
But if you hadn’t figured it out
yet, Bear is a purist. He doesn’t
enter contests on his own, and he
doesn’t display whatever awards
he might win. For him, it’s all
about the art, and he avoids anything
that might distract from it.
After a few minutes, one might
start to notice other details. On
one wall, there is a large, colorfully
airbrushed design. Near the
aforementioned displays, there is
a large mirror at rest.
At first glance, it’s just a mirror,
but a double take reveals an
intricate glass etching. An impressive
wooden table sitting in the
middle of the waiting area attracts
attention for its carved designs.
All of these pieces are examples
of Bear side-projects. Aside
from tattoo work, Bear engages in
Photoshop wizardry, oil painting,
airbrushing, and glass etching.
Judging by his belief that “needles
are like paintbrushes,” Bear
views his work as a tattoo artist
in a wider creative framework.
The mediums might differ, but the
artistic intent is the same.
This philosophy of Bear’s
even extends to driving around
town: the parking lot behind The
Bear Spot is reportedly home
to a creatively modified vintage
Volkswagen Beetle.
Bear’s attention to detail
and artistic drive carry over into
his teaching. It is customary for
aspiring tattoo artists to apprentice
with an established master,
and Bear learned from some of
the best. He occasionally takes
on apprentices here in Appleton,
but it’s rare for someone to last
through all of the training.
According to Bear, there is a
simple reason for this: “I don’t
accept sloppy.”
Clients normally meet with
Bear for a consultation about their
desired design and a discussion
about the process. If it is something
relatively simple, Bear might
be able to do it on the spot, in a
manner of minutes. However, if
the concept is more involved, Bear
spends time developing a sketch,
which he then applies on the customer’s
next visit.
Bear gave me a quick tour of
the tattoo application process, and
from that explanation, it became
clear why he shuns sloppiness.
To an uninitiated observer,
those needles look like buzzing,
whirling paintbrushes of death
that could cause more than a little
harm in the wrong hands. It
takes a strong artistic mind and
a skilled hand to navigate those
tools. Because of this, Bear has
spent hours on his most involved
He takes pride in his work, and
his clients take pride in becoming
his work. Said Bear, “Everyone is
an individual – why should you
have a tattoo that 12,000 other
people have?”
In addition to respecting his
client’s individual tastes, Bear
always has a long talk with customers
to gauge if they are actually
ready to take the plunge. If
there seems to be some doubt,
Bear might urge them to deliberate
for a while longer. His argument:
a tattoo lasts for the rest of your
life, so what’s another year or two
of decision-making?
“I will not push anyone into a
tattoo,” he emphasized.
Indeed, it’s this artistic integrity,
along with a certain self-effacing,
calm demeanor, that has won
Bear so many fans on the Lawrence
campus. It is easy to understand
why this artist is well known and
As Bear commented, “My art is
at the center of my attention. Art
is art, it doesn’t have any boundaries.