Meet Your Merchant: History helps draw future for Nevada City tattoo artist
Art Gallery and Tattoo Studio
315A Spring St., Nevada City
Hours: 1 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and by appointment.
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Michael Bartkowiak was just 7 years old when his parents told him they were packing up the car and secretly fleeing their native country of Poland, possibly to never return. It was the early 1980s and the government was determined to crush political opposition, threatening martial law. Bartkowiak’s mother told him he would have to pick just one toy to take with him.
“I grabbed my drawing book and pencils,” he said. “I was basically born with a crayon in my hand. I loved to draw from a very early age.”
The family escaped to Austria just two short weeks before Poland’s borders were sealed and an estimated 10,000 activists were rounded up as troops and tanks poured onto Poland’s streets. Bartkowiak remembers sitting in his mother’s lap, making a wish on an eyelash that had fallen out, a family tradition.
“My wish was to meet Mickey Mouse,” he said. “That was the first image I learned to draw in detail — it helped me with my future art and inspiration.”
When the family eventually relocated to Southern California, young Bartkowiak was astounded to learn that California was home to the original Disneyland. The one in Florida, as he had thought, was not the only one. Remarkably, his eyelash wish would soon come true.
Bartkowiak’s art became more sophisticated and continued to evolve as he moved into his teen years. But his biggest inspiration came from attending his first Grateful Dead show at the age of 16. After that, like many of his peers, he made it his mission to go to as many shows as possible.
“I loved the artwork on their albums — I was drawn to their ‘cartoony’ images,” he said. “My mom would always say,‘How many times do you have to see that band?’”
In 2001, after becoming a licensed tattoo artist in his 20s, Bartkowiak developed a reputation for being “the Grateful Dead tattoo artist.” Despite his remarkable versatility when it came to his work, fans of the band, aka Dead Heads, began to travel hundreds of miles to Bartkowiak’s Southern California shop.
Six years ago Bartkowiak and his wife, Danielle, a nurse, fell in love with Nevada City and relocated with their daughter, Maia, now 13. Four and a half years ago Bartkowiak finally realized his dream of opening his own tattoo studio and art gallery, Grateful Ink, in downtown Nevada City. Longtime friends and tattoo artists Daniel and Veronica Morris also relocated from Southern California and the trio now offer a broad range of styles at the Spring Street studio.
“In the old days, tattoo parlors were considered to be places run by the biker 40 miles out of town — there was a stigma attached to them, and the artwork was usually not that interesting,” said Bartkowiak. “Today you’ve got artists with advanced degrees in fine art, and people of all ages and walks of life come in here.”
“Long gone are the days when people would walk into a shop and pick an image off the wall,” he continued. “We wanted a shop that offered custom work. It’s important to us that you get an individualized piece that no one else has. We thrive on that — we hand draw everything. But we don’t like to tattoo anything negative — never hate language. I want to make people shiny.”
John Hurley, who lives in the little town of Washington, was one of Grateful Ink’s first customers more than four years ago, and he still has ongoing appointments.
“I’ve had work done by all three artists — they’re all really good — this is the only place I go now,” he said. “It’s a family friendly shop — good for people who are going in for their first tattoo. It’s a nice, comfortable experience for people of all ages. Mike’s daughter is sometimes in there, helping to answer phones.”
Bartkowiak says he’s grateful that the business community has embraced his vision and passion for a field he loves.
“I feel rooted here — no question, this is home,” he said. “I pinch myself every morning — even if I won the lottery I would tattoo for free. It’s an honor when people want my artwork tattooed on their skin. It’s a nice way to make money, but I see it as sacred. I want people to be happy when they walk out the door.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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