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Meet Your Merchant: Shooting Ink owner turns passion into profession

Henry Kistenmacher owns Shooting Ink, a tattoo and piercing shop on East Main Street in Grass Valley.
Cory Fisher/Cory@theunion.com |

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Shooting Ink

Tattoo and piercing shop

536 E Main St. Grass Valley

530-274-8288

Facebook: Shooting Ink

Open Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment

For more "Meet Your Merchant" stories go here!

Henry Kistenmacher was still in high school when he started hanging out at a Petaluma tattoo shop owned by his friend’s uncle. The “uncle” kept shooing him away, as no one under 18 was allowed in. But Kistenmacher — a natural artist and always one to challenge the status quo — kept coming back.

“The owner finally gave in and adopted me as a kind of mascot,” said Kistenmacher. “I answered phones and did food runs for the artists.”

He spent hours watching the tattoo artists, fascinated by their technique and versatility. When he finally turned 18, Kistenmacher couldn’t wait to get in the tattoo chair. Whenever there was a gap in the schedule or no one on the books, the artists would spend a few minutes on Kistenmacher’s long-awaited tattoos.



“I’d usually get about five minutes of a tattoo before someone inevitably came in,” he said. “It took awhile before my first one was finished.”




Visual learning

It didn’t matter — Kistenmacher wasn’t going anywhere, as he knew he’d found his passion. The son of artistically talented parents, a wood sculptor and a painter, he learned early on that he was an “extreme visual learner” who could replicate a broad spectrum of art genres with intricate detail and precision.

“I learn very quickly by observing,” he said. “When people watch an artist do something remarkable, they say, ‘How’d he do that?’ I tell them, ‘He just showed you.’”

Possessing the spirit of a creative rebel, Kistenmacher was drawn to the personal, individual freedom of expression that tattoos offered, and thus he had found his perfect canvas. The “uncle” at the tattoo shop began teaching Kistenmacher about basic art concepts and he proved to be a quick learner. One day, when the uncle stepped outside for a cigarette, Kistenmacher took a bold step and began the basic outline of his friend’s tattoo. He was sure the owner would be furious.

“When he came back in he took one look and let me finish the outlining,” said Kistenmacher. “Then he gave me a tip on shading. That was the beginning of my career.”

Kistenmacher spent years intently observing many tattoo artists — not only studying each genre, but closely watching their hand and wrist movements. A testament to his skill can be seen on his own leg — an intricate color portrait of Ron Perlman in the 2004 film,“Hellboy,” which he had to draw upside down.

“I heard somewhere that only one out of 10 tattoo apprentices actually become artists because the nerves take over,” he said. “You have to go into each image knowing it’s going to be perfect. I tell people who are thinking about the profession to get used to drawing in pen. Plus, when clients twitch, it changes the way you draw.”

Open for business

In October of 2011, Kistenmacher opened his own shop, “Shooting Ink Tattoo and Piercing,” in Grass Valley.

He learned early on that sticking to his own favorite style or genre would drastically reduce his customer base. While his impressive portfolio is a nod to his versatility, when he consults with a customer, he offers no pre-set images. All are custom designed after getting to know the client’s tastes, lifestyle and philosophy of life. Clearly something is resonating with his clientele, as roughly 80 percent of his business is returning customers.

Currently, Kistenmacher says he has the distinction of being the only licensed body piercer in western Nevada County, with the exception of a couple of shops that use piercing guns. Today, roughly a third of his business is piercing, with noses currently being the most popular.

“All equipment is sterile, used one time only,” he said. “I want to make sure everything is safe and people walk out happy.”

Some of Kistenmacher’s own artwork hangs on the wall of his spotless East Main Street shop, which boasts a 210-gallon tropical reef tank in the back.

“I come in early every day and take apart the shop and clean,” he said. “If you open at 10, that means you should be here at 8:30 cleaning — and staying after you close. I stay current with all the local, state and federal regulations and laws. If a 16 year old comes in with parental consent — nope, not in the state of California. And I don’t care if you look 90, I need to see your ID.”

When it comes to teens who are eager to get a tattoo, Kistenmacher suggests they put the desired image on paper, give it to a parent, then revisit the idea six months later. Chances are their preferences will have changed. Even most tattoo artists have changed or covered up their first tattoos, he said. Customers also need to consider how the body changes with age. A 20-year-old may get a barbed-wire arm band that will eventually look like a picket fence, he said, with a laugh.

Now a father of three children, ages 2, 4 and nearly 6, Kistenmacher’s shop is set up to be friendly to all ages. Children often sit on the couch and watch Netflix or Hulu during a parent’s appointment. Larger projects are usually scheduled in two hour increments. Customers often get discouraged when artists are booked too far out, he said, so he tries to make it a practice to see a customer within two weeks of making an appointment. That’s no easy task, as tattoos have become popular for all ages, which is why Kistenmacher says there is definitely room for numerous artists within the area.

Roughly 80 percent of Kistenmacher’s body is tattooed, and he says he’s not done yet.

“Years ago if more than 50 percent of your body was tattooed and you were not a lifer in the Navy, your best job prospect was a circus side show,” he said. “Things have definitely changed.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.


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