loral designs, concentric rings and geometric shapes come together in sacred mandala of red, yellow, green and blue on a customer’s body.
A mystical wolf, with all-seeing eyes and a mane of flames, stares out from the forearm of another one of Bart Leonard’s clients. Images of extraterrestrial visitors, screaming skulls and Egyptian icons all come together in one-of-a-kind works of art.
Leonard has trained and studied to create colorful, intricate artwork blending familiar characters, animals and symbols with more abstract shapes and textures. But instead of working with paint on canvas or pencil on paper, the Franklin College graduate’s media of choice is ink on skin.
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As a tattoo artist, Leonard has to have creativity to come up with eye-catching and unique imagery. But the added challenge is to also have the skill to take his designs from the realm of his imagination and imprint them on a customer’s skin.
“Tattoos are just like any other kind of art. Only it’s forever on someone’s skin,” he said.
Leonard studied art history and design at Franklin College, but his interest in tattoo artwork stems back from his time in high school. Hanging around with his friends, he dabbled in temporary designs using colored markers.
“I’d do back pieces of, I don’t know, Led Zeppelin album covers or Pokémon. Whatever anybody wanted,” he said.
Leonard and his family moved to new homes often, since his father, current Franklin College football coach Mike Leonard, was coaching in different places. He was exposed to a wide variety of different artistic styles and aspects of pop culture, particularly during the time they lived in Japan.
Art was something that crossed cultural lines, and connected him to his new classmates and friends.
During college, he became more schooled in ink tattoos. He would give friends small designs out of his dorm room — a hobby that he now knows was not a great idea, but one that gave him valuable experience.
“I would not advise what I was doing. I knew my limits, but a friend was doing it, and I thought I could too. I never thought it would be a professional thing,” he said.
After graduating from Franklin College in 2012, Leonard applied for jobs in the graphic design field. But he quickly determined that a traditional design job wasn’t what he wanted to do as a career.
So as he met more people in the tattooing world, he started learning more about the artwork behind it. In 2013, he was accepted to serve as an apprentice to a master tattoo artist.
Tattoos blend traditional art such as painting and drawing with a nearly surgical procedure. Leonard had to learn more about the sanitary and health-related precautions to take every time he worked on a client.
He also learned more about tattoo history — the background of the art form from Polynesians to the birth of American tattoo culture in New York City.
“I didn’t know that much at all about it. I saw tattoos that I liked, but learning the old, traditional ways about it, what makes a good tattoo, what will look good over time on different parts of the body, colors. I’m still learning it every day,” he said.
Now employed at Fountain Square Tattoo, he has a chance every day to practice and challenge himself with new designs.
Customers come to him with ideas about what they want — a character, a saying, a design. Leonard then uses his expertise to adapt it so that it’s both original and will work well for that individual person.
His preferences gravitate towars the supernatural, such as ghostly skulls, extraterrestrials and fictional beasts such as Bigfoot.
“Darker imagery, it’s just more fun to tattoo. It’s fun to get a little bit weird with it,” he said.
What becomes difficult is working with the customer to make sure their idea is feasible, and to use his expertise to explain why a certain design won’t work on their skin.
“The misconception can be that the customer is always right. Sometimes, your idea isn’t going to work as a tattoo,” he said.
He also studies other designers to determine how they approached certain subjects.
“With the internet, you can look at a lot of the people who you admire, and try to do better than them. Don’t be happy with where you’re at, and try to be better every day,” he said.
Though his main focus now is on tattooing, Leonard also does prints and non-tattoo art on the side.
He recently was featured in a Franklin College exhibition, “Divination,” which focused on ambiguity and the never-ending descent into questions that may never be fully answered.
The exhibition showcased large-scale wall paintings, small drawings of tattoos and other designs he had created. Leonard hoped to impart what he’s learned about tattoos, and the way society has changed in its acceptance of body art.
With his involvement in the the tattoo community, it makes sense that Leonard has numerous designs on his own body. Many of those designs and symbols were done by those he respects in the tattoo community.
For him, he enjoys adding a new image to commemorate a good friendship. Each tattoo calls back to a time or place that he wants to remember.
“It’s gotten to the point where with each one, I can remember what we were doing and who was doing the tattoo, the conversations we had. That’s what I enjoy,” he said. “The fun part for me is the experience that comes with it.”
Home: Fountain Square, Indianapolis
Occupation: Tattoo artist for Fountain Square Tattoo
Education: Graduated in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in art history and design from Franklin College