It’s easy to pass by the tattoo parlor in West Point without noticing it.
Unlike most tattoo studios, Coon’s Tattoo doesn’t have a neon sign or large Sailor Jerry style billboard. Even if you know where it is, the unassuming storefront and simple canopy with the name above the door, is easy enough to overlook.
Owner Robert “Coon” Koch says he keeps a simple storefront because he keeps a simple business model. Good work, no flash. “Do you come for the lighting or for good quality work?” he asks. “I can adjust to what people want, but it will come out of their pockets.”
Koch’s customers seem to be fine without the neon signs though, in the 15 years he has been open, Koch has developed a large and loyal clientele. At a charity event he held a few years ago, 577 people showed up to help Koch break a world record set by Kat Von D, of LA Ink fame.
Koch and his wife Linda knew Kat Von D from years before she was on TV. Or as Linda said, “before all the plastic surgery.”
“I hate the show LA Ink,” said Koch. “ We met Kat before the show and before she pushed our belief of why we tattoo into the gutter. She did 400 tattoos in 24 hours and in a stupid moment I said I’d do 600.”
The next thing he knew, word was out that Koch said he would break the record. Now obligated, he decided to change the event from being about breaking a record to being about helping people.
“I thought I might be getting the wrong image out, so I decided to do something good for the Make-A-Wish Foundation,” said Koch.
Koch contacted his sponsors and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, all of which were thrilled to be associated with the event. Just 24-hours and 577 tattoos later, Koch had raised $16,000 for the Foundation, the largest donation amount they had received from a single event ever.
Koch came in 23 tattoos short of what he said he would do, but cleanly broke Von D’s record.
According to Koch, Von D made some “nasty remarks” but he was happy to just help the cause.
Koch hails from Germany and moved to the United States in 1995. He learned to tattoo in Germany, where he started collecting tattoos as a teenager.
“I used to bring my own drawings in, and the guy I went to figured out I was headed towards kind of a thuggish lifestyle,” said Koch. “He got me on the right track.”
His mentor taught Koch the business, and after a lot of training, he was ready to start his own business.
Koch’s personal crusade as an artist is to encourage as many people as possible to use only reputable businesses to get their ink.
This is not for the benefit of his own business, about 85 percent of the tattoos they do is “fix-ups” or correcting another person’s shoddy tattoo work.
They certainly make money off correcting bad “artists” work, but Koch’s interest stems from wanting the tattoo community to thrive.
“So many people get a messed up tattoo from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing with a machine they bought on eBay.”
Koch said he sees so many people that try to save money by getting a cheap tattoo from so-called “artists” that get turned off on tattoos forever and that hurts the tattoo industry as a whole.
There is also a safety issue with being tattooed by unlicensed artists.
Koch says that while anyone can buy a $50 tattoo starter kit online, real tattoo artists spend years perfecting their crafts.
“The field requires training, insurance, a health license… so much to build up a safe environment for the tattoos,” he said. “I know we have a rough economy, but health and safety should come first, I know we live in a modern age, but diseases can spread.
“We’re working with organic tissue that is alive. It’s not easy fixable like a carpet that has a stain on it.”
Koch said that there are a few basic things people should look for at a tattoo shop.
“First of all, proof of meeting health regulations must be posted on the premises and be current . Also, approach the artist and ask him if he can draw out a quick design to see if he’s capable to do the work.”
Koch said that just because the artist has drawings all over his walls, doesn’t mean he actually did them.
“Ask the artist to give you a taste of his talent,” he said. “See if (you’re) on the same level with the idea. If they try to push you away and just say ‘yeah we can do that,’ that’s fishy.”
Koch said to also ask if you can look at the sterilized equipment and that no legitimate artist would deny a client to see that everything is properly set up.
To become a licensed tattoo artist, you must go through an apprenticeship at a licensed tattoo shop. According to Koch, this can take between 1-3 years, most of which involves scrubbing the ultrasonic baths, sterilizing equipment and learning the trade from the inside. Artists must also pass courses about disease transmitting, blood-born pathogens, and first aid. It involves a hearty application process where a licensed artist must co-sign for your apprenticeship license and sign off that you are ready to tattoo on your own.
“A lot of people quit when they see there isn’t that much money in it for them. It’s not like you see it on TV,” said Koch.
Another common mistake by people is not realizing that tattoos are permanent. Koch said that while this seems like common sense, he’s seen that overall, people tend to believe that if they don’t like their tattoo, they can just have it covered up.
“I adore Jesus, but I am not Jesus. I cannot perform miracles,” he said.
While Koch and the other artists at Coon Tattoo do a lot of work trying to cover bad ink, they say it’s very difficult, expensive and expansive work.
Biz, an artist at Coon’s, said that to adequately cover an square inch tattoo, they may have to put a much, much larger design over it.
“With 85 percent of fix-ups, we can’t even work on our art,” said Coon. “ Because we have to work with existing lines.”
Other artists at Coon’s Tattoo’s include Johnny Miller, who specializes in crosses and Polynesian art and Biz, who is best at bright colors, neo-traditional work and floral tattoos. They also employ an apprentice, Nichole Kuhl. Coon says his heart and skill lies in black and gray realism tattoos.
Coon’s Tattoo is located at 225 East Main Street in West Point and can be reached at 662-494-TAT2 (8282).0