In the Flesh
● By Gary VanDeWalker
Small Town Ink, Mt. Shasta
Inside Small Town Ink, it’s bright. The dark hardwood floors are contrasted with bright colored walls, as an upbeat rock song plays in the background. The two-story building in Mount Shasta is reminiscent of a brownstone, belonging to a bigger city and street. The atmosphere is clean and inviting. The hum of a small machine stops as John Uttech steps out from the back room, with a gentle smile and voice, welcoming his customers to his tattoo parlor.
Uttech is an artist. His mother still keeps his drawings from when he was 5. His talent emerged in middle school when he won a contest sponsored by Hallmark, for his design of a Mother’s Day card. “I grew up in a tight-knit community, much like Mount Shasta. I’m a small town guy,” Uttech says. “Though I’m a social butterfly. I love people.”
With talents waiting to be unleashed, his parents hired a private art teacher, who helped Uttech explore many artistic mediums. In high school, his creativity sparked and he made plans to become a high school art teacher. He began his course of study at Western Washington University. “But life had other plans,” Uttech says. “I moved to Southern California and began to look for direction.”
An artist friend saw his work and invited him to consider working for him. “He asked me if I ever considered doing tattoos,” Uttech says. Wanting to learn yet another angle to his artistic craft, he took up his friend’s offer in August 2001 and has never stopped. “I love it so much, I can’t see myself not doing it.”
Small Town Ink is a place where the community comes. “While most people’s image is that my customers are all 18-year-old rebels, I’m honored to work with doctors, school teachers and even a mayor.” The clientele is a list of heroes. Firefighters come to receive marks of their profession. Marines who fought at the battle of Fallujah ask to have memorials to their fallen comrades. Tattoos become the markers of great deeds and the reminders of amazing people.
The work of Small Town Ink is also redemptive. “Tattoos can bring healing,” Uttech says. “I’m privileged to hear a soldier’s story, the meaning of a life of a child and the struggles which just come with life. It has helped me see the world in a different light.” A cancer survivor has her eyebrows restored, which never came back after chemotherapy. One mother asked for a portrait of her lost son. “I learned a lot of her perseverance, of what it meant to mourn. It was awesome to see how my artistic ability could help her heal.”
For some the ink is fun: skulls for men; butterflies and hearts for women. “Tattoos are one the highest forms of self-expression,” Uttech says. “It’s a form of art people collect on their skin, instead of on the wall of their house. I always look with wonder as people leave, feeling more beautiful, positive and sure of themselves.” His art takes him many places. “I’ve been on an episode of Monster Garage, giving tattoos to those guys working on the cars, and I’ve shared moments of transformation with people.”
He holds the highest of standards, using all disposable needles and tubing, keeping his shop as clean as a doctor’s office. Each person is treated uniquely and is given an experience fitting their situation.
At night, Uttech leaves his business. The black 1960 Chevy Biscayne, with child safety seat strapped in the back, is the same model as a car in the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963. Like the people he touches, the car represents the grace and redemption of Uttech’s hands. He reflects as he leaves for home, “I’ve been blessed.”
407 S Mount Shasta Blvd., Ste 3, Mount Shasta