I moved back to Traverse City nine months ago, and happily there has been no shortage of interesting things to write about for The Awesome Mitten. When I found out about Ram Lee, a local traveling tattoo artist, and his new apprentice, Leif Kolt, was no exception to the extraordinary things happening in the Mitten State.
Meet Ram and Leif
Ram Lee began tattooing in his hometown of Toledo twenty-one years ago. After visiting family in the area a number of times, “it got harder and harder to go back downstate.” In March of 2011, Traverse City Tattoo opened when Lee, his wife December, and son Dakota left a successful shop in Toledo to become Michiganders.
Even though tattooing wasn’t the dream job young Lee envisioned, he says it has evolved into a career he is passionate about and a job he loves. “I’ve always wanted to do some kind of documentary to show people what the real world of tattooing is like. It’s nothing like what you see on the TV shows. We’re not all drama and haters. I’ve been doing tattoo conventions for eighteen years now and some of my fellow tattooists are like family to me.” This documentary is where Leif Kolt enters the equation.
Kolt is also a Traverse City resident and has worked in marketing, branding, and design for over ten years. He put it well when I asked what he liked about living here, “My favorite thing to do in TC is to enjoy the resources around us. We literally have craft everything… liquor, beer, wine, cheese, chocolate, food… it’s all made right here, and most of it with local ingredients.” After being fired a few months ago, he had to consider what he had to show for his work. When I askedKolt why he felt motivated to get into the tattoo artists’ scene, he said, “I’m ready to remove the middle man from my art equation and get back to my roots as someone who sells art directly to a consumer as opposed to through a middle man or for the purpose of marketing a product.” At its basis, tattooing is about as direct as you can get between artist and consumer! Lee and Kolt met, began toying with the ideas of apprenticeship and documentary, and “Ram’s Apprentice” was born.
After discussions and arrangements started to intesify, so Lee and Kolt had to decide what this project would look like. Basically, Kolt will spend one year traveling with Lee in order to learn the art of tattoo… something it takes most artists years to understand. They will be traveling all over the country, visiting not only tattoo shows, but also places and people that influenced Lee as he became the celebrated artist he is today.
One potential issue? Kolt doesn’t have a tattoo, has never designed a tattoo, or touched an ink needle… and tattoos are permanent. While the apprenticeship will happen no matter what, the guys want to document it. As Kolt explains, “And, while we think this whole process is cool, we also know that it’s a great human interest story, and if exposed to a larger group of people, it can do great things for tattooing, art, apprenticeship of any skill, and how the general public views these things. It’s also about more than tattooing, it’s a story about challenging yourself and committing to something, even if you don’t know the outcome”. While Lee’s travel is covered by his partner/sponsor NeoTat, Kolt’s travel, microphones, editing software, and the costs of filming, cutting, and releasing this documentary aren’t cheap. To alleviate the financial burden, Lee and Kolt have started a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of $15,000.
As the guys embark on this unprecedented journey, I asked them both what they were most looking forward to in the upcoming year. Lee says, “I’m excited to see how he grows as a tattoo artist and an artist in general. I’ll be hard on him because my expectations are high for the type of art that leaves my studio”. This isn’t surprising since Lee has 2-4 month waiting period at his Traverse City studio. Kolt, the tattoo virgin, is most excited to get that first tattoo and have the skills to tattoo his friends. “I’m most nervous about the first time I sit down to touch needle to flesh. I don’t have any tattoos yet, so that’s a little nerve-racking, but that pales in comparison to putting a mark on someone that will last forever. I’m nervous about failing in general on this project, but I know Ram wouldn’t take the risk unless he saw potential in what I do, so that makes me feel pretty confident about the whole process.”
You Can Help!
If you’re fascinated or inspired by this undertaking, show your support by participating with the Kickstarter campaign. The campaign accepts donations until May 7th and there are a ton of cool prizes for all levels of support. Check out a video journal from Lee at the 2015 Motor City Tattoo Expo, which was the first expo for Kolt to join in on.
Even if Kickstarter doesn’t work out, Lee and Kolt start their journey soon! Wish them luck in the comments below.