‘Just got to be good to people’: Local tattoo artist keeps customer coming back

Jonathan Fowler tattoos Abby Schuster, a WKU alumna. Schuster began getting tattooed by Fowler while attending Western. “We drove all the way from Cincinnati to see Jonathan,” said Schuster.

Taylor Metcalf

The art of permanently inking masterpieces into skin takes years to master, and those who step up to the challenge know just how difficult it can be.

Walking in the front door of Solid Gold Gallery, a tattoo shop on State Street, you’re met with white walls and steep steps. At the top of those steps is a long hallway with a seemingly endless amount of doors — doors leading to talented artists locked and loaded to make tattoo dreams come true.

Jonathan Fowler is one of six award-winning artists the gallery’s website is proud to claim, but his work stands out. This year, Fowler is celebrating his 20th year tattooing.

Fowler inked his first tattoo, a joker straight out of a “Lowrider” magazine, on a friend’s back at just 17 years old. Two years later, he scored an internship at Topper’s Fine Line Tattoo in Bowling Green.

Though his official tattooing started in his late teens, his appreciation for the art came much earlier.

“When I was 8, I had an uncle I looked up to,” Fowler said as he sat in his office. The room doubles as his studio, complete with a tattoo table, a chair and several intricate and colorful framed drawings.

“He got a tattoo, and it just blew my mind,” he said. “You tell an 8-year-old that they can draw on themselves and it stays forever — you basically told them the coolest thing in the world.”

To some, tattooing may seem like all play and no work, but Fowler assured it’s more. It all starts with the client: The entire process is based on the tattoo they want and how long it will take to complete. After a design is decided, the real work begins.

Fowler first draws a basic line copy of the design before feeding it into a machine that prints it onto transfer paper. The paper is used to place a traceable outline of the design onto the client. From there, it’s all up to Fowler to ink the basic line before adding his own flair with color and shading techniques.

But when you pay for a well-done tattoo, you aren’t paying for the design. You pay for the time sacrificed to make the tattoo look as good as possible.

When Fowler has a new client, something about his work seems to keep them coming back. Kyla Phakhailathavong, a 26-year-old artist, has been a client of Fowler’s for over six years and has no plans of stopping.

“From the beginning of working on my sleeve, Jon was a straight-up dude and very professional,” Phakhailathavong said.

While she used to be a Bowling Green local, she has since moved to Nashville and drives back to have Fowler work on her leg sleeve. The sleeve is a compilation of characters and scenes from Studio Ghibli, a popular Japanese animation studio. Phakhailathavong said she initially didn’t want a leg sleeve, but after seeing her first tattoo with Fowler, she wanted more.

“I consider him a good friend and my main artist,” Phakhailathavong said. “He is amazing, and I can’t wait to finish my sleeve so that he can start working on other pieces for me.”

From looking at Fowler’s social media, many might suspect him a one-trick pony, sticking primarily to anime tattoos. But his skills are put to use for more than that. Fowler said he’s open to tattooing anything, but he mentioned his appreciation for bold line work, bold colors and “representative imagery.”

Aside from Fowler’s dedicated clients, he has almost 2,500 followers on Instagram, and people from several counties know him.

Tattoo artist Justin Casteel works at Big Daddy’s Tattoo 2 in Elizabethtown. Through clients and social media, Casteel discovered Fowler and his work. He said in a text message he thought Fowler did “some really nice tattoos.”

“My favorite tattoo is the one I’m getting paid for,” Fowler said jokingly as he sat in his squeaky office chair, his digital artist tablet sitting on the table in front of him. His tablet is used for drawing new pieces and tracing exact lines on others.

But being a tattoo artist isn’t just sitting around drawing. There are several sacrifices Fowler made and troubles he and his family faced.

The most pressing issue is money. With a family to provide for, Fowler said he had to “buckle down” in the last five years to start making enough.

“Really, it’s the time away. People don’t really think about that,” he said. “It’s the time my family sacrifices, it’s the time my children sacrifice. It’s not a lot of sacrifice on my end — it’s a lot of other people picking up the bill.”

As a dad and husband, Fowler spends as much of his free time with family as he can. But as a tattoo artist, he said, you’re working 24/7.

All work and little play can be hard, but Fowler strives to have both. Fowler himself has struggled with anxiety and depression and took medication to keep it in check. Despite this, Fowler goes to work every day with intentions to work hard and treat customers with kindness and sincerity.

Fowler noted being a tattoo artist is more than doing your job well — there’s no substitution for treating clients right and listening to their needs.

“You do your job well, take pride in what you do, do it right the first time and try to do a good job every day,” Fowler said. “You’ve just got to be good to people.”

Features reporter Taylor Metcalf can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. edu.