Artists’ tattoos color Austin


Pu Ying Huang

Tattoo artist Rachel Kolar has been working in the tattoo industry for over a decade. Kolar currently works at True Blue Tattoo, voted Best Tattoo Shop in 2011 by The Austin Chronicle.

Jessica Lee

The sound of ceaseless buzzing is in the air as Rachel Kolar begins to work on a piece of art. Her paintbrush is a needle, her medium is ink and her canvas is the human body.

Kolar has been working at True Blue Tattoo for 10 years. In high school, she knew she wanted to be a tattoo artist. After attending art school in Philadelphia, she moved to Austin and that dream became a reality. Kolar learned the craft by watching others and practicing on her friends.

“When I first moved to Austin, I did a lot of terrible tattoos on people I'm still friends with,” Kolar said.

But Kolar has certainly improved since those days. Nine years after getting her first tattoo done, UT alumna Tamara Guillory decided she was ready to go ahead and get a second tattoo. She was terrified. The combination of pain and nerves while getting her first tattoo, a small star on her wrist, had made her faint.

So Guillory asked her friends for tattoo artist suggestions. Rachel Kolar's name kept popping up.

“She's like a legend here in Austin,” Guillory said. “So I knew I had to check her out.”

The appreciation that Kolar has for her customers is blatant. She said that she loves all her customers and feels as if she forms some sort of bond with each of them.

Her artwork now floats all over the city. Kolar has tattooed hundreds of people in the past 10 years, and she's certainly seen it all.

“There are definitely tattoo trends,” Kolar said. “A while ago it was tribal arm band tattoos. Now it's a lot of trees, dandelions blowing away and text.”

The tattoo process starts with a concept. A customer comes in with a photograph, a drawing or simply an idea of what they want their tattoo to be. It is Kolar's job to make a sketch of that idea that not only looks good as a tattoo but also fit the customer's taste.

“I try to get as much information from the customer ahead of time by asking them what artists and images they like,” Kolar said. “Designing a tattoo is a lot like collage because I take a bunch of images and put them all together.”

Once she has completed the sketch, Kolar runs the sketch through a thermofax machine, which allows Kolar to transfer the sketch from the paper to the customer's body, much like a temporary tattoo. She then traces over the sketch with a needle that uses an electromagnetic current to bounce the needle up and down as it quickly injects ink into the skin.

When Amanda Tholen decided to get the image of her grandmother tattooed onto her upper arm, she didn't think twice about asking Kolar to do it. She had previously had a tattoo done by Kolar, and after getting to know her during the hours-long process, she now considers her a friend.

“The relationship you have with the person tattooing you is important,” Tholen said. “The process is intimidating, so you want to have someone who is personable working with you.”

And Kolar is just that. While working on Tholen's tattoo, Kolar shares snacks, stories and even her cell phone charger. Tholen was obviously in extreme pain, but Kolar's amiable nature makes it easy for her customers to relax.

For complex tattoos like Tholen's, which involve coloring and shading, Kolar has the customer come in for multiple sessions.

“At this point, I can tell when someone is ready to go,” Kolar said. “So I find a good stopping point where the tattoo doesn't look strange and then have them come in later after the swelling has gone down a bit.”

Kolar tells her clients to keep their tattoo clean by washing their hands before touching it. The tattoo will begin to dry out, which is normal, but she warns those with fresh tattoos not to pick at it or submerge it in water until it is no longer scabbed.

Possibly one of the most admirable traits about Kolar is her willingness to turn customers down if she doesn't feel comfortable doing a tattoo, whether it is because of the content or the placement.

“The tattoos I create represent me,” Kolar said. “So I'd rather not have something that looks bad or that I didn't feel comfortable doing representing me.”

Kolar puts the finishing touches on Tholen's tattoo of her grandmother. The tattoo looks beautiful, and Tholen remarks that her grandmother will be honored when she sees it. A smile grows on Kolar's face. To her, this will never get old.

Printed on Monday, February 13, 2012 as: Tattooist connects with customers