TRAVERSE CITY — Ram Lee’s works adorn thousands of places across the country, but you won’t find them hanging on any wall in art galleries.
That changes today.
The 54-year-old tattoo artist, Ohio native and 25-year veteran, will have his first home gallery at Art & Soul Gallery on Front Street in Traverse City to help kick off the annual 17-year downtown art walk. to 9 p.m. on May 3. .
Lee’s debut as a good artist has been a long time coming. He started in graphic art and worked as an illustrator for 10 years before finding one of his many vocations: tattooing. He now owns and operates Traverse City Tattoo, now in its ninth year and has a four to six month waiting list for his black and white realism and wildlife work. Painting, Lee said, is a different beast.
“We pour our souls onto a canvas, onto a piece of paper, onto skin,” Lee said. “Making a living as an artist is the greatest leap of faith.”
Lee rarely shared his art publicly until he held a tattoo needle in his hand. He usually retired to his studio and worked in solitude, sometimes until sunrise.
“You have ideas and they pop into your head and keep you awake. Why go to bed? I have to put this on canvas or on paper,” he said.
But that was 30 years ago. Lee now wakes at dawn – and often before – to enter his home studio and spend hours painting before getting to work. Lee calls it an “old man’s schedule.” There are days when he does nothing but paint, a discipline that requires patience and a slow pace, even for a guy who has already earned the nickname “Turtle”.
Lee said it all depends on how good you want to be.
“With tattooing, the discipline is knowing that whatever I put on your body is there forever. Be true to the art. Be true to the art,” he said. “With painting, there’s a little more room for error, but it’s the discipline of knowing you’re going to fail. A lot of people think it’s wrong to fail, but I fail everything. time in painting – and I learn from it.”
With the tattoo came an intimacy and openness to judgment and criticism that Lee didn’t have much when it came to painting. Lee’s wife, December, said it changed the way her husband approached the canvas.
“He’s willing to take risks,” December said. “His transition to tattooing gave him the confidence to make art in any situation and do it for a wide variety of people. To finally see it come to fruition and make him the effort to take the time to do it. doing was great for him.”
Lee and December moved to Traverse City nine years ago so he could devote more time to his painting. His application as a tattoo artist put that on hold until Lee sat down with his wife last year and laid out a plan to make a conscious effort to revitalize his pursuit of fine art.
“I tattoo for people,” Lee said. “When I paint, it’s for me.”
Art & Soul, which has been around since 2002, was always a staple when Lee was in Traverse City as a tourist. He got to know gallery manager Amy Staffen well during his frequent visits to the shop, and she got to know his talent as a tattoo artist. This talent was the reason she gave Lee a space in her mostly invisible gallery.
“I figured if you could do this on skin, it could probably do really well on canvas – and I was right,” Staffen said. “He’s an artist. I’ve seen a lot of things he’s done and challenged him. He’s accepted and I’m very excited for him. I love the work he’s brought. “
Another of Lee’s passions, fly fishing, is the subject of his latest book. Lee said he went through some heavy artist block before he found the right path.
Lee knows he will never be 100% satisfied with one of his works, but he follows his high school art teacher‘s advice to help him stay sane.
“When you sign it, you’re done,” Lee said. “If I don’t do it that way, I used to joke and say I know why Van Gogh cut off his ear.”
Lee – two ears and all – will welcome visitors to Art & Soul from 4:30 p.m. today.