Lake Tahoe tattooers take pride in inking lake-inspired visuals on locals and tourists alike
READ MORE IN TAHOE MAGAZINE
This story is adapted from the winter 2019-20 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a specialty publication of the Sierra Nevada Media Group. The magazine, which is packed with plenty of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe-Truckee summer has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Go to tahoemagazine.com to read it online, and be sure to pick up a copy today.
“Trees are fun — you get to go all ‘Bob Ross’ on some people,” Scott Greenlaw says as he swiftly scratches a pencil to white paper.
It’s a late summer morning inside Lucky 7 Tattoo, a longstanding North Lake Tahoe parlor in Kings Beach. A sleepy Greenlaw is easing into his workday as he does many days in the shop: mocking up a Lake Tahoe-inspired tattoo.
“Lakes and trees are big ones,” Greenlaw continues. “Everybody wants a Lake Tahoe outline or trees on their hip or something.”
Nodding softly, he adds: “I dig it.”
Mountain peaks. Bears. The lake. And, yes, trees — forests sprouting on forearms, shoulders and necks. Like clockwork, tattoo artists in the region are inking stirring Tahoe visuals on locals and tourists alike.
During the peak seasons, more than ever, tourists are breezing into tattoo shops like a revolving door, said Natisse Thomas, a tattooer at Needle Peak Tattoo in South Lake Tahoe.
“There’s definitely some people that probably get tattoos every place they go, but for the most part people aren’t doing that. But, it seems like this is a place that people want to remember and they definitely want to get tattooed while they’re here,” Thomas said. “We have a lot of people who visit here regularly who get a tattoo every time they’re here. So that’s pretty cool. It’s a special place; it touches people.”
AROUND THE WORLD
It’s easy to imagine: a tourist from New England, the Bay Area, Finland, Spain or Japan, anywhere, reaching the high point of their first Tahoe hike. They look out and see the diamond-flecked lake, the Bob Ross-y swath of green pines, the orange sun slowly swallowed by a mountain range. The tourist decides, right then and there, to bring back a piece of this otherworldly view on their calf or back or chest, anywhere.
“We end up doing a lot of mountains and trees because everybody comes here and gets all inspired,” said Cory “Corndawg” Reed, tattooer and owner of Needle Peak Tattoo on the South Shore.
Laughing about the many like-minded clients, he quipped: “We’re stuck doing landscapes all the time. We could tattoo trees in our sleep.”
Still, Greenlaw, for one, said each time he’s inking a tourist — especially those from outside the states — it reminds him that his artwork is dotted around the globe like a roving art gallery.
This, Greenlaw said, is the biggest reason why being a tattooer at Tahoe is special. Truth be told, it’s one of the reasons the Oregon native never left Tahoe after coming to the North Shore for his best friend’s wedding back in October 2018.
“Ninety percent of the tattoos that we do are going to some other country,” he said. “You’ve got to think about it like that: my piece of art is going from here to Puerto Rico or frickin’ Spain or wherever. And there’s going to be this person over there in a completely different world that has some of your art on them.”
TAKING PRIDE IN TAHOE
Of course, it’s not just tourists who want to imprint Tahoe scenery on their bodies. Locals don colorful Lake Tahoe outlines or expansive Sierra Nevada ranges with pride, branding themselves as Tahoe lifers. For some, their ink is a reminder of why they choose to call Tahoe home.
Such is the case for Tracina Lefteroff, a South Lake Tahoe native who got a Tahoe outline inked on her calf. The piece is filled in with a colorful sunset scene (with pops of reds, oranges and blues) overlooking Emerald Bay. It’s the exact view you’d get — white firs, Fannette Island, the bay’s mouth — from the Inspiration Point Vista outlook.
“Tahoe is my hometown, it’s my sanctuary,” Lefteroff said after getting her tattoo touched up at Needle Peak Tattoo on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-August. “And Emerald Bay, it’s my favorite lookout, it always has been. I can drive up there and just release. So that’s why I got that particular part (of Tahoe).”
Thomas said she’s inked many Tahoe-centric tattoos, but one in particular sticks out to her as the most meaningful. A client wanted a tattoo that not only represented her twin children, but also incorporated a specific scene of Lake Tahoe, the place her and her husband decided to have kids.
“One of her kids is named Daisy and the other kid’s name started with a B, so she called him ‘B,’” Thomas explained. “So she wanted a little bee and a daisy, but also the lake and the mountains and trees and stuff. That was really fun; I actually made the daisy look like the sun, and then the bee was on top pollinating it.”
HONORING LOVED ONES
While some get tattoos to celebrate new life, others get inked to honor lost loved ones.
Inside Lucky 7 Tattoo, alive with the vibrating buzz of tattoo guns, Sparks resident Shawn Magurno got a tattoo in memory of his aunt who died of breast cancer.
“What better way to memorialize her than get this tattoo?” Magurno shrugged as a tattoo gun inked a breast cancer ribbon with his aunt’s initials on his wrist. “She was the classic favorite aunt. We had a lot of great, fun memories with her.”
Reed said sometimes a client wants a memorial tattoo but doesn’t know specifically what to get. In these scenarios, Reed will often talk to the client about his or her family member in an effort to tease out a creative idea for a piece.
“Sometimes they want to get a birthdate or the day that person died or a tombstone on their skin,” Reed said. “And I’m like, ‘you’re trying to remember a bad moment … why don’t you remember what was good about them?’ So I ask them questions about their family members, and we figure out something that’s more happy to the situation.”
‘BILLBOARDS FOR WHAT WE DO’
Russell Fortier, who’s been a tattooer on the North Shore going on 13 years, said every person who settles into his studio chair at Lucky 7 in Kings Beach has a story. To that end, he feels every piece he inks on somebody’s skin — from tribal pieces to realism portraits and everything in-between — is memorable to him.
And Fortier estimates he’s done “a couple thousand” Lake Tahoe outlines alone.
“I’ve covered up scars from surgeries,” Fortier said. “They’re super important because it changes their life. Those ones have a lot of meaning behind them.
“They all do, though,” he continued. “From a little tiny star to a Tahoe outline to a huge back piece … it all has meaning to people. And I don’t like to think that one has more meaning than the other. So every tattoo I do today is going to have meaning for these people.”
An old school tattooer who grew in “gangster shops” in Southern California, Fortier said he also wants to know what his clients physically feel when his steady tattoo gun is working on their skin. Which is why Fortier is covered in tattoos from head to toe.
“I’ve always wanted to be tattooed in every spot on my body so that I can experience what the clients go through,” he said. “So when these tattooers aren’t, say, tattooed on their feet and they’re tattooing all of these feet and saying, ‘oh, it’s going to feel like this.’ … Well, they don’t know how it’s going to feel.”
In other words, “as tattooers, we’re like billboards for what we do.”