MERIDEN – As deep magenta flows from the tip of a thick
pulsating needle, the ink forms a pool of color inside a thick
black outline. John Vance takes a paper towel and wipes away the
excess ink, revealing a red-violet fish. More and more layers of
color – orange, pink, gray and black – are added to form the colors
of a Japanese koi fish.
The buzzing sound of a tattoo gun evokes emotion in most people.
For some it might be fear, for others an adrenaline rush, but to
Vance, a tattoo artist, it’s the sweet sound of work.
Vance recently was tattooing a client, Dave Smith, with a full leg
piece of koi fish swimming above and below water. Such a piece –
with intricate details, overlaying of color, and shading – is the
kind of work Vance loves. It allows him the artistic freedom that
he enjoys, and his passion shows in his artwork.
Vance, 41, started tattooing at the age of 14 and has tattooed his
entire body himself, from the feet up. His artwork began with
pencil drawings, then mostly black and gray tattoos, and now he
incorporates color. The first tattoo Vance ever did was a wizard on
his father’s shoulder.
Since Vance began his business 20 years ago, his work has been
featured in numerous magazines and newspapers. He also has received
awards for his artwork. In his most recent magazine appearance, in
Rebel Ink Magazine, Vance’s work was showcased in a spread.
“We’ve had people from New York, Georgia, Philly – like all over
the country – calling for these tattoos that they’ve seen, so it’s
really cool,” said Brianna Houde, Vance’s niece and an employee at
Vance’s shop, Fantasy Ink Tattoo Studio, at 77 Broad St.
Vance is especially known for his portraits. Whether it’s a
portrait of a celebrity, a dog, or a loved one, Vance loves to
“Portraits are my favorite thing. When I’m done, people usually cry
and that’s the best compliment I can ever get – the first time they
cry happy,” Vance said. “I think it’s awesome.”
Over the years, Vance has noticed tattoo trends change. Many people
are getting bigger custom tattoos in custom places. Vance said the
trendy places to get tattoos now seem to be the rib cage and the
top of the foot. Text is very popular, too. Vance says women,
including his niece, Houde, are getting more tattoos.
Houde has a full Barbie sleeve on her arm, as a tribute to her
great-grandmother, and many other tattoos, all of which have been
done by Vance.
“Especially being a girl, I want to get another sleeve as well. A
lot of people look down on it but I think it’s starting to be more
accepted,” Houde said.
“Tattooing definitely has come into its own in a huge way,” Vance
said while setting up the needles for Smith’s tattoo. “It’s just
like anything else, like an artist with different brushes.
Different brushes have different effects.”
Vance says he can’t do artwork the traditional way as well as he
can work on the skin. He’s impressed with the ability of artists
who use brushes and other tools to work on media like billboards,
buildings and canvases.
“If I go to the mall I’ll watch that dude with charcoal whip out a
Joe Pesci or something crazy and that amazes me because I’m a
sloppy mess with that. I can’t do it,” Vance said. “But on the skin
I can do that in two or three hours.”
Vance’s workday typically consists of scheduled appointments with
custom work. On larger pieces, such as Smith’s full leg piece, he
can spend up to eight hours a session tattooing. This usually
depends on the client’s tolerance. He tries to do at least two
appointments a day. Sometimes, he will be at the studio until the
early hours of the following morning working on a client.
“It’s definitely art and a lot of dedication on both parts,
especially when you get into stuff like this, it takes hours and
hours,” Vance said two hours into tattooing Smith.
Smith is on his seventh session with Vance and more than 40 hours
of work has been put into the tattoo since September. Smith’s
tattoo was a 55th birthday present to himself. He wanted koi fish
because they stand for overcoming strife in your life.
“I love it; it’s gorgeous,” Smith said to Vance. “It’s the little
things that make it, man.”
Vance couldn’t imagine himself doing any other job than the one he
has. Being able to see his artwork on people still amazes
“It’s still putting something on a canvas, except for that canvas
happens to be walking around instead of hanging on a wall,” Vance