Shipwrecks and starting over
By Kana Coonce
ALGOMA – Since he was 12 years old, Erik Rohner has known he wanted to dedicate his life to tattoos.
Nearly 30 years later, Rohner has opened his latest tattoo shop, Shipwreck Tattoo, located at 326 Steele St., Algoma.
Transforming the fascination he has had since he was 12 years old into not only a career, but a way of life, Rohner opened his share of shops before landing in Algoma to open Shipwreck Tattoo.
The idea for the name Shipwreck Tattoo, Rohner said, came from his wife and business partner. “The shipwreck tattoo symbolizes new beginnings,” he said. “Starting over.”
Rohner and his family are starting over in a very literal sense.
Following “a bad time” over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rohner realized it was time for a change.
He and his wife sold everything off — including Rohner’s share of Emerald Buddha Tattoo, which he owned with a partner in Galena, Ill. — and used their life savings to relocate to Algoma.
“It is beautiful,” Rohner said when asked why he chose Algoma as his new home. “It is extremely open. There’s just something about this area in itself. It’s inspirational. I don’t know how to put it into words to be honest with you, but the land itself kinda feels like a muse — the beach, the weather, everything about it.”
Rohner first fell in love with Algoma on a vacation with his family.
”I looked around at my family and I saw smiling faces,” he said.
“It was serendipity, the things that get put together for you that you don’t realize ‘til later. Something about this area just pulled me, and it’s scenic and beautiful and has a massive arts community.”
Rohner has been tattooing since he was 18 years old — as soon as he could find himself an apprenticeship.
After some hunting around, he landed an apprenticeship with the late Mike “Doc” Doogan in Chicago, whose work is inked on his own skin.
Two years later, at age 20, Rohner opened his first shop, Ye Olde Tattoo Shoppe in Platteville.
The shop is still running today, its Facebook page teeming with pictures of its artists’ latest creations.
Many of these artists trained under Rohner, who has now trained “two shops full” of apprentices .
“I’m a little picky [with the people I accept as apprentices],” said Rohner. “You need to pick a certain type who fit into the environment, who can’t do a regular 9-5 and can think outside of the box. The people who don’t want any trouble, who just want to live a happy, healthy life. Sometimes factory work just isn’t it. Usually when I meet them, then I know.”
Though he is currently looking for apprentices at Shipwreck Tattoo, Rohner said he’s “not looking too hard. They usually find me.”
An avid fan of tattoo history, Rohner is also a member of the Bristol Tattoo Club, a club formed in England in the 1950s by internationally renowned tattoo artist Les Skuse; and the Knights of the Round Shader, an online group dedicated to sharing and discussing tattoos, artists and tattoo culture through the ages.
And history is rich with tattoos.
The oldest tattoos discovered on a human body are estimated to be around 10,000 years old, and tattoos have been found everywhere from Ancient Egypt to the Alps, the Pacific Islands to Victorian England.
The first electric tattoo machine was a repurposed engraver originally patented by Thomas Edison.
And the word “tattoo” is a loanword from the Samoan word “tatau,” whose origin has been theorized to lie in the sound created by the tapping of a wooden mallet on the implement Samoan tattooists used to inject ink into the skin.
“[Tattoos are] something that will last even longer than us,” Rohner said, citing Otzi the Iceman, Europe’s oldest discovered mummy, whose 10,000-year-old body is covered in little tattoos.
That history fascinates Rohner, and it’s a history he’s excited to share.
By the time he opened his first shop, Rohner said he could reassemble any coil machine — a tattoo machine that Rohner described as “kind of a thing of the past” — someone put in front of him. “You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been,” he explained.
It’s an ideology that lines up with Rohner’s portfolio. Though he originally trained in — and still loves — traditional style tattooing, Rohner said his favorite style to tattoo is “gothic, chaotic, black and gray — a lot of motion lines, particles floating. I like my art to be a little disconnected from itself… I love stuff that has flow, that is fluid and well put-together.”
Rohner also loves doing nerdy tattoos — anything from Star Trek to The Legend of Korra. “I will go to town with that,” he said.
More than one particular style, however, Rohner said the best part of his job is creating something that his clients love — and will love for the rest of their lives.
“There’s a lot of fulfillment when my client gets up and I see that smile,” Rohner said.
As for a favorite tattoo he’s done, it’s hard to say.
“I really love the one I did for my wife; it’s serendipitous,” he said, reiterating that shipwrecks symbolize new beginnings.
This particular shipwreck symbolizes Rohner’s wife’s desire to get back into the swing of working and reforge her sense of self after spending so long as a stay-at-home mother to their two children.
At present, Rohner is helping to prepare her to become a tattoo artist herself.
Though Shipwreck Tattoo is still getting its land legs after its soft opening last Tuesday, Rohner is looking forward to where this latest journey takes him and his family.
“We’re writing the story as we speak,” he said.
Shipwreck Tattoo will hold its grand opening on Friday, Aug. 4 with a ribbon-cutting and snacks. Then, for Shanty Days, the shop will host a guest artist from Emerald Buddha — one of many guest artists Rohner hopes to invite in the shop’s future. Following this, Rohner plans to hold a “Friday event” on the first Friday of every month featuring walk-in flash tattoos, “some custom art [and] some spooky stuff… for the wonderful people that help me survive.”
Check out Shipwreck Tattoo via their Facebook page.