Tattoo artist Alex Topolski will tell you that human skin is nothing like canvas or paper. It’s not flat, and clients often don't sit still. But before Topolski could master needle depths and pigment/skin tone combinations, he set out to refine his skills as an artist and developed the ability to work with people—now his dynamic, living medium.
“Every tattoo is a new experience,” said Topolski. “I put permanent marks on people, and they carry around my art (hopefully) for the rest of their lives. The impression you make is forever; it has to be good. Otherwise someone will be walking around with a disgraceful example of my work.
“What I like most about tattooing is that I am never doing the same thing twice. Every client is a new challenge. The rewards come from meeting someone you hardly know and creating their ideal design that will forever be on display to the rest of the world.”
Since 2006, Topolski has worked exclusively as a “free agent” in south Florida. The state’s law deems it the responsibility of shop owners to pay for the licensing of the artists that work under their supervision, which makes it easier for artists to work in multiple locations without having to worry about separate licensing fees. He recently tattooed live on CH10 News in Miami and South Florida's Big 105 FM Morning Show.
“There is no shortage of tattoo artists, but there is a shortage of talented ones,” Topolski said. “Some of my best work is done in the wee hours of the night. Those many nights I spent in CCS's basement tending the studios and darkrooms prepared me for this line of work in some...unconventional ways. For example, I worked for a tattoo establishment in the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida, many nights until 5 and sometimes 6 a.m.
“Then there are the challenges posed by working with a live, breathing canvas—especially since people rarely have the same thickness and texture of skin. Clients often don't know what they want. This is where people skills come into play. Often I have to pick away at their brain to find out what they really want. This is no business for introverted types.”
Topolski learned tattooing through a formal apprenticeship after moving to North Carolina with his father. His decision to become a tattoo artist arose while working on a commissioned mural on a building that housed a well-known tattoo shop. As Topolski stood painting the wall, the owner approached him and asked if he’d be interested in tattooing.
"Tattooing is like no other medium; almost nothing prepared me except my ability to draw well."
“Tattooing is like no other medium; almost nothing prepared me except my ability to draw well,” he explained. “This is the reason for an apprenticeship lasting 18 months to two years. Most artists give up before their apprenticeship is complete.
“Designing art to be used for tattoos requires an understanding of the process itself. The only thing remotely close to tattooing is maybe airbrushing. And that's only because of the mechanics involved in setting up your tools.
“I'd like to thank my second year airbrush professor Brian Sauriol for taking me under his wing and personally helping me refine my portrait skills in a one-on-one student-teacher setting. The sacrifice he made of his time made a bigger impression on me than any other instructor. I have him to thank for my prowess in portraiture, and I am forever grateful.”
Before Topolski became a tattoo artist, he worked across several creative fields, even landing roles in several independent films. Immediately after graduation, he worked as an art director for a small company in Sterling Heights that created sign graphics. The company ended up going “belly up” and Topolski was left searching for work. Since he had a background in photography, Topolski started doing portrait and promotional portfolios for local talent and model agencies around the Detroit Metro Area.
“During all these career moves, I maintained a reputation as a fine artist, regularly painting for Gallerie 454 in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan,” said Topolski. “For years I was doing mass production of landscape paintings, delivering anywhere from 10 to 12 finished pieces a week.”
Topolski’s involvement with Gallerie 454 led him to an interest in interior design contracting. He had also started created paintings for other local art reps and was hired for a job at William Beaumont Hospital in 1995. He was represented by an agency called Directions in Design, Inc., based out of Royal Oak.
“I was contracted to do the landscape paintings for patient rooms as part of the central tower’s renovation,” he explained. “In fact, I'm still making myself available for 2D and 3D residential installations.”
With more than 18 years of experience as a freelance painter, photographer and tattoo artist, Topolski has found a rewarding career that allows him to keep “living well.”
“The transition from art student to professional artist can be very challenging for some,” he said. “This was an issue in the beginning of my career as an artist. I’d rather airbrush trucks and motorbikes than brave fitting into corporate culture. But if you don't choose the corporate road, you have to be resourceful…
“After paying off my student loan, I have been cautious not to accumulate more debt. Luckily, I never subscribed to credit card services. It is very liberating to be free of looming debt. That is my greatest accomplishment. I now work a mostly cash business and live within my means. I don't know if I'll be doing this my whole life, but right now it suits me just fine.”
- Independent contractor