Masters of

Tattooing offers creative career path for DAAP grads

It’s noon on a Monday at Peregrine Tattoo in Clifton near the University of Cincinnati’s campus, and upon entry the place is buzzing audibly from the vibrations of tattoo machines.

The repetitive whirr starting and stopping, however, becomes barely noticeable once inside the wildly colorful and meticulously clean storefront property on Jefferson Avenue.

DAAP alumni Dasha and Carter Gilliss apply what they learned as fine art students to an age old artistic practice at their tattoo parlour, Peregrine Tattoo.

Once rare and edgy, tattoos are now mainstream; and the choices of design and color are seemingly endless. Here, Nick Hyde displays black/grey tattoos of animals native to America on his arm. Photo by Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

Perhaps the reason the buzz subdues is because other senses kick in, as practically every square inch of wall space is covered with nostalgic memorabilia dedicated to the craft and the faint smell of ink and rubbing alcohol could easily pass for a scented candle.

On this day, patron Nick Hyde, 38, sits nonchalantly in a chair, while tattoo artist Dasha Gilliss works on his lower left forearm. She is adding a black and gray elk and a similarly hued wild turkey to a cluster of adjacent tattoos that include a bear and Hyde’s beloved hunting dog, Murphy, who died last year.

Hyde says he chose the theme of animals native to America to eventually fill out a tattoo “sleeve” (a term whereby tattoos cover the entire arm like a shirt sleeve). 

Meanwhile, lying face down on a padded table nearby, almost dozing, is Cameron Vegh, 21, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in information systems from UC’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business. His tattooist, Zach Ashland, is crafting a dark knight’s helmet just below Vegh’s right elbow. The new tattoo is a graduation present to himself, says Vegh. 

DAAP alumni Dasha and Carter Gilliss apply what they learned as fine art students to an age old artistic practice at their tattoo parlour, Peregrine Tattoo. (This is another tattoo artist who works in the studio, not Carter.)

UC graduate Cameron Vegh ('23) being tattooed at Peregrine. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

“I only went above the elbow for a while, but there’s still not going to be anything visible that you can’t cover with a shirt,” in a professional setting, he remarks of expanding his collection and location of “ink” or “tats” over the past four years. His other tattoos, some colored and some not, were “random” choices of things he just liked: a sacred heart, a wolf, a panther, and his first tattoo, at 18, of a snake biting a hand. His mother cringed at his first one, but has since “given in,” he says with a grin.

With a nearly 20-year age difference between these two clients, it’s obvious that having a tattoo, or multiple tattoos, has become cross-generational and more culturally acceptable, plus more widely available. Recent data from 2023 shows that there are 21,000 tattoo studios in America and half of the U.S. population under 40 years old has tattoos.

“It’s so acceptable now that people are crossing the street asking you to pull up your shirt to see how far your sleeve goes,” says tattoo artist Carter Gilliss, who opened Peregrine Tattoo with Dasha, his wife, in April.  


DAAP alumni Dasha and Carter Gilliss apply what they learned as fine art students to an age old artistic practice at their tattoo parlour, Peregrine Tattoo.

UC alums Dasha and Carter Gilliss at their new studio in Clifton. Both say there's not much space left on their bodies for new tattoos, as they are almost covered from the neck down. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

An art degree matters, but only to a certain degree

Both graduates from UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) — Carter in 2003 and Dasha in 2005 — are quick to admit that tattooing for a living wasn’t the plan when they met at UC and married in 2005. 

They were trained in the traditional fine arts — the paint and paintbrush kind — and had regular showings around town. Dasha also had a job as a waitress in a nearby neighborhood. Often, after work, she would pop across the street into Tattoo Designs by Dana and get a tattoo. It was there, she says, that she found inspiration to change course completely, and the couple decided to pursue tattooing together as an occupation.  

“With our art background we thought we would be naturals at it,” Dasha recalls, but learning the craft, she says, was “a humbling experience.”

In addition to the technical aspects of creating art on living skin, tattoo artists are required to complete an apprenticeship — averaging one to two years and estimated to cost upwards of $10,000 — to obtain a state license to practice.


If you are already an artist... that gives you a leg up.

Dana Brunson | DAAP '80, Tattoo Designs by Dana

Learning which tattoo machine to use, what ink color to choose and how to ensure the skin heals correctly requires more than an academic education, says Dana Brunson, a DAAP alum and owner of Designs by Dana, Cincinnati’s oldest tattoo studio. The Gilliss’ apprenticed under Brunson’s son, tattoo artist Jason Brunson, and continued to work there for 14 years.

“I am very selective about who I pass the craft/art onto in my shop,” Brunson says, “but if you are already an artist on top of it, that gives you a leg up.”

As a graduate of DAAP’s School of Fine Arts himself, Dana Brunson (MFA ’80) certainly knows how to successfully translate an arts education into a profession. He managed to carve out a 52-year career in tattooing as an owner/operator.

Old-school versus modern tattooing

For Brunson, tattooing started in 1971. He was fresh out of the Army, where he first observed with amazement a fellow soldier getting a tattoo. He decided to give tattooing a go himself — out of a home studio in Indiana —while also attending the John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he earned a bachelor’s of fine art degree. He later enrolled at UC, majoring in sculpture.


Dana Brunson takes tattooing seriously, but himself not so much. His tattoo artistry and collection of vintage designs are widely known throughout Cincinnati and beyond. Photo/Dorothy Brunson.

“I was just a cool guy going to school and liked to tattoo,” he says, laughing.  

Tattooing as a profession stuck and Brunson stuck with it, going on to apprentice under tattoo artists whom he today calls “tattoo royalty.” He moved his studio, Tattoo Designs by Dana,  to Cincinnati in 1977.      

It was “a nice twist in the road,” Brunson says, although “back in the day,” so to speak, his clientele was mostly military and motorcyclists of the rougher ilk, and the craft was far more limited.    

“There were only five colors, we used the same needle on everybody, with no gloves,” he chuckles, adding: “Now there are 40 colors, and we are more sanitary than a dentist’s office,” referring to the profession’s evolution to sterile needles, medical grade gloves to prevent cross contamination and annual health inspections.


Becoming a tattoo artist is one of the bravest forms of art practice.

Jenny Ustick | DAAP professor, muralist

Battleships, ‘I heart mom’ are making a comeback

The career experiences of tattooist Ryonen Ignatius, a UC fine arts graduate (DAAP ’01), fall in the timeline between Brunson’s and the Gillisses'.

Ignatius has 23 years of experience, the past two of which she’s worked at Designs by Dana.

Ignatius jokes that she was “fast-tracked” in 1999, when she worked part time at a tattoo studio her senior year at UC. She finished an apprenticeship in five months, she says, because tattoo artists were scarce, and demand was high. That’s because body art was now more visible on rock stars and celebrities — think Pamela Anderson and her barbed wire cuff (that she’s since had removed).



Ryonen Ignatius gave her father, Bucky Ignatius, his first tattoo at age 78. The tattoo is a unicorn with text that says: "Today I believe in unicorns — of course I might be wrong.” Photo/Josh Trimble


Ignatius — like most successful tattoo artists — can tattoo almost anything, but she specializes in Japanese art and portraiture. Her early clientele also included motorcyclists, she says, but they were of the clean-cut variety, “police and firemen.” Soon after, she says, the clientele expanded again to “college kids and doctors with closet tattoos.”

The artwork itself has also undergone transitions.

During and after World War I and World War II, for example, Brunson says that images were pretty standard (e.g.., Victorian ladies, dragons and tigers) because there were so few tattoo artists and they kept their designs “close to the vest,”  whereas the last decade introduced more tattooists and more requests for custom work such as portraits, a loved one’s favorite saying (copied in their own handwriting) or in the case of Nick Hyde, a favorite pet.   

While vintage tattoos are very popular today, the craft didn’t really go mainstream until the mid-2000s with the popularity of reality shows such as “Inked” and “Ink Masters.” The public now had a behind-the-scenes look at tattoo culture, and viewers were “all in.”

“They would line up and you would tattoo whatever they picked off the wall,” says Ignatius. Brunson’s studio, for example, is widely touted as having one the largest collections of 1900-50s “flash” — prepared tattoo art often displayed on the studio walls — in the world.


DAAP alumni Dasha and Carter Gilliss apply what they learned as fine art students to an age old artistic practice at their tattoo parlour, Peregrine Tattoo.

Dragons are a popular tattoo choice. A symbol of Asian culture, dragons represent a wide spectrum of human potential - from fantastical power to wisdom and enlightenment. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

Patrons today, however, are more apt to see a tattoo on Instagram — which could be considered the tech version of flash. Instead of perusing the walls, they peruse the internet for inspiration.

But you can’t just magically imprint a cell phone photo on the skin like a fake tattoo. The tattooist must still draft a rendition of the photo and use transfer paper to place an outline on the skin to work from.

“You have to be able to draw well,” says Brunson.

Tattoos as art are in the eye of the beholder

“I think becoming a tattoo artist is one of the bravest and gutsiest forms of art practice that anyone can undertake,” says Jenny Ustick, a professor of fine arts at DAAP and a nationally renowned muralist.

Fine Arts Assistant Professor Jenny Ustick teaches in DAAP.

A professor of fine art, Jenny Ustick says she looks at tattoos much the same way she looks at street art or community available for public viewing and as deserving of the term "art" as gallery works. Photo/UC Marketing + Brand.

Tattooing, much like an outdoor mural, Ustick says, falls into the realm of public or community art, which is often misconstrued as “not serious” like one might see in a museum or gallery. 

The irony, she says, is that a costly rare painting may only be seen by a select set of eyes, whereas a street mural lives in the public eye without an admission ticket, as does a tattoo.     

While you don’t have to have a fine arts degree to become a tattooist, Ustick says that concepts the students learn in fine arts classes such as form, scale and color translate regardless of whether the medium is canvas or skin.

And there is money to be made in public art, she says.  

Ignatius, for example, says that she charges a minimum of $100 an hour.   

The market, however, Brunson says, is more saturated than ever before, but adds: “There will always be someone who wants a tattoo.”  

In hindsight, Zach Ashland, with his seven years of tattooing experience and a strong client base, encourages those interested in the profession to go to college before setting out: “I think if I had a fine art degree it would have helped me more,” he says.

Contemplating a tattoo?

The legal age to get a tattoo in Ohio without a guardian’s permission is 18. While in theory a customer can request any design and placement, tattooists have individual boundaries. Many won’t tattoo the face or hands, especially if the client is young.  

“Tattoos might be mainstream, but face tattoos are a ‘job-stopper,’” says Brunson.

Ignatius says she’s lost count of how many people she’s tried to talk out of getting their significant other's name tattooed on their body. “I think I convinced one person,” she laments, and the failures invariably return for a cover-up tattoo (converting the original to a new tattoo).   

And yes, they can hurt.


DAAP alumni Dasha and Carter Gilliss apply what they learned as fine art students to an age old artistic practice at their tattoo parlour, Peregrine Tattoo.

Tattoo artist Carter Gilliss looks on as his wife, Dasha Gillis, works on a "sleeve" for client Nick Hyde. The Gilliss' took their creativity and art degrees into the tattoo studio as a career path. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand.

“Tattoos can be painful depending on the spot,” Ashland relays as he continues to work on the dark knight’s faceplate, which doesn’t appear to faze Cameron Vegh in the least.

It’s far more painful — and expensive — to have tattoos removed, though, all say, which can only be done by a medical professional.

Trepidation aside, as the tattoo machines in Peregrine continue to buzz, the door opens once again. A gray-haired couple walks in and are greeted by Carter Gilliss.

They want to know if they are too old to get tattoos. “There is no age limit,” he tells them and proceeds to explain the process.  

Featured image at top: Dasha Gilliss, at Peregrine Tattoo studio in Clifton, tattooing the arm of client Nick Hyde. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Marketing + Brand. 

Additional credits

Photos: Andrew Higley, unless otherwise noted
Digital design: Kerry Overstake
UC Marketing + Communications

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