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Self-made Colorado Springs tattoo artist fulfilled by tools of his own making

April 28, 2017 Updated: April 29, 2017 at 3:36 pm
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photo - Ron Dolecek posed for a portrait at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who builds his own machines started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette
Ron Dolecek posed for a portrait at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who builds his own machines started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

The contraption in Ron Dolecek's hands is his own making, possible through his own unique process.

When he constructs his tattoo machines, he is not just carefully measuring and cutting iron wires from a roll to form the two electromagnetic coils that spring the armature bar that he welds himself, the bar that goes up and down from that electromagnetic force and drives the needle. No, before that, Dolecek is welding his own jigs at perfect 90-degree angles, jigs that keep the pieces under construction aligned just right. He could buy those jigs online, but he'd rather make them himself.

Ron Dolecek holds one of his tattoo guns that he built and created at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

"If anything gets out of whack, if the geometry's wrong, the machine's gonna run like (expletive), and you wasted hours upon hours," he says inside Lucky Devil Tattoo, the downtown shop he designed and built up himself.

While most tattoo artists get their machines from suppliers, Dolecek, 50, prefers to build his from scratch. He likes to intimately know the ins and outs of the technology at his hands. He likes to know he can fix any slight malfunction that might arise. The boldness and color of the ink he lays is just so due to his machine's special configuration, and he likes that. He likes to be in control.

It's one reason he got into the business, opening a shop in 1989 in his native Kansas: "I've been unemployable for 20 years," he says proudly.

Ron Dolecek's variety of tattoo guns that he built and created at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

And in a saturated scene in Colorado Springs - two other shops alone are in sight from his place on Bijou Street - he likes to stand out where he can.

A row of Ron Dolecek's tattoo guns that he built and created at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

"Building the tools that builds the tattoos, that's just pretty much forgotten," says Matt Headley, a friend back in Kansas who has traveled far and wide with a documentarian in an attempt to track the country's tattooing history.

What Headley has learned is that there is no clear arch, no beginning that could be called the beginning, no consistent progression of form or machinery. Sure, tattoos were known to be popular among sailors on old war ships - a vintage style that Dolecek likens his work - and they also boomed among circuses. And sure, there's wide documentation of the art catching on in late 19th century New York City, with Samuel O'Reilly there granted the first U.S. patent for an electric machine.

But mostly the industry's history relies on a series of seemingly random anecdotes, stories like Headley most recently gathered on a 45-day road trip: an old-timer with a great-great-grandfather who tattooed with a wooden apparatus at logging camps; a man trained in Chicago by a man who paid bums to collect metal bristles that fell off street sweepers - the artist's needles.

Ron Dolecek, tattoo artist at the Lucky Devil Tattoo shop, has an obsession with tattoo history. This glass container shows the many artifacts of Gus and his wife Maud Wagner. Maud Wagner was originally an acrobat, aerialist and contortionist at the St. Louis World's Fair before she met her husband to be Gus. The small photo of her shown in his photo was believed to be her business card as the first female tattoo artist. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

"You gotta realize," Headley says, "this stuff literally came from nothing."

A student of history

Here in Colorado Springs, Dolecek continues this self-made trend. A practitioner of 28 years, he has a deep appreciation for history - that much is apparent when stepping into his shop, where old jazz plays one recent afternoon. It's stocked with collected relics. One proud piece from the 1890s is a steel plate with a fist-sized, rusted doorbell attached to it - the vibrating, needle-driving mechanism that supposedly inspired O'Reilly. A glass box keeps yellowed how-to sheets and a bottle of indigo, the ink of Gus Wagner, Dolecek says, explaining his admiration for the globe-trotting artist of the 1900s who had a wife named Maud.

Ron Dolecek holds the original tattoo gun set up at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017.The original gun was created in 1891 and used a modified doorbell assembly in a brass box and shown in this photo. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who builds his own machines started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

"The first lady tattooer in America, man!" Dolecek says before his big, framed painting of her inked-up likeness.

He could hardly contain his excitement when he learned the Wagners were buried in his home state. He drove out to a cemetery in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas, where he cleared some bushes and regretted what he saw.

"Two concrete blocks pretty much," he says. "That's sad. That sucks. That's not right."

So he bought a pair of elegant headstones, worthy of someone who places in a state's history, as he believes the Wagners do. He can only imagine the Kansas they knew. Tattooing couldn't have been easy then, as it wasn't when he came up in 1990s Wichita. The act was illegal in city limits at the time.

"People were hostile to him," says Jenna Dolecek, 25, recalling her tat-covered father in public. "People would just give him dirty looks all the time."

Ron Dolecek holds his phone that shows a photo of his motorcycle that he modified and break the 200 mph mark on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek, co-owner of Lucky Devil Tattoo, is a rare tattoo artist who builds his own machines started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

But different was what he strived for. He didn't want to be in the military like his father, who left when he was a toddler. The pot-smoking, metal music-loving teen who doodled pictures that disturbed his teachers took his old man's advice, though, getting assigned to an Air Force base out of high school. At least he could get away from his abusive stepfather who would wield a plastic bat.

"Total rebellion. Total rebellion," Dolecek says of why he got into tattooing after four years of service. "It was so outsider, and I was all about that."

He keeps the machine he first used: made by a man in prison with a cassette motor as its power base, a Bic pen as a tube and a guitar string as a needle. Dolecek was working at a steel mill when he met the ex-convict, who invited him to practice in his laundry room. Dolecek did so before getting his own professional gear and his own shop on county land, outside Wichita's limits.

Ron Dolecek reflected in the mirror at his desk at Lucky Devil Tattoo on Friday April 21, 2017. Dolecek is a rare tattoo artist who builds his own machines started his career in Kansas and has an obsession with tattoo history. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette  

"You're one lucky devil," a cop told Dolecek when he walked out of the building pictured at his shop, in shambles after a tornado. Dolecek tells the story of a task force raiding his Wichita house, where he practiced while challenging the city to open a place downtown. He did in 2000, in the years after the ban was lifted.

"He wasn't afraid to get in trouble," Headley says from his shop in Wichita. "If it hadn't been for him I don't think I'd be here.

'He built all this himself'

Dolecek came to the Springs five years ago, drawn to the beauty and the air perfect for his motorcycle passion. He tinkers with bikes like he tinkers with his tattoo machines: until he gets a desired effect.

"Everything for him is self-learned. He's so curious about everything, and I think I get that from him," says his daughter, studying human rights law outside London. "He wants to learn everything, and he's self-reliant. He built all this himself. I think that's pretty amazing."

Last September, he learned what it was like to ride faster than he ever had, on a Suzuki he souped up for the Colorado Mile speed contest. He proudly hangs in his shop the certificate for his accomplishment on the 5,280-foot straight: 201.5 miles per hour.

"Going fast, man, just the wind rush, the gauges on the bike showing (expletive) you've never seen before..." he says, stopping and smiling as if to imagine himself in that happy place, where the limits are his own.

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