Tattoo artist Tommy Kirschbaum has short brown hair, an inviting smile and speaks with a raspy Wisconsin accent that’s inviting and charming. When he not at his shop, The Next Generation Midwest Tattooers, Kirschbaum is at the Marshfield Clinic where he volunteers his time and tattoos realistic-looking nipples on breast cancer survivors after they’ve undergone a double mastectomy.
“The hospital has accepted me to do all of their cancer patients, which is super awesome,: Kirschbaum said. “I do all of those for free. You know, it’s a way that we give back that, as a tattooer, doesn’t take a whole lot of time.” His work, he believes, gives women confidence and helps them move forward after they’ve beaten cancer.
Yet Kirschbaum was almost never a tattoo artist or an endearing member of his community.
His record includes multiple felonies, which for others can linger like an incurable disease, often preventing members of society from becoming productive even after they’ve taken all the necessary steps to turn their life around. This can apply to a wide variety of professions.
“I was an artist the whole time I was in prison,” Kirschbaum says. “I drew birthday cards and portraits and all kinds of stuff for ramen noodles to survive in prison. And when I came home, I couldn’t get a job cause I’m a ten-time felon. So my family suggested that I attempt tattooing.”
Luckily, for the residents of Marshfield, Wisconsin, he was able to overcome his past.
In addition to his work at the Marshfield Clinic, he runs a coat drive and, as a leader in the community, hosts events to raise money for charitable organizations. Last year, Kirschbaum considered running for mayor of Marshfield, which in 2010 was considered the fifth best place to raise a family in the United States according to Forbes.
Even given these qualities, the first trait many people might notice about Kirschbaum are the tattoos that decorate much of his body: from the red, yellow, and blue ink that covers his arms to the small gray design that permanently resides on his left temple.
As a multiple-time felon, Kirschbaum has used his career as a tattoo artist to turn his life around and change the stigma that’s often applied to his profession.
“It’s giving me a great platform to show that we are not all like a bunch of hoodlums and criminals,” Kirschbaum said. “Some of us may have those pasts, but tattooing and art has been able to change a lot of people’s lives, not just mine.”
Yet, not every community will allow someone with Kirschbaum’s past to work as a tattoo artist. As it turns out, many cities and towns throughout the United States have long-standing bans against anyone convicted of a felony from becoming a licensed tattoo artist.
How felonies interplayed with tattoo artistry: some history
Until recently, this type of ban applied to two neighboring northern Indiana cities, South Bend and Mishawaka, thanks to decades-old ordinances. These laws explicitly forbid anyone with a felony from obtaining a tattoo license, even if the felony conviction was more than a decade old, for a non-violent crime and the person had been working as a tattoo artist in a nearby Indiana city. Many other states, such as Illinois, Oklahoma and Georgia, also allow each city to determine if a felony conviction disqualifies a tattoo artist from receiving a license.
“It’s really disappointing, honestly, because I’m a felon and I know what it’s [like to] go and try to get a regular job,” Kirschbaum said.
According to the South Bend Tribune, both South Bend and Mishawaka added the ordinance in the 1980s and 1990s when it was popular for communities throughout Indiana to create stringent tattoo laws.
These ordinances have since been overturned: Mishawaka’s in 2017 and South Bend in 2019, respectively. But there are other places in the United States where people with felonies still have trouble finding work in the tattoo industry, which is highly regulated. But keep in mind that the ability to work in a creative, and often well-respected, work environment can provide a sense of stability and purpose.
“You’re looking at the individuals who may have made a decision that was not in their best interest, but they’ve turned their lives around and we want them to be productive citizens,” said Karen White, a member of South Bend’s City Council who spearheaded overturning the ordinance. “We want them to be able to work within their craft, and also be sufficient financially.”
In South Bend, overturning the ordinance was brought up in 2017 when tattoo artist and shop owner Rodney Eckenberg wanted to move his business there. It wasn’t until after he spent months looking look for the ideal location and filling out applications that he learned that his dream of opening a shop in South Bend was illegal because of prison time he served 15 years ago for DUIs.
“It seems like it’s following me around,” Eckenberg told WSBT22 shortly after discovering the ordinance. “What my past is should have nothing to do with what my future is.”
How this translates across the States—and the globe
In other communities, all applicants must go through a review process where they have to disclose if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime.
In 2012, Angela Whiteley, the owner of that tattoo shop Ink Junkies in Lewiston, Maine, had to fight to hire a former felon and aspiring tattoo artist. They went in front of the city council and after a few months of waiting, they got the good news.
Ultimately, the artist only lasted two years at Whiteley’s shop. She’s glad he was given the chance but doesn’t believe everyone with a felony should because a tattoo artist must be able to responsibly establish “trust” with their clients.
“It would be an individual-to individual basis,” Whiteley says. “Obviously, I don’t think that people with sex offenses or violent crimes or things of that nature should be given access to people in a one-on-one physical type environment, like the one we deal with.”
While Whiteley was satisfied with the decision of her city council in 2012, she does believe that they came to the correct conclusion for the wrong reason.
The main concern of her city council members was to ensure that a person with a history of theft wouldn’t steal from her cash register, and not that, as a tattoo artist, he would have the opportunities to make “one-on-one relationships with his clients.”
In her opinion, the tattoo industry should be perceived akin to cosmetology and not lumped in with the adult businesses.
“We have a lot of similarities with hairstylist and barbers,” Whitley says. “We have a lot of similarities in how we run our businesses and how we interact with our client base. We’re also hands-on and creative types.”
Yet, her perception is not the reality, especially in prison where tattoos are often unsafe, unsanctioned and illegal. Contrast this with the fact that many prisons offer cosmetology programs.
Since the Madison Correctional Facility’s cosmetology school in Madison, Indiana, opened in 2006, more than 175 women have completed the required 1,500 hours are licensed to do hair in Indiana once they are released. There’s also a barber program for men.
Hundreds of inmates across the United States participate in programs like these, which often reduce the likelihood that an inmate returns to prison.
A prison tattoo program was tried in Ontario, Canada, in 2005 with, where a parlor inside the Bath Institution, a medium-security federal prison, allowed inmates the opportunity to tattoo each other safely for $5 per two-hour session. There are indications suggested that the program was a safe and cost-effective way to prevent blood-borne diseases.
Still, the following year, the program was shut down, and it appears nothing similar has made its way to the U.S. at any point in time. While it may not be sanctioned, tattooing in prison is not going away. Up to 60 percent of inmates report receiving a tattoo while incarcerated.
How tattooing has changed inmates’ lives
“Tattooing and art has been able to change a lot of people’s lives, not just mine,” he said. I am very close relations with the probation parole here in Marshfield. I’m not on probation and parole anymore, but I’ve employed probably four or five people on probation and parole. And I actually have two people here right now that came out of jail or prison and are trying to change their lives.”
That’s not to insinuate that most tattoo artists have a criminal record. A large majority do not.
A career as a tattoo artist can certainly be a rewarding opportunity for those with a felony conviction, but it can hold the industry back when people assume all artists have a checkered past. This is especially important to remember as it becomes easier for felons to become tattoo artists.
“You’re seeing more people of influence with tattoos, but I’d say that the overall education that people have when it comes to tattooing is lacking,” Whiteley said. “There’s a popular notion, I guess, that tattoos are associated with felons. Like I’ve had people ask me what prison I learned how to tattoo in, and that’s just not what happened. People are getting more accepting of tattoos in our culture, but they’re not getting more educated.”
What Whiteley wants people to understand is that it’s not an industry of felons. It’s an industry of artists, and a few of them, like Kirschbaum, may have made a mistake or two in the past. Now he’s decided to help make his community a better place, one tattoo at time.
Thank goodness for Marshfield that having a felony never prevented him from doing that.