Short North Tattoo’s J. Brett Prince doesn’t have customers, just friends

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
From the April 10, 2014 edition

J. Brett Prince, owner and artist at Short North Tattoo, doesn’t cultivate customers so much as he builds friendships, which helps explain, in part, why the shop’s reception desk includes a stack of black-and-white stickers declaring, “I’m a friend of J. Brett Prince.”

“You get to know their kids and their families,” said Prince, 36, who specializes in elaborate, large-scale tattoos that can take up to 60 hours over the course of an entire year to complete. “They really do become friends.”

Prince, who was born in Pickerington to a firefighter father and a homemaker mother, got his first tattoo — a tribal design he’s since had covered (“It didn’t really express me as an individual,” he said) — at 18, and spent nearly eight months hiding it from his comparatively conservative parents, who had promised to kick him out of the house if he followed through on his teenage plans to get inked. Of course, they didn’t make good on the threat, and now Prince counts them among his biggest fans. His dad regularly hands out Short North Tattoo business cards at auto shows, and his mom has even recruited members of her church as unlikely shop customers.

Even so, both friends and family were shocked when Prince dropped out of Ohio University, where he had been studying biological sciences on a full-scholarship, in order to pursue a career as a tattoo artist.

“My brother came over like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You’re ruining your life,’” he said. “I was like, ‘Trust me. I’ve got this.’”

Shortly thereafter, he purchased a kit from the back of a tattoo magazine, and, in his own words, “opened the box, pulled out the needle and started tattooing.” The results were far from pretty.

“I did my own leg [first], and it’s pretty gnarly,” Prince said. “I mean, it’s not good. But I’m leaving it [untouched].”

At 26, realizing the craft’s steep learning curve, he took an apprenticeship at Clintonville’s now-defunct Gods and Monsters. In the two years he spent under professional tutelage, Prince learned trade secrets both obvious (hairy backs are not well-suited to intricately detailed work), and less so (the importance of bold lines to a piece maintaining its integrity over a lifetime), all while honing his own artistic sensibilities, which tend to lean toward the macabre.

“I can pinpoint that easily: It comes from heavy metal, skateboard graphics and horror movies,” he said. “My mom loved ‘The Exorcist,’ and I watched ‘An American Werewolf in London’ at like age 5, so maybe it’s their fault. Maybe it’s my conservative family’s fault!”

Still, one of Prince’s favorite aspects of the job is how it challenges him to branch out, and one of his cherished pieces is an elaborate portrait of Strawberry Shortcake holding a glowing, strawberry orb.

“People bring new ideas all the time, and some of it … becomes a part of my repertoire,” he said. “You’re never where you can be. You can always push yourself, and you can always learn from someone else.”