Walking down Bardstown Road, you can barely go a block without finding a good tattoo shop.
Tattoo artist Erick Kleinhelter saw this overabundance as an opportunity. If that many tattoo shops are on Bardstown Road, does it mean there are bunch of places with no tattoo shops at all?
He found that tattoo desert in Middletown and opened an oasis. You can visit Kleinhelter and his wife, Rikki, at their new business, Brother Raven’s Tattoo & Art Emporium, where his nearest competition is eight miles away.
This weekend it a great time to check it out, with a Friday the 13th sale and a grand opening celebration on Saturday.
The Louisville native says he grew up loving art, which is a common trait among tattoo artists.
“Well, I’ve always done art — from the time I was born,” he says. “Whether it was doodling or painting or something. There ain’t a whole lot to do in the country.”
Growing up living with his grandparents, Kleinhelter got a lot of exposure to the tools of drafting and design.
“My grandfather was an architect, so he did blueprinting and cabinet designing and stuff like that by hand. So I guess I picked it up from him, watching him draw,” says Kleinhelter.
In addition to loving drawing, he had a formative early experience with tattooing.
“I watched my real father get tattooed by his buddy — which I totally frown upon as a professional,” he says. “But when he stood up, and flexed his arm, the little lady he got tattooed on his arm shook her hips. And I thought that was the coolest damn thing I had ever seen in my life.”
Kleinhelter didn’t immediately pursue a career that would let him explore the arts or tattoos. He worked a variety jobs while he supported the children he had with his first wife. When he got the opportunity to move into tattooing, he was an OSHA-certified construction inspector for Patriot Engineering.
His boss couldn’t believe he was leaving a good-paying job in construction for tattooing, but Kleinhelter walked away and hasn’t looked back. He’s now been tattooing professionally for 13 years and has worked in several local shops.
In those 13 years, he kept noticing that all the tattoo shops in Louisville were clustered in just a few places.
“I saw a huge demographic area that wasn’t being serviced,” he says. “I’ve been saying it for years, and I couldn’t talk no one into it. But I didn’t have the money to do it myself.”
He kept floating the idea, and people kept ignoring him. The answer he got from other tattoo artists and shop owners usually pointed the finger at the residents in St. Matthews and beyond.
“They just thought the East End wouldn’t have it,” he says.
Eventually, Kleinhelter was ready to gamble on his idea.
He decided success was a matter of presentation. Make sure the image your business projects is miles away from the old, outdated reputation of tattoo shops. Show the neighborhood what the tattoo world is like now.
“This isn’t the 1960s. Tattoos aren’t so taboo anymore,” explains Kleinhelter. “It’s art, and there’s a lot of artists that do tattoos. It’s a different time. It won’t be long before the president tattooed — if he isn’t already.”
Having identified the business niche he wanted to fill and the image he wanted to project, Kleinhelter started focusing on customer service for his new neighbors.
“You appeal to them. They’re fancy, they want to be pampered, they want it to be artsy,” he says.
Kleinhelter got a pool table for the space and filled the walls with art from other local artists.
When making decisions about how to decorate, Kleinhelter had a go-to question he would ask: “If my grandmother walked into my tattoo studio, would she be offended? That’s kind of how I based everything,” he says.
Brother Raven’s had its soft opening in March. And so far, Kleinhelter’s approach seems to be working.
“I didn’t meet any resistance whatsoever. I was kind of welcomed, honestly.”
At Saturday’s grand opening event, from 3-6 p.m., you can meet Kleinhelter, catch some performance art and win some raffle prizes from Brother Raven’s, Freestyle Fitness, and We are the Weirdos.
To win a $300 gift certificate to Brother Raven’s, bring a donation for Saving Sunny, a pit bull rescue organization. Kleinhelter suggests Feeders Supply or Barkstown Road gift certificates, topical flea/tick preventive, collars or leashes. Good old-fashioned money is appreciated as well.
And don’t forget you also can get some Friday the 13th tattoo specials this Friday.
Brother Raven’s Tattoo is located at 11509 Shelbyville Road. You can call 290-8048 or hit them up on Facebook to make an appointment.