More than just ink

Published 3:29 pm Monday, March 25, 2013

Some artists specialize. Albert Lea artist Gilbert Johnson Jr. diversifies.

He is known in the area for his skills as a tattoo artist. But he possesses other skills: the arts of painting, sculpting and writing and the sport of target shooting. It’s hard to classify collecting as an art or sport, but it definitely requires skill.

Albert Lea resident and business owner Gilbert Johnson, unlike the Hindu god Vishnu,  doesn’t really have more than two arms. But if he did, he could keep up with his multiple talents better. Tim Engstrom, Kathy Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune

Albert Lea resident and business owner Gilbert Johnson, unlike the Hindu god Vishnu, doesn’t really have more than two arms. But if he did, he could keep up with his multiple talents better. Tim Engstrom, Kathy Johnson/Albert Lea Tribune

And he is a businessman. He owns The Chapel tattoo parlor, which holds a few distinctions among Albert Lea’s downtown merchants:

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• It doesn’t keep regular set hours. Johnson said he has enough demand for his tattoo skills that he works by appointment only. It’s only open when he is there. He said he does 5,000 to 7,000 tattoos a year.

• It’s probably the most successful business in Albert Lea where the only customer entrance is the back door. It might even be the only business establishment where customers cannot enter a front door. The business is at 115 S. Broadway. He used to rent out the front of the building, so the back became the entrance for The Chapel. The front is no longer rented, but the back remains the entryway. Now and then, people will tug at the front door, scratch their heads, then read the sign telling them to go around back.

• It’s no doubt the most creative business space. The walls are adorned with his paintings and his collections. He has in-the-package action figures ranging from “Planet of the Apes” to “Star Wars” to “Spawn.” There is a massive collection of toy hippos, whether plush toys or plastic figurines. There is a gun collection kept under lock and key. There is a pool table primarily used as a place to set items down. There are arcade games. There are remote-control toys, and the front room presently is being used to build a go-kart.

• It is the only business with a bird room. He has three macaws — Max, Ted and Millie — who dwell in the bird room. If people spot Johnson in public, he often has Max on his shoulder. Yes, just like a pirate.

• It’s earned respect considering it is a tattoo place. Nine tattoo shops have come and gone during the decade or so The Chapel has been open. Johnson said that when suspicious behavior is reported at other tattoo shops, it harms the reputation he values. He has to fend off questions about whether it happened at his place, which, of course, it did not. He also said he has given tattoos to police and medical staff, which he sees as an endorsement of his quality, safety and sanitariness.

Johnson grew up in Albert Lea. He is the son of Gilbert and Mary Johnson and has a sister named Heidi. He recalled moving 18 times as a child, to different places in town. Back then, kids couldn’t stay at the same school, so he would lose school friends and end up with time alone. So he drew.

He doesn’t lament the childhood.

“If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have this,” Johnson said.

Around the age of 18 he spent much of a summer at a tattoo shop in Albert Lea wanting to learn the trade. He finally convinced the artist to take him as an apprentice.

But then he left for the University of Minnesota and put his new skill on the back burner. He wanted to become an architect. He discovered the U of M was not on track to become computerized and that the architecture he was paying for would be obsolete when he hit the job market.

He changed majors. He was going to be a wildlife artist and majored in studio arts. He was told that wildlife painters were considered “illustrators” and not artists. He realized he didn’t need a degree to make art.

Johnson finished at the University of Minnesota with a degree in cultural studies. His degree has an emphasis in women’s studies, which furthered his writing skills. He has had a book of poetry published. It is called “Making Tracks: Hearing Voices and Finding My Way.”

He spent time in the Twin Cities painting murals for companies, doing an occasional tattoo on some odd jobs and became certified to teach.

He returned to Albert Lea at the age of 26 to teach at the high school. He taught forensic biology for about four years but the program was dropped in a round of school district cuts in the early 2000s.

So he bought the building at 115 S. Broadway and opened a coffee shop. It was called Gossip Coffee Shop. It didn’t last long.

“I wanted to hang out in my coffee shop, but I didn’t want to work there,” Johnson said.

He decided he would put his tattoo artistry to use and open a tattoo shop. He wanted a name that wouldn’t be intimidating — because many tattoo shops have scary names like “Satan’s Den.” One coffee shop customer suggested The Chapel, and it stuck. “The only place to decorate your temple” remains the slogan.

In fact, Johnson is certified by Freeborn County to marry people, which he does when people request. He said it is only fitting, considering the business name.

“Anymore, Gilbert and Chapel are synonymous. I go by both names,” he said.

And he paints. There is a huge mural on one wall of his tattoo shop of a comic book, “The Vault of Horror.” There wasn’t space to trace a projected image, so he drew the outline by hand.

For his canvas paintings, he only uses five colors: red, yellow, blue, white and black. Red, yellow and blue are primary colors, and if he needs to make other colors, he blends them on the canvas, not on the palette.

Johnson said he has been able to maintain the reputation of the tattoo shop with the following principles:

• Be patient, show respect and listen to people, whether they are getting a five-minute tattoo or a five-hour tattoo.

• Treat it as a business, be punctual, follow regulations to the tee, give paying customers what they expect and deserve.

• Show a willingness to fix problem tattoos people get from other artists.

• Acknowledge that tattoos are painful, explain what customers need to know before and after the ink is done, make the experience outside the pain itself as joyful as possible.

Johnson never advertises and said he gets business sheerly by word of mouth.

So what’s up with his crazy-looking shop — the birds, the guns, the collectibles and so forth?

“The shop is kind of consistent with who I am,” Johnson said. “I am kind of a kid at heart, and the shop reflects the positive addictions I have worked through in my life.”

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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