Tattoo Ink Got Under Justin Turkus' Skin
After graduation, the political science major’s passion for art led him down an unorthodox path.
The first time they operate a tattoo machine, aspiring tattoo artists often use synthetic skin, pigskin, or even citrus peels as their canvas. Justin Turkus ’08 preferred to practice on himself.
“Thighs and ankles are the easiest places to start,” says Turkus, who began by inking a utility pole and power lines above his left knee.
Turkus earned a political science degree at Haverford but took many art classes along the way, and after graduation he sought a career that satisfied his need to create. A friend tipped him off to an apprenticeship opportunity at a tattoo shop in West Philadelphia, and a tattoo artist was born—gradually.
“For eight months or so, it was a lot of cleaning, watching, listening, and drawing, and no tattooing at all,” he says. Slowly, his mentors allowed him to use their equipment on himself, then on them, then on his friends. He started to take paying clients almost halfway through his three-year apprenticeship, which culminated with his artist’s licensure in winter 2013.
Since then, Turkus has become a highly sought-after tattoo professional with a loyal following and a rapidly growing waitlist. He works in a variety of styles but specializes in lettering and fine-line black and gray tattoos. Turkus offers what he calls “holistic tattooing,” using inks and pigments that are vegan and nontoxic, and giving close attention to the client’s experience, from the planning and design phase through the aftercare and healing processes. Beyond just decoration, Turkus sees tattooing as a potentially profound and meaningful act. “All of our actions impact and define who we are,” he writes in a statement on his website. “With a tattoo, one has the opportunity to actively and deliberately change her or his body with art. We witness an almost instantaneous transformation, the result of which may help you become the person you want to be.”
While there still may be some stereotypes about serious tattoo enthusiasts, Turkus brushes them aside, observing that within the industry, tattoo artists are a diverse lot who have mastered a challenging and technical medium. “Different people have different perceptions of tattoos, often due to generational or cultural differences,” he says. “The opportunity there is when people are exposed to the potential of the art form—when they see a really well-done piece—they often tell me they weren’t aware it was possible to make tattoos look like that.”
Turkus also frequently pursues non-tattoo projects involving calligraphy and graphic design, crafting things like brand logos, business signage, and album covers—but working at Frequency Tattoo Company in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia consumes most of his days. Clients seeking large pieces usually sit for two to three hours at a time, although some stay for longer sessions. (Regardless of a tattoo’s complexity, Turkus’ preparation ritual includes “coffee, a deep breath, and a few moments of meditation.”)
One of his repeat clients? Sister Sarah Turkus ’10, an urban farmer in Providence, R.I., and organizer for The Young Farmer Network. He has tattooed her on three “profound and nerve-wracking” occasions.
“Sarah is a powerful and wise woman, and when I tattooed her, my senses were a bit heightened,” he says. “Each time, I took an extra moment of meditation beforehand, got super focused, and felt gratitude that we could share such a deep experience.”