Studio Hours:Mon-Fri: 9:00am-6:00pm
Address:834 S Military Avenue
Green Bay Wi 54304
Phone: (920) 499-7425 (RICK)
By Rev. Chad Wells ITA
Frequently now we hear stories about the wunderkind who drops out of art school to become and overnight ink-slingin sensation. far fewer these days are stories of apprenticing in the school of hard knocks where scarred knuckles, fast bikes, and faster women are the rule of the day. Rick Harnowski's story is a classic of old-school tattooing that harkens back to those carefree, happy days.
Now 56 years old, his story stars in the old country. "I was born in Glowgow, Poland in 1952 and came to the U.S. in 1963 at the age of 11," Harnowski said. "My mom was Czech and my dad was Lithuanian. In Europe they were common laborers, and in the U.S. they were both factory workers. In Poland, we grew our own food and raised chickens just to make ends meet. We never really had toys so we made up games with sticks and other things we would find.
"We entered the U.S. the day after the Kennedy assassination," he said. "I remember everyone was crying on the ship because JFK was so famous and did so many good things. When we made it to Green Bay, Wisconsin, i was Put right into the school system. i had to learn English on my own. Nothing was ever handed to you back then, and because I couldn't speak very well and was different, I was teased. So, naturally, the rough crowd accepted me. these were the people that i would eventualy start to tattoo."
Rick was, in fact, custom made for the tattoo lifestyle. "When I was 3 years old, I remeber sitting with my dad and his friends listening to Radio Free Europe," Harnowski said. "One of dad's friends had a tattoo of a pin-up girl on his forearm,
and I was fascinated. I eventually got a similar pin-up girl on my forearm, I always enjoyed art. I won an art contest in middle school with a pencil portrait of lincoln."
Later, Harnowski won three years of art instruction. This, he said, was "prior to my years with the college of knowledge in streets of Chicago-the best school to learn about the ins and outs of life.
"In the late 60's, I met a carnival artist who introduced me to the electric tattoo machine," Harnowski said. "Prior to that i was doing tattooing by hand. I use to skip school and go to the quarry with my friends and we would swim and drink and hang out. The carnival artist heard that the tattooed people hung out at the quarry and that is where we met. He introduced himself and said he was a professional tattooist and would give me a real tattoo. We went to his one-bedroom apartment in downtown Green Bay and he pulled an old shoebox from under the bed. It had two tattoo machines in it with the needles attached including dried-on ink. He had a few plastic stencils that still had blood and graphite on them from a previous customer. I still have the tattoo on my right inside forearm of an eagle grasping a snake. I ended up stealing his catalog and that is where I got my start with the electric machines. I did my first electric tattoo on myself. It was a cross with my name in it with a snake wrapped around it.
"That tattoo was also my first hard lesson," he said. "I tattooed it with my arm bent and when I finished it and let my arm down it was crooked. After that I was tattooing a lot of the biker crowd, riding back and forth from Green Bay to Chicago. I would tattoo in the clubhouses around the clock while all the bikers were partying downstairs."
A decade after the Summer of Love, he was in the midst of a burnout. Cupid's arrow rescued him, and put an end to his tenure as a tattoo tramp. "in the late '70s, I me my wife Barb and stepped away from that crowd," said Harnowski. "I wanted to pursue the art further and reach other people with the art of tattooing and make it more mainstream. Along with that came public safety concerns. After receiving the tattoo from the carnival artist, I was turned off by the uncleanliness of it. His fingers were stained black from tattooing, and I remember him complaining that he could never get them clean. No one really used gloves back then and people were not concerned with health safety at the time. I did not wear gloves when I first started. It was when I opened my first studio in 1980 that my wife made me aware of health concerns and blood-borne pathogens. She worked at a health care center. I then approached the city of Green Bay for a tattoo license and they told me there was no such thing."
Harnowski became a crusader for regulation. He looked at guidelines other cities had and brought it home to Green Bay. "I wrote up a proposal for rules, regulations and regular health department inspections and approached the city to propose licensing and regulation," he said. "I then pursued getting it expanded to the county level and when that succeeded other cities followed suit."
At the state level, Harnowski encountered heavy opposition from other artists. "I had to explain to them that I was pushing public safety, and with a license on the wall the general public would be safer and feel more comfortable," he said. "I fought for state licensing for about 10 years before it finally went through."
Harnowski has tattooed a clientele of epic proportions. "I tattoo a lot of the Green Bay Packers players," he said, "Harley -Davidson executives, band members, doctors, lawyers, police, firefighters, teachers, white collar, blue collar, everything from 18 to 80 years old."
If you think he has his hands full tattooing proballers and shot callers in the land of cheese, you don't even know the half of it. Harnowski helms the International Tattoo Convention that convenes every other January in Green Bay. The 2009 convention will be his 13th edition.
"The convention this year will focus on the history of tattooing," Harnowski said. The history theme comes from the tattooist's reverence and respect for tattooing's rich past.
"Tattooing is different now. Some of the younger generation that are self-proclaimed master artists need to remember the guys that paved the way for the industry. Respect is earned," he said.
View some of Ricks work here.
Rick Harnowski is a strong supporter of the Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center in Berkeley, California. The PRTRC is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of tattoo history and the creation of a permanent collection of tattoo information and artifacts.
For information on the history of tattooing or the Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center, visit the Tattoo Archive online or write to:
2804 San Pablo Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94702-2204