For Dana Brunson, tattooing isn’t a hobby—it’s been his lifestyle for almost 45 years. Before Brunson opened his shop, Tattoo Designs by Dana, in 1986, Cincinnati’s tattoo scene was almost nonexistent. Cincinnati Magazine sits down with Brunson in his vintage-style tattoo parlor to discuss tattoo subculture, our scene, and how he got hooked on the art form in 1971.
CM: What was Cincinnati’s tattoo scene like when you started?
Brunson: I moved over here and bought in with a guy at 9th and Race downtown. And it was the only shop in Cincinnati, called House of Tattoo. We were it. There just weren’t enough people getting tattooed. It was the sports figures and the musicians that made tattooing popular; it had nothing to do with me. I was just there for the ride, which was a good ride. I was right at the transition from old to new. They called it the tattoo renaissance—it was really changing.
CM: How did Designs by Dana come about after that?
Brunson: I was out here looking at a comic shop with my son when he was little, and I saw this building and thought Wow, let’s see if I can get it! But tattooing was almost always in a downtown location back in those days, usually in a sleazier part of town. Nobody was really out in suburbs or malls. Nothing like it is now.
CM: How do you think this shop has helped Northside grow into the eclectic neighborhood that it is today?
Brunson: I don’t know if this shop helped, but when I moved here, Melt was an old, beat-up, used furniture store. The coffee shop down the street was an old, beat-up, used furniture store… about every shop over here was a beat-up, old furniture store.
CM: Do you think your shop has had any influence on the voice that the city has now?
Brunson: I’d like to think it did. I made it nice as soon as I got here and tried to always run a nice looking, legitimate business. Nice signs, clean atmosphere as opposed to… I mean, Melt was just a terrible furniture store.
CM: How do you think the evolution of Northside has helped your business grow?
Brunson: I was kind of word-of-mouth, and tattooing was a little more subculture. But people would find you. Hamilton Avenue is a busy-ass street—thousands of cars every day. We’ve always had a good rap on TV and in magazines like City Beat and Cincinnati Magazine.
CM: Not very many people can say that they tattoo alongside their wife and their son. What’s that like for you?
Brunson: When my wife first learned, my buddy down at Sunset Scripts said, “you ought to teach Dot!” He saw the writing on the wall, tattooing as getting popular. I’m like, well, I don’t want to teach my wife; this is my thing! My son grew up around it; he’s 40. He’s tattooed 22 years. I’ve known my wife since she was 14, married her when she was 16. I was 19 and going to Vietnam. We’re a real tight family; I’ve been blessed.
CM: What is special about your shop?
Brunson: It’s a real family-oriented business. I trust everybody that works for me. Customers are great—we do the bikers out front, we do heart specialists and PhDs. They don’t know if I’m Dana or who’s Dana; they just hear it’s a good place to go. And it is a good place to go.
CM: So you’ve been tattooing for 44 years now?
Brunson: 45 in September!
CM: That’s an incredibly long time. What got you interested in tattooing in the first place?
Brunson: A twist in the road. I came back from Vietnam, had a year and a half to do at Fort Bragg, went with a guy and watched him get a tattoo and I thought Wow, that’s weird… So I started asking how you learned, and I ended up as an apprentice there. I didn’t even want a tattoo. I just thought it’d be interesting. But when I learned, it was almost like you could’ve been a witch doctor and been just about as popular. There just weren’t any. There were two at Fort Bragg, the biggest Army base in the United States. And now there’s probably a couple dozen. I was the only shop in town in Cincinnati, and now there’s 50 or 60.
CM: You have a lot of vintage tattoo memorabilia.
Brunson: I’ve got one of the bigger collections in the United States; it started out as just gifts from people, but now you just go on eBay or go out and find it yourself. A few years ago I bought a box of window shades that you pull down and paint on. This guy put that whole kit up in 1938 in Kansas, and I went over and bought it from his family. He quit tattooing in 1938 and stored that box in the basement. We drove all the way to Kansas City because they’re really rare and really fragile. To find something that hasn’t been touched since then was pretty good. And I’ve had a couple good hits like that, but a lot of it was just given to me along the way.
Click through our gallery to see examples from Brunson’s collection:
CM: If there’s one thing you’d like everyone to know about your shop, what would it be?
Brunson: We’re the oldest, longest-running shop in Cincinnati. Most people don’t love [tattooing] anymore,; it’s all about making a dollar. But we actually love tattooing. That’s the difference. We aren’t a flash in the pan, we didn’t jump on the bandwagon—we drove the bandwagon. The rest of ’em jumped on it.