White Whale Tattoo’s Pointillist Style Is, Well, On Point

We talk with owner and artist Jeremiah Griswold about prison tattoos, needle phobias, and homemade tattoo machines.

With a name like White Whale, you must be a Moby Dick fan.
I had a children’s version of Moby Dick that I loved. When I did my undergraduate work in English literature at the University of Cincinnati, I read it for the first time in a class with professor Tom Leclair. Later, when I did my master’s degree in Seattle at Bakke Graduate University, a global program that I got connected with after serving in gang prisons in Guatemala, I read it again with more of a theology perspective. The book has always been an anchor for me—pun intended. I’ve collected a lot of vintage harpoons to decorate the shop, but we’re very anti-whaling.

 

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What drew you to Guatemala?

In 2006 I sold my house and moved to Guatemala. I needed a change and to clear my head. So I sort of created my own sabbatical. I volunteered in a Guatemalan city called La Limonada, [which is] where I worked in gang prisons. People who wanted to get out of the gangs needed to cover up their [gang-related] tattoos. I recruited a tattoo artist in Cincinnati who came to help; I designed the tattoos and he did the tattooing. He then offered me a chance to apprentice with him. Part of the mission of White Whale is to return to Guatemala to do more cover ups—tattooists without borders.

 

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Did you really build your own tattoo machine? I didn’t know a person could do that.

The gang members in Guatemala built their own machines using a Walkman motor, guitar strings for needles, and inks made from ash. The coils on my machine are wrapped in Guatemalan paper currency. I also use Quetzals coins; I drilled a hole through them to create a washer. Nowadays anyone can order a machine from Amazon and start tattooing, but that’s generally frowned upon. I had the good fortune to have a traditional apprenticeship. It’s kind of a lost art. If my machine breaks, I can fix it.

What’s your trademark look?
Black inks, lines, and dots tend to hold their integrity better. For this reason I primarily work in black, [in a] woodcut and pointillist style.

 

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If I’m a tattoo newbie, what can I expect when I walk into White Whale?

I was really determined to create a space that feels like a salon. Anything invasive with a needle, like a shot, makes me uneasy, and [as a tattooist] I’m pretty light handed. A tattoo here tends to be a very memorable experience; it can be very therapeutic, kind of like acupuncture.

White Whale Tattoo, by appointment only, 650 E. McMillan St., Walnut Hills, whitewhaletattoo.com

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