GJ artist’s unique tattoo style turning heads
“We talked about it kind of wrapping around your arm, right?” Justin Nordine asks Tish Collins, a yellow Sharpie poised just above the skin of her left forearm.
Tish says yes and Justin pulls the pen back, staring for several beats at the canvas of blank skin beneath the serene face of Guanyin, Buddhist goddess of mercy, on Tish’s upper arm. Justin created the goddess tattoo several months ago.
“I’m going to have you stand,” he says, “and hold your arm naturally at your side.”
Delicate blue veins pulse beneath the white skin of her inner arm, and Justin touches it with gentle fingers.
“I feel like it’s flowing this way,” he says, gesturing a downward curl with his index finger, indicating an envisioned fall of crimson poppies beneath Guanyin’s feet. Tish nods her agreement, and after placing a few stencils, after sketching lines and background color with blue and yellow Sharpies, after outlining it with an inkless needle, finally: the first drop of color, this day, beneath her skin.
“I trust him,” says Tish, herself an artist, and Justin’s eyes don’t waver from the spot on her arm where his needle traces unconventional lines, broken on purpose, that in some places will allow color to spill and in others will thickly contain it.
In the end, two hours later, with Guanyin in her corona of scarlet maple leaves presiding over a tumble of poppies down Tish’s arm, there could be no doubt that Justin created the tattoo. Fractal color and shape, the indication of brush strokes and a watercolor wash of hues, vibrance and brokenness coming together, ultimately, in beauty — people are beginning to come from around the country and around the world for Justin’s tattoo needle on their skin.
“What he’s doing is fine art,” Tish says, “and that’s something that’s not really been done before in tattoos.”
Justin elaborates. “For a couple of years I tried to be like certain artists, I tried to expand on their style. When I got into it I thought I’d be doing a very cartoony style. But then I thought, I wouldn’t do this in my painting, so I got to a point where I just said I’m going to do me.”
A Grand Junction native, Justin, 33, has been making art his whole life. His great-grandmother has drawings he did as an 18-month-old, squiggles and swirls of nothing in particular but made with crayon clutched firmly in hand.
“He comes by it naturally,” says his father, Grand Junction Police Cmdr. Mike Nordine. “His mother’s very artistic, and even when he was really young he was always drawing.”
As a third-grader at Tope Elementary School he won an art award and was consistently drawn to the arts through school, playing the saxophone in jazz band at Grand Junction High School.
He says he doesn’t remember when he first became aware of tattoos, or even when he first knew he wanted one. It was more, “oh, I’m going to go get a tattoo today,” he recalls.
He was 18, so his parents couldn’t stop him. He came home with a black tribal design on the back of his left calf, wrapped around the Japanese Kanji character for “artist.”
“You’ll have to ask him what I said when he came home with that,” Mike Nordine says.
“He said it probably says ‘dumb white boy’,” Justin remembers in laughing annoyance. He didn’t then and doesn’t now speak or write Japanese, “but that’s what was cool then.”
The act of getting a tattoo, how the finished result looked on his skin, spoke to him. Tattoos always have been a powerful expression for him, a way for what’s bubbling inside to rise to the surface and declare itself.
As a student at what was then Mesa State College, from which he graduated with a degree in art in 2002, he focused on painting, however. Afterward, he moved to Denver, where he taught art for five years at an alternative high school.
As part of the school’s curriculum, teachers created weeklong intensive courses on specialized subjects. Justin created a history of tattooing course, taking the students to tattoo studios and laser removal clinics, asking them to create a prototype for a studio. They named it The Raw Canvas, and Justin started thinking: He loved art, he loved tattoos, should he try?
His wife, Shauna, a doctor of pharmacy, gave him a needed nudge and six years ago, he became a tattoo artist. He is self-taught.
At first, he practiced on oranges and fake skin, reading everything he could get his hands on, studying art he admired, finally summoning the courage to create his first tattoo on his friend’s arm. It was a simple black Kanji character “and I was very nervous,” Justin says. “Those first tattoos I did, I felt really bad because I knew I was hurting them. It’s an uncomfortable thing getting a tattoo and I really internalized it. But eventually you have to let that go.”
That first tattoo turned out well, so he kept going, asking people if they’d let him give them a free tattoo because he needed the practice.
Five years ago, he and Shauna moved back to Grand Junction, where he opened a 500 square foot shop at Eighth Street and Rood Avenue. He was still heading in a New School direction, doing cartoony pieces that referenced other artists more than reflected his own perspective.
Then one day, a friend asked him to create a Van Gogh-inspired piece with brilliant colors and brush stroke elements. Van Gogh is one of Justin’s inspirations and that piece made him think: “Why can’t I do this? This is so much more me.”
He put out a call for volunteers who would let him tattoo abstract designs that he’d done in watercolor on their skin. Fifty people responded, so he had to do a sort of lottery to whittle that number down to eight. What he learned doing those tattoos was a revelation, how he could layer color to achieve a brush stroke effect, how different types of needles help him create the lightness of watercolor, how he could translate the fractured chiaroscuro of his paintings onto skin.
The style for which he is known looks very much like watercolor on skin, but ironically, he doesn’t enjoy painting watercolor — “you can’t control water,” he explains. But it’s those broken lines, those spills and swirls of color that define his work, whether it’s a simple sweep of color behind a more traditional design or a fractal dragonfly in shades of purple and blue.
That one he recently created on the left thigh of Lori Simmons, a Fruita mother of five who saw his work on the Internet and fell in love.
“It’s just so beautiful, it’s not like anything I’d ever seen,” she explains. She had to wait — Justin is now scheduled through August — but didn’t mind because her April 19 appointment resulted in art that she carries with her always.
As a young artist, Justin says, he didn’t want to sell his paintings at first because he was so emotionally invested in them and had a hard time letting go. But now, his art walks out the door, so he had to learn to let it. The art, he says, is the thing.
And it’s because art is life — his life — that he created The Raw Canvas, the name an homage to his students, in June 2010. Carving a tiny gallery into his 500 square foot space, he envisioned a place for emerging artists to display their work, edgy and avant-garde pieces that reminded him of the urban sensibility he loves.
In November 2012, The Raw Canvas moved to its current space at 507 Main St., a combination fine art and tattoo gallery where as many as 20 fine artists display at any one time, and where tattoo artists — including guest artists — create their work.
“I wanted the space to be really open and light with big windows so people can see what we do, so there’s no secrecy,” he explains.
While tattoos have, over the past decade or so, gained in popularity and prominence, “there’s still certain stereotypes,” Justin says. “We’re working on showing that it’s not what you may think, that it can be fine art.”
To that end, Justin has used social media to promote the tattoo studio and art gallery, posting pictures of finished pieces, promoting art events, building an art community. In April, he attended the Chicago Tattoo Convention, his first national convention, to learn and gain exposure. One of the pieces he created there won third place for medium female color.
“He’s really becoming known because he’s such an amazing artist,” says Wendy Gill, manager of The Raw Canvas. “People are realizing that what he’s doing is unlike anything else out there.”
And also, she adds, they like that he’s a regular guy — with full sleeves of tattoos, sure, but he goes home and gives his kids Mallory, 4, and Greyson, 3, their baths, he hikes, he’s close to his family, he’ll shoot straight with someone when he thinks a tattoo might not look good.
“He’s the one I want putting art on my skin,” Tish says, as the tattoo machine thrums, and slowly, beautifully, the poppies drift in watercolor trails down her arm.
For information, go to facebook.com/artbyjustin, justinnordine.net or facebook.com/therawcanvas.