Behind the Lines

Southern Vermont’s preeminent tattoo artists share the secrets behind their success.


Tattoos by Death or Glory Tattoo.

A trip to a well-run professional tattoo studio is a truly remarkable experience. As the sounds of whirring tattoo machines hum in the background, a sense of electric excitement fills the room. Skilled artists crouch over their clients in a state of intense concentration, bringing their artistic visions to life with painstaking precision. Every carefully-drawn line of their indelible artworks strengthens their unbreakable bond of trust and camaraderie with their customers, which grows deeper with every subsequent return. Scattered throughout the towns and villages of Southern Vermont, a disparate band of talented tattooists preside over studios that are every bit as unique and diverse as their spellbinding creations. Their bold and beautiful handiwork serves as a profound testament to the power of human expression.

Death Or Glory Tattoo – Rutland, Vermont

On a quiet backstreet in Rutland’s downtown district, a passionate tattooist by the name of Travis Nutbrown holds court over a vibrant and inviting basement studio. A short
walk down a concrete stairwell leads to a brightly-lit shop with red walls and a
majestically-imposing black logo crest. A wide variety of specialty inks are prominently displayed next to a large red tattoo tool chest, which is plastered with colorful stickers. Burly, bearded, and heavily-tattooed, Nutbown is a powerful presence. Nutbrown is not by any means a loquacious speaker, but he openly shares about his love for his work when prompted, and his eyes light up with animated wonder when he discusses his craft.

“I love to work with green, black and red ink to make horror-style tattoos and
traditional-style tattoos,” says Nutbrown. “A lot of my best work is in those styles, and I try to reflect my personal artistic preferences through the aesthetic choices I’ve made here in the studio as well.”
Nutbrown adds that in addition to
traditional and horror tattoos, he also loves to tattoo in the “Trash Polka” style, which integrates elements of surrealism and photorealism with calligraphic text and graphics. “It really gives me a chance to demonstrate and improve my skills, because it incorporates a lot of precise line work, shading, and perspective in the drawings,” notes Nutbrown. “Every large and complicated piece that I do brings its own special set of specific challenges, but I like to think that I don’t really grow as an artist unless I push myself out of my comfort zone and try new things.”

Growing up, Nutbrown split his time between Pittsfield, Massachusetts and Bennington, Vermont. As his interest in tattooing began to grow in his late
adolescence, he apprenticed at several tattoo shops throughout the Upstate New York region. As Nutbrown continued to build his artistic portfolio, he ended up working for several other shops in
Southern Vermont before moving to
Rutland for a much-needed change of scene. Nutbrown says that his relocation to Rutland was a pivotal decision that allowed him to start fresh and establish a respected name for himself in the local tattoo community. Nutbrown opened Death or Glory in 2016, and has steadily grown his business over the course of the past five years. As his clientele list continues to expand, he remains grateful to the loyal clients who have stuck with him throughout the course of his artistic journey.

“I’ve got a big roster of clients that come to visit me from out of state,” says
Nutbrown. “They come from places like New York, New Hampshire, and even as far off as Florida to visit my shop. I like to think that when you put your time, heart and energy into your work and your
interactions with your customers, it pays off.”

As an independently-operating artist who has built his operation from the ground up, Nutbrown is proud to be a self-sufficient business owner who lives his life on his own terms. His two most prominent facial and cranial tattoos spell out two phrases in graphic text that speak volumes about his strongly-held personal values: “Self Made” and “Passion Over Profit.”

“I didn’t get into this business to follow trends or get famous on social media,” says Nutbrown. “I got in this business
because this is what I love to do. I’ve worked hard to get myself to where I am, and I’ve managed to build this business into what it is today without compromising on any of my ideals.” Nutbrown says that creating a laid-back and social atmosphere is essential in order to ensure that his clients enjoy their time there. “I start off by playing some music that has great
energy,” says Nutbrown. “I usually play classic rock like Pantera or old-school
hip-hop like Wu-Tang Clan, depending on the preference of my clients. After that, I start a conversation, and take some time to get to know the people who I’m
tattooing. The more I know about them, the better I can serve them as an artist. I don’t want my customers to have a good
experience. I want them to have a great experience that keeps them coming back.”

According to Nutbrown, one of the most fulfilling experiences that he has had over the course of his career was when a client asked him to tattoo a poignant picture that paid tribute to her late father. “A girl came in here not too long ago. Her dad
passed away a little over a week before she came. She told me that she wanted a picture of a father and a daughter holding hands and walking into the sunset together across the water. After I finished the
tattoo, she told me that it was exactly what she wanted. It really touched my heart when I heard that, because I could tell that she felt a true sense of connection to the tattoo that would last for the rest of her life. The way I see it, the best tattoos are made with love and carry deep meaning. It’s up to me to bring that sense of love to life for my clients through my work, and I’m grateful that I get to do that almost every day that I come into my shop.”

Strange Brew Tattoo –
Brattleboro, Vermont

As Jon Whitman stands next to a
transparent chest of treasured tattoo memorabilia in the large and open
reception room of Strange Brew Tattoo, there is a tinge of wistful nostalgia in his voice as he waxes poetic about the golden age of American traditional tattooing. He opens up the glass casing and holds a shimmering belt buckle in his hand, pausing to reflect as it glints and
glimmers. “You’re not going to see this every day,” he says. He explains that the belt buckle (along with a custom-made elk pouch and several other priceless items) belonged to legendary tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle. Tuttle was best known for serving as the go-to tattooist for internationally famous rock stars during the 1960s and 1970s, such as Janis Joplin, Jim Croce and the Allman Brothers.

As the son of a celebrated illustrator,
Whitman was blessed with an inborn gift for visual art. His father was a masterful and prolific comics artist named Maurice
Whitman, whose illustrations graced the pages of many classic comics published by
Charlton Comics and DC Comics.
According to Jon Whitman, his father went out of his way to encourage his love for tattooing. “He always told me to stay away from the comics industry because it wasn’t a very profitable gig,” Whitman recalls with a sly smile. Whitman fell in love with the tattoo business when he got his first tattoo at “Big Joe” Kaplan’s studio. The tattoo was done by celebrated tattooist Zeke Owen. Whitman remained in close contact with Owen throughout the course of his career until he passed away in 2019, and credits Owen, Louie Lombi, Paul Rogers, Huck Spaulding, and Spider Webb with directly influencing his creative development.

Whitman got his initial start in the tattoo trade through an apprenticeship with
Peggy Spargo at the Illustrated Man in New Haven, Connecticut. “I’m lucky to say that I got trained by the best,” says Whitman. “In addition to my apprenticeship with Peggy Spargo, Zeke Owen taught me all about the mechanics of tattoo machines. I also learned a lot from Paul Rogers.”

After perfecting his craft and establishing himself as a highly-rated American
traditional tattooist, Whitman opened several studios in Connecticut before
moving to Vermont. It was then that
Whitman came into contact with a
talented young Southern Vermont-based artist named Rachel Brown. Whitman took Brown on as an apprentice, and they opened up Strange Brew Tattoo together in 2011. Whitman found great fulfillment in comprehensively schooling Brown in the fundamentals of classic American traditional tattooing. “A lot of younger artists don’t have the same respect for the origins and roots of the craft of tattooing that Rachel has,” notes Whitman. “It’s been great to watch her grow as an artist over the course of the past decade, and it makes me very happy to know that she’s going to be carrying the tradition forward through to the next generation with her excellent work.”

Brown spent her early years in Arlington, Vermont, and was accepted into the
prestigious Parsons School of Design at the New School in New York City
after graduating from high school. Upon arriving at Parsons, an overpowering urge to pursue in a career in the tattoo trade prompted Brown to withdraw from her studies and return to Vermont, where she formed her partnership with Whitman. In addition to American traditional tattoos, Brown enjoys expressing herself through watercolor-style tattoos. According to Brown, the watercolor style allows her to combine her two separate skill sets as a tattooist and a painter. “Watercolor-style tattoos are typically rooted in black lines,” explains Brown. “Color is then added in with a painterly splashing effect,
resemblant of a watercolor brushstroke. It takes a certain amount of trust on the part of the client, because a lot of the color details are improvised as you go. It’s a very
beautiful and free-form style.”

Brown advises all of her clients who are coming in for their first tattoos to do some preliminary research and planning before their appointments. “We are happy to talk with clients and help them through the process, but it’s always good to come into a tattoo shop with an attitude of decisive commitment. Whenever you’re consulting with the artist who is going to be doing your tattoo, it’s best to speak up,
communicate clearly, and be confident and open when sharing about what it is that you want.”

Whitman cautions that for anyone coming into a tattoo shop, there are certain terms that you definitely want to avoid. “If I had to isolate two things that irk me more than anything else, it’s when people use the words ‘gun’ and ‘industry’ when referring to tattoo machines and the tattoo trade. It’s important to use the word ‘machine,’ because it legitimizes the craft, and it’s important to use the word ‘trade,’ because it pays homage to the early stages of the tattoo scene, before the commercial expansion took it far away from its original roots.”

Brown encourages emergent tattoo artists looking to get involved in the industry to spend some time working with a skilled artist as an apprentice. “There are many different schools of tattooing that each have their own specific conventions and nuances, but the most important thing when you’re starting out is that you don’t want to form any bad habits. You need to find someone to apprentice with who will teach you the right way to tattoo, starting with line work, and building up to the finer subtleties of shading, details and color packing. That kind of guidance isn’t
something that you get from yourself at home. I learned a lot through my
apprenticeship with Jon, and it gave me all of the tools that I needed to succeed
in my career as a tattoo artist.”

FALL Body Blend Studio –
Shaftsbury, Vermont

Walking into the front foyer of Body Blend Studio, there is a tangible feeling of ease and comfort in the air. Warm light gently illuminates pastel-colored walls, several of which are adorned with rows of framed tattoo “flash” art posters from a range of different stylistic disciplines.

Ever since Larry Ross first opened Body Blend Studio in 1999, the business has always been a family affair at its essence. After working for several decades as a well-respected local tradesman, Ross made the decision to put his career on hold to pursue his emergent passion for tattooing in the mid-1990s. “My father was completely self-taught,” says Ross’s daughter Chelsea Danis, who is one of the four talented tattoo artists who currently comprise the Body Blend tattoo team. “He attended several seminars and had a few helpful mentors who taught him some valuable things, but he really took it upon himself to bring his craft to the level that it’s at today.”

Danis adds that as her father’s tattooing skills progressed, he also began making a line of custom tattoo machines. Today, his machines are highly sought after by tattoo artists all around the globe. “Each machine that my father makes is
completely unique,” notes Danis. “He is very detail-oriented and imaginative in his building process for the machines. Each piece stands on its own artistically, and has a truly rustic and timeless quality.”

Larry Ross’s custom tattoo machine.

Before moving to its current location on Church Street in Shaftsbury after two decades of successful business, the Body Blend studio was originally housed in the basement of Ross’s private residence. Over time, word about Body Blend spread throughout the town and the local community. The business grew organically from that point onward. As Larry Ross’s children Chelsea, Ryan and Ray came of age, they became part of the family
business under Larry’s tutelage and sharpened their skills through a series of consecutive apprenticeships. Today,
Chelsea, Ryan and Ray all work at Body Blend as full-time tattoo artists. Their mother, Cindy Ross, also started working as a body piercing specialist in 2002. “My
mother is very skilled in all manners of body piercing,” says Danis. “As a result, we can provide nearly every possible type of body piercing service here at Body Blend.”

Danis recalls that her penchant for visual art emerged at an early age. “Art has definitely played an important role in my personal development,” says Danis. “I’ve been tattooing here for about nine years now. As a young kid, I was always drawing and sketching. I never thought that I would become a tattoo artist when I was younger, but it ended up being a perfect outlet for my creative inclinations.”

Danis’ brother, Ryan Ross, was also a prodigious artist in his earlier years. Ross believes that the artistically-conducive atmosphere in the Ross household served as an ideal launching pad for his expressive passions. “Our father Larry’s grandfather was an amazingly talented painter, so art really runs in our family,” says Ryan Ross. “Growing up, we followed in the same footsteps. We were always interested in art. We would draw and paint in our free time, and we also entered art competitions. There wasn’t really a true ‘end-game’ to it. We were just doing it for the love of it. I like to think that same spirit translates into our tattooing work today.”

Three views of a sleeve tattoo by Chelsea Danis.

Each of the siblings that work at Body Blend has their own respective set of skills and preferences, but they nevertheless make an effort to keep an open mind in regards to their work. “I like to work in
every style, because that allows me to work with a wider range of clients,” says Danis. Ross adds that given the fact that Body Blend is situated in a sparsely-populated region of Southern Vermont, it’s more advantageous to be a well-rounded tattooist rather than a specialized one. “We try to accommodate our clients’ requests whenever possible,” says Ross. “Sometimes they’ll come in with an idea that we don’t think is going to work, such as small lettering that is going to close in on itself and become unreadable over time. We like to work with our customers collaboratively and consult with them about how to make their tattoos even
better. It’s a process that depends
entirely on open communication. You have to know how to read people and use your knowledge to guide them appropriately.”

Although Body Blend’s artists pride
themselves in their artistic flexibility, they both feel most at home when operating within the boundaries of certain specific niches. Danis says that her father’s primary focus is photorealist tattoos, while her brother Ray is a meticulous, versatile and dedicated artist who is proficient in a wide range of styles. According to Danis, her ultimate passion lies in combining
contrasting aesthetics together in novel and innovative ways. She elaborates: “I like to do neo-traditional tattoos that incorporate vivid colors. I like to mix different styles and conventions in with my neo-traditional works, such as ornamental elements. I really love pieces that require seamless line work and other complex and intricate components, such as mandala pieces with dot work around them.”

Ross enjoys working with black and grey inks and also savors every chance that he gets to create pieces that incorporate iconic pop culture characters in dark and riveting ways. “The problem with the type of tattoos that I love to do is that most people don’t want to come in and get a tattoo of Darth Vader on them,” notes Ross. “I tend to favor dark, ominous and evocative tattoos. If I had to summarize what would be a hypothetical ‘dream
project’ for me, it would most likely be a dark-ink tattoo of a superhero, anime
character, or something in that realm.”

In addition to her tattoo work, Danis also offers “permanent makeup” services to her clients, which include tattooed
eyeliner, eyebrow fill-ins, lip-liner and full lip color. “Sometimes clients whose
eyebrows are receding will want me to touch them up with ink to give them the appearance of a fuller brow. I’m happy to be able to provide that service here, among others. Permanent makeup isn’t meant to make someone look like they have a full set of makeup on their face. The aim is to make it look as natural and subtle as possible.”

Although Danis and Ross are
accomplished tattooists with over a
decade of collective experience, they both possess a calm and approachable
demeanor. The humble and reserved
manner with which they carry themselves is especially commendable considering the sterling reputation that they have
garnered throughout the Southern
Vermont community – and the
burgeoning popularity of their business. Those interested in booking a tattoo
appointment at Body Blend Studio would be wise to make a reservation well in
advance, as the services of their artists are in incredibly high demand. “We like to stay busy here, but we always welcome new clients,” says Danis. “One of the best things about this job is getting to know new people and bringing their dreams into reality through our work. It doesn’t get any better than that.”



Death Or Glory Tattoo

Strange Brew Tattoo

Body Blend Studio