PORTLAND — After graduating from Portland High School last year, Ella Coose told her parents, “I don’t want to waste your money and go to college; I don’t know what I want to do yet.”
Coose, 18, decided to take the time to figure a few things out and, in doing so, she has found what might be her calling: being a tattoo artist.
In November Coose started an apprenticeship under Marut Sinakhom, aka “Lucky,” the owner of Lucky’s Tattoo Co. at 102 Exchange St. Two weeks ago, she began tattooing clients (the first tattoo she made was on herself).
“Right now I’m only tattooing people who love me unconditionally; not because I’m afraid of giving them a bad tattoo, but because it’s important for me to be comfortable with them, and them to be comfortable with me,” Coose said, as she painted henna on repeat client Miranda Dawson.
Henna, a flowering plant that’s been used for centuries to dye skin, fabric, and hair, is serving as a stepping-stone for Coose to become a licensed tattoo artist.
“This is my new addiction,” Dawson said as Coose swirled henna on her arm, “and I want her to give me a tattoo when she’s ready.”
Besides having the skin as a three-dimensional canvas, and connecting to another person, henna work and tattoo technique have almost nothing in common. “But it’s still what gave me the confidence to approach Lucky and ask for an apprenticeship,” Coose said. “People were saying ‘I would get this tattooed on me,’ referring to my henna work.”
Despite Coose’s natural talent as an artist, there’s a big leap between temporary paint and permanent ink. Lucky, Coose’s teacher, is the first to remind her of that.
“When you’re a great artist, and you want to tattoo, it’s like knowing you can run a four-minute mile, but you have cement shoes on,” he explained. “Right out of the gate you want to be able to tattoo as well as you can draw, but it’s not possible.”
Coose said Lucky looks at her drawings and tells her how to make them a craft. “He looks at them from a tradesman’s point of view,” she said of her mentor, who has been tattooing for 26 years.
“I looked at her work, and I saw that she really wanted to do it,” Lucky said. He pointed to a framed drawing on the wall, which Coose created during her interview with him, and said, “This piece of artwork got more attention than any of the artists in the shop on the day she drew it. She outshone us all.”
Apprenticeship under Lucky means constant learning for Coose, who says she “knows nothing” about tattooing. From the machinery, to shading, to drawing, to sketching and developing a thick skin for sticking needles in people, there is endless knowledge to be acquired.
“I’m still learning every day,” Lucky said of his own journey.
“This is scary,” Coose said of beginning to tattoo, “but it also gives me a lot of excitement.”
The scary part, she revealed, stems from self-doubt. “There’s so much pressure with tattooing. Sometimes I get in my head, thinking I can’t do this, but I just need to keep that voice quiet. I just need to get through the fear, and this can be something I stick with for life.”
Coose’s mom, Lisa Silverman, has complete faith in her daughter’s career path. “She has incredible talent, and her henna was so effortless, that I just thought she would be a natural at tattooing,” Silverman said.
Silverman and Coose’s teachers recognized Coose’s artistic tendencies at an early age. “Her teachers used to say to me, ‘I’m not sure if she’s paying attention because she’s always drawing on something,” Silverman said.
At their Portland home, Coose’s designs cover the windows, cabinets, walls and mirrors. “I’ll come home, and something else is covered,” Silverman said laughing.
Coose initially feared her parents wouldn’t approve of her desire to become a tattoo artist, but they have fully supported and encouraged their daughter.
“Tattoos can be symbolic of commitment or spirituality, and spiritual symbols help people stay connected to what they believe in,” Silverman said, highlighting her understanding and approval of the permanent ink.
Coose’s father, Chris Coose, is pleased that his daughter has one-on-one attention for nine months, the length of the apprenticeship, and that it’s not the cost of college tuition – although there is talk of a few Maine College of Art classes in the fall.
“I think she is a candidate for a scholarship,” Silverman said. “It’d be interesting for her to learn more about the history of tattooing and things like that, but really it’s whatever she wants.”
Coose, reflecting on her decision not to go to college right away, said, “Throughout my 12 years at school, my plan was always to graduate and go to college, because I thought that was what I was ‘supposed’ to do. But I think it’d help people to know that there isn’t a set of rules to follow to be successful.”
For now, she has plenty of time and is focused on the present.
“When I start thinking about the future I get scared, and (the fear) prevents me from doing anything,” Coose said. “So I’m just taking things one day at a time.”
One event, however, is planned: she’ll be doing henna work for clothing store Mexicali Blues at the Old Port Festival on June 12.
Ella Coose outside Lucky’s Tatto Co. at 102 Exchange St. in Portland. (Sarah Fountain / For The Forecaster)
Ella Coose, right, draws a henna design on repeat client Miranda Dawson at Lucky’s Tattoo Co. in Portland. (Sarah Fountain / For The Forecaster)
Ella Coose’s arm, right, and client Miranda Dawson’s. (Sarah Fountain / For The Forecaster)
Aspiring tattoo artist Ella Coose with her mentor, Marut “Lucky” Sinakhom at Lucky’s Tattoo Co. on Exchange Street in Portland. (Sarah Fountain / For The Forecaster)
Ella Coose inks a design. (Sarah Fountain / For The Forecaster)