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Inking the deal

Photos by Erich Schroeder

May 2014

When Jim Francis was in his late teens and early 20s in Southern California, he admits he was on a roller coaster of drugs, alcohol and "almost anything I could get my hands on." It wasnít until the LAPD kicked in the door at his dealerís house ó and pinned most of the drugs on Francis ó that he decided to go straight.

After relocating to Milwaukee with his wife, Angela, Francis has come a long way. Not only is he the owner of Milwaukee Ink Tattoo (the first tattoo studio authorized by Harley-Davidson to be housed within a dealership), he and Muskego-native Angela recently welcomed a daughter, Olivia Laverne. But his triumph-over-tragedy success doesnít stop there ó he was also a cast member on the most recent season of Spike TV series, "Ink Master," hosted by Dave Navarro of Janeís Addiction.

Francis, who has been tattooing for more than 12 years, learned his trade on the streets with a homemade rig and from hanging out in a friendís shop. "I really wish I had written down the day I did my first paying piece," he says.

With a specialty in Japanese and photorealism, black and gray pieces are his current passion. "I find them a challenge to do and lay out properly," he says. "For some reason, my mind just seems to crave drawing and tattooing these pieces. Plus, there is a limited color palette, and that works in my favor since I am partly color blind."

Francis admits he never set out to open his own shop. "It actually takes up more of my time than I want it to," he says. "I was comfortable working in other shops and just dropping my percentage and not worrying about staffing, supplies, taxes and all the other work that goes into owning a shop."

 But the Harley deal "fell into his lap" thanks to the support of Starship Tattoo owner James Purvis and Chaz Hastings, owner of Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, who mentored Francis on running a successful business. Now, as the owner of Milwaukee Ink Tattoo, he offers a variety of tattoo and body modification services to clients from Milwaukee and beyond. At the end of the day, says Francis, "I want to make the customer happy and for it to be a memorable experience for them."

Although contractually he canít say much about his time on "Ink Master," he says he walked in "cocksure that I was going to kill it" and found out real fast he wasnít in his own shop anymore. "Things are real different with combative customers, jumping through hoops to make three judges happy, living with the other contestants, missing your family and personal space ó and then you have the whole production side of it. I was a hot mess!"

The thing about the legendary tattoo artists who serve as "Ink Master" judges, he says, is "they are paid to be asses ó and they do their jobs well."

According to Francis, his main goal in moving to Wisconsin was to grow as an artist and a man. And that he has succeeded at, in spades. "I am old enough now to realize that my actions donít just affect me anymore. I have a family and a shop to worry about, and the future of those two things weighs on me everyday," he says. "Failure is not an option.

"That was my reason for applying for ĎInk Master.í I didnít go on the show to get famous. I went on the show to see how I would perform under pressure and to make a future for my family and my shop. God, I hope it works."

Get Inked

Milwaukee Ink Tattoo is located at 11310 W. Silver Spring Road, Milwaukee, inside Milwaukee Harley-Davidson. Tattoos start at $60.

This story ran in the May 2014 issue of: