By Jennifer Pund
Driving past the casinos in Black Hawk, one would never suspect a respected, highly-sought-after tattoo artist is housed in a restored 1800-era Victorian home on Gregory Street. Make You Famous Tattoo Studio in the Mountain City Historic Park is the collaboration of three like-minded individuals, and built on the reputation and unique artistic style Billy “The Kid” Laing has created during 28 years in the business.
Partnered with his wife, Julia, and good friend, Everett Nielsen, Make You Famous Tattoo, is what the award-winning Laing says is his last studio, since he has no plans to leave the mountains of the Front Range.
“[The Black Hawk studio] started out with Billy and I needing a car,” Julia said. “So, we traded some tattoo work for Everett’s Jeep. He saw the situation we were in with no studio and suggested we work together. He knew about the historic homes in Black Hawk, so after almost a year and a half, the homes opened up for businesses and we got the Graham House. Everett helps us with business decisions and supports us where he can. Basically, without Everett, we would not have the tattoo studio.”
The three partners say they are very like-minded when it comes to the business. “Julia and Billy and I kind of think alike when it comes to business,” Nielsen said. “Billy said he wanted a place where he can just come in and tattoo, but didn’t want to deal with the other stuff. We all work really well together. The three of us make one. Billy is great at what he does, and Julia and I kind of ride herd on keeping things going and getting the place looking the way it does and paper work, all that kind of stuff.”
The partners all credit the town of Black Hawk for being “easy to work with” and very supportive. “We looked at a few places all over Black Hawk, and some places were huge and didn’t flow right,” Nielsen explained. “Then we got to this building. We walked in and kind of looked around, and it felt like home.”
The partners agreed they didn’t want the generic black and white tile of a traditional street shop, but rather an eclectic top-end studio. Julia and Nielsen worked closely to give the studio it’s stylish look. “We’ve put a lot of time and effort into this and we’ve worked really hard for it” Nielsen said. “We all take a lot of pride in what we do. I know Billy does the actual tattooing at the shop, but it takes all three if us. I consider myself really lucky. I met two people not only I get a long with, but I also consider friends and everything fell into place like it did. And I find it comical it all started over a 1995 Cherokee, it’s just funny how things work out.”
Make You Famous is a custom art tattoo studio. You wont find books or “flash” sheets on the wall. “I draw most of it, but there are a lot of artists up here in the mountains, so I get people bringing in designs from other artists as well,” Laing said. “I can use it exactly how they bring it in, or we can alter it to the way they want it. We can change it and get it the way it is going to look forever, then put it on them.”
Laing’s relationship with tattooing began more than 28 years ago when he received his first tattoo. “I ran into another artist who pointed out how bad it was,” Laing said, “so I went to his shop and he repaired it for nothing.” After that, he kept returning to Venice Rock Tattoos in Venice Beach where he eventually got a “real” job. “It was a fun place. The music was loud; you had to yell to communicate. We were on Venice Beach inside a Deadhead Shop, so everything was Deadhead except us.”
The artist said the lifestyle is what first attracted him to tattooing. “You get to wear what you want, listen to loud music and get paid for any work you do,” he said.
Much like the first tattoo he received, Billy remembers the first tattoo he gave. He forgot the ‘E’ on a Harley Davidson bar and shield on some guy’s butt cheek. “He had me scribble this tiny little E in there. It was God-awful,” Laing said. “My boss came in and gave me money even though I screwed up. I went home with $32.50, and I was like ‘this is awesome.’ And it just keeps getting better and better.”
Although getting paid for his work is a necessity, Billy really loves the personal interaction of his trade. “You get to hear the coolest things. People just open right up to you, sometimes more than they should,” he explained. “You get to hear all these different stories and how people have grown up and what their life experiences have been like, and you still get paid. It’s awesome.”
Laing credits Ric Clayton as his first teacher and said his style is mostly bio-mechanical. “I specialize in black and grey, realism, fine line and portraits. Really small, really intricate and really detailed work,” he said. “I was taught old-school where you still use single needles. Now, everybody’s taught themselves. And, it’s easier to use big fat needles, so the style has gone to really bold lines and bright colors, which is fine.” These days, it’s rare to find a talented artist doing the “black and grey fine line thing,” which keeps Laing’s appointment book filled. “If you still know how to do the small work, you are being sought out by people,” he said. “I like it all, but I prefer really small, really intricate, tiny things,” and so do his many clients who travel from across the country to have his work on their bodies.
Laing has worked from Hawaii to North Carolina and Florida to Ohio, learning and studying under many different artists. He and a friend were heading to Canada, where Billy had accepted a job from a studio that had beat out four other studios for his work, when they ended up stopping in Denver.
“We rented a car and drove to Boulder, and that was it. I was home and this is where I wanted to be,” Laing explained. After running both locations of the successful Scarred for Life tattoo shops, he relocated to Nederland in 2007 and continued working in the small mountain town at his Tungsten Trail Tattoo Company studio. “When we came up to Ned, everyone was like, ‘I don’t know how you’ll do,’ and we just blew up, we did terrific.”
With his reputation, clients are happy to come to him for work, which is perfect for Laing since he has no plans on leaving the area. “People seek me out. It really doesn’t matter where I am if someone wants me to work on them,” he said. “At this point I have a pretty good name and reputation and following. This is going to be my last studio. I plan on staying right here as long as Black Hawk will have us. This is just a beautiful place. I like where we live, I like the community we are in. Black Hawk has just been amazing to us.”
If you can’t find Laing at his studio in winter, check the slopes at Eldora. “I can get there by 9 a.m. and be home by 11 a.m.,” he said. “The other day I met a client when out boarding. Turns out this guy wanted a tattoo, so we finished up boarding and came out here and I worked on him until 7 p.m., so it works out nice.”
Over the years, Billy has been awarded many honors and accolades from across the country. Among the hundreds of tattoo trophies and plaques, he is quick to say his most valued award is an Outstanding Citizenship Award from Boulder County Police Department for tackling a guy who had just robbed a check cashing store. “That’s a cool award, it is better than any of my tattoo trophies,” he said. “I am happy with the fact people come back and come back and come back. That’s an award enough, I don’t need the trophy.”
Originally published in the January 2016 issue of the MMAC Monthly