When Ron O'Tool began tattooing 25 years ago, he said the industry was in the middle of a transformation.
"I was really intrigued with the direction tattooing was taking and how artistic it was becoming," O'Tool said. "There wasn't a lot of custom tattooing 25 years ago. In the '80s and '90s, you'd pick a flash design off the wall and that's what you'd get. But it's changed so much."
He opened his own tattoo shop, O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo, in 1999, as tattooing became more mainstream and custom tattoos grew in popularity.
"A younger generation was getting into the tattooing industry, and I was it," he said. "Things needed to change. So I took the most important aspects of getting a tattoo — the cleanliness and welcoming atmosphere — and made it more about offering a customized experience for each person."
Back then, he said, "a 4-inch tattoo was considered large." Now, he regularly gives customers tattoos on their neck, hand or entire arm — a sign, he argued, that perceptions of tattoos have significantly changed.
The success of his business over the years, he said, led him to open up a second location in Davenport in 2010. But now he's outgrown that space. At the beginning of this year, O'Tool opened a larger shop at 1301 N. Harrison St.
"We've been leasing our old Davenport building for nine years. So after purchasing our Rock Island location a few years ago, it was time to find a permanent location in Davenport," he said. "This location appealed to me because it's in the Main Street district, and it's a large space with a lot of traffic. It's between uptown and downtown, so you catch a lot of people traveling between the two."
The freestanding building, formerly a drive-thru location for a laundry and dry cleaning service, was essentially an empty shell, he said. O'Tool's workspace now sits in the center of the space, overlooking the entire room. He divided the room into sections for tattooing and piercing work, decorated with his signature green and black design.
The opening of O'Tool's new location marks the fourth tattoo shop to join Davenport's Hilltop Campus Village, which includes St. Ambrose University and Palmer College of Chiropractic.
Hilltop Director Scott Tunnicliff said the Main Street district is "becoming somewhat of a hub for tattoo shops."
"We're pleased to see things like the tattoo shops coming in. They're some of the most creative and artistic designers in the region, and they're being drawn to the Hilltop," Tunnicliff said. "Now, we're asking those shops which types of businesses they'd like to see come into the area that would compliment their services."
While perceptions of the tattoo business have changed during his time as an artist, O'Tool said he has maintained the same values he held 20 years ago.
"I've always wanted to add substance to the experience," O'Tool said. "You can't only focus on your talent. You've also got to make a quality, personalized experience. Because every tattoo has a story. I will work with you to make sure you get a tattoo that means something and you can be proud of."
"And you know you're doing something right when you had customers 20 years ago, and now their kids are coming in today," he said.
For more information, visit O'Tool Design Custom Tattoo's Facebook page.