For our first Feeding Creativity visit, we packed up breakfast sandwiches, roasted potatoes, chopped fruit, and pastries from Metropole and traveled north of downtown about one mile to White Whale Tattoo in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Walnut Hills. White Whale was founded in 2014 by Jeremiah and Becki Griswold and has grown into one of the premier tattoo shops in Cincinnati. Nestled inside the Dixon Building on McMillan St, White Whale immediately feels different than most tattoo parlors as soon as you walk through the door. The stark white walls hold harpoons and anchors, boat oars and shelves with model ships rather than flash menus and posters. There are no partitions between tattooing stations, just a half dozen beech wood constructed, black decked massage tables equally spaced in the surgically clean universe that is White Whale.
The name is derived from literary classic Moby Dick and as a nod to “chasing the divine.” Jeremiah likes to refer to the business as “an intersection between theology, literature, social justice and art.” The latter is evident in that everyone on the crew keeps a studio practice outside of the shop and they bring their love for art and art history into the pieces they ink on people’s bodies daily. Woodblock printing, etching, and pointillism are big influences on the crew. “Lines and dots hold integrity really well,” says Jeremiah who loves to see how these tattoos stand the test of time.
The process of getting a tattoo from a shop that offers no flash, or predetermined tattoo images, takes trust. If your tattoo proposition is selected you will have a consultation to go over goals and expectations, and sometimes the finished design is far deeper than you expected. It’s important that prospective clients understand that they’re commissioning an artist. So if someone says they want a Celtic tattoo, thinking of shamrocks or braided crosses, they may actually wind up walking out with a totally unique 15th-century Irish woodblock tattoo. This type of creativity and respect for both art history and tattoo history is what sets White Whale apart from other shops. They nurture and help grow their clients’ ideas into really special finished products.
Another thing that sets this crew apart is the community outreach and social justice projects they do for the local community and beyond. Jeremiah and his wife/ business partner, poet Becki Griswold decided from the beginning that this venture needs to serve a greater purpose than just putting ink on skin for decoration. So 10% of the proceeds from every tattoo done at White Whale is donated to charities working with disenfranchised communities, some locally but most being non-profits they have ties to in Guatemala.
Guatemala is a country that will forever be connected (historically) to Cincinnati through the United Fruit Company in a negative way and Jeremiah and Becki are trying to bring a positive light from the Queen City to the Land of Eternal Spring, specifically the people living and working in the massive city dump. Recently the crew from White Whale visited there. The dump, known as the Basurero is in Zona 3 and working there is one of the most dangerous jobs one can do in one of Guatemala City’s most dangerous neighborhoods, which is part of the largest slum in Central America. Some 7,000 people work in the city dump from dawn to dusk, 365 days out of the year and most live in the surrounding alleys. The place is otherworldly with underground fires causing off the charts air pollution by way of smoke and smog that never moves on, as the dump is surrounded by cliffs on all sides. And the constant sight of vultures circling overhead is a never-ending reminder of one’s place in society. The Basurero is generally worked by the poor; migrant families who fled the countryside after the economic downturn in 2009, those who weren’t fortunate enough to get an education or even become literate, and many former gang members who can’t get honest employment because of their gang tattoos. The latter are the people that Jeremiah and his crew come to visit. They set up shop in the neighborhood for a little over a week and with the help of local contacts they do gang tattoo cover-ups free of charge.
The most recent trip was in January 2018. To fund the trip White Whale held a “flash day” fundraiser at the shop in Walnut Hills in October 2017. 76 people stood in line for hours to get tattoos and over $10k was collected to help fund the Guatemala trip. Sometimes a shop with no flash needs to break their own rules to help the greater good. This past trip to Guatemala wasn’t the first and won’t be the last because what the crew does down there is important and at times it’s literally life-saving. Jeremiah looks at these gang cover-ups as not only a way to give people a second chance but also a chance to change their appearance for the better, “like Picasso’s Old Guitarist painting” that still has evidence of the underpainting if you look hard enough but it doesn’t detract from the beauty of the final piece.
White Whale Tattoo is a family of seven. Along with Jeremiah and Becki, there is Niki Woltja, Annie Bone, Jaclin Hastings, Emily Sites Karns and Zack Mueller. This is the crew who work in a nautical-inspired studio in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cincinnati, turning ideas into head-turning pieces of permanent art. They are a tight-knit crew of artists who use their knowledge of technique, design and art history in every piece they create. Bookings open and close all the time but don’t let that dissuade you. If you’re interested in getting a truly authentic Cincinnati souvenir give them a call and see if anyone’s available at 513-374-0429 or visit their website, www.whitewhaletattoo.com, to check out the crew’s portfolios and email an artist directly.