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Sterling tattoo artists make the work pop

Detailed work, cleanliness are points of pride for parlor

STERLING – The devil is not the only thing that’s in the details; great tattoos are, too, according to Sterling tattoo artist Robert Cooksey.

Cooksey opened Skin Deep Tattoo & Piercing Studio, 1813 Locust St., in November 2011.

When a client came to him, asking him to fix another artist’s work, which had already faded after only 4 months, Cooksey noticed the fish in the tattoo had no eye sockets.

But when Cooksey had finished adding the right lines, that fish’s poppers really popped.

Cooksey, 33, estimates that about 20 percent of his tattoos are cover-ups of other artists’ work.

“I love seeing those old tattoos that people hate and then seeing them loving them and in love with their skin,” he said.

In a book full of photos that have captured his artwork, many pictures are “before shots” of other artists’ work with “after” photos below them, showing how he has added colors or details.

Cooksey specializes in tribal art – dark, thick swirls with jagged edges – and photorealism. (Want a photo of your baby on your arm? He can do it.)

But yet another tattoo gun in his arsenal is writing. He writes in what he calls “fancy cursive,” which involves a lot of loops. He won a “super cursive handwriting award” in second grade, he proudly says, adding, “I don’t mean to brag.”

He insists he never uses fonts from a computer.

“It’s all freehand,” he said.

Repeat customer Zack Scott, 19, of Rock Falls, has his last name written in that style on his right arm.

“They’re the best around,” Scott said of Cooksey and his artist, Adam Tater. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

Scott also has a tattoo on his lower torso of a black-and-gray cross with a black and white banner wrapped around it, and the words, “Connie n Gary, R. I. P.”, in memory of his grandparents.

Cooksey notes that the colors of the cross gradually and subtly go from darker to lighter, which is a skill not all artists have, he said. A tattoo is made of pixels, and the tighter the pixels, the darker the shading, he said.

“We like it to look like pepper, not separated dots,” he said.

Cooksey has 9 years of experience as a tattoo artist. Although he has always liked drawing, he did not have aspirations to be a tattoo artist until his brother, Sean Hicks, opened Everlasting Arts in Davenport, Iowa, and invited him to be an apprentice.

He still has loyal customers travel from the Quad Cities, the Chicago area, St. Louis and other places to get inked by him, he said.

Tater, 24, is a Sterling native with 2 years of tattoo experience. His style is “totally new age,” Cooksey said. Tater, whom Cooksey calls by his last name, creates three-dimensional figures and bright colors and is skilled in photorealism, Cooksey said.

Tater adorned a woman with the word “summertime” written in the “Skin Deep” fancy cursive style, surrounded by a cheetah print in black and orange, and a pair of red lips with the fleshy, vertical lines discernible. Cooksey referred to the tattoo as “a collage.”

Tater likes to make sure his work “pops out at you,” the way graffiti does, he said.

While sitting on a stool in the shop’s lobby, you will probably first notice the red walls, which Cooksey said give the shop a “tattoo vibe.” Then you’ll feel warm air on your possibly-about-to-be-tattooed skin. Cooksey has arranged the heat so that it also gets dispensed onto the chairs where clients are being worked on while they are going through a session.

Cooksey also was sure to install curtains at each of the two working tattoo booths in case privacy is needed, a courtesy he said is not extended at every tattoo parlor.

Cooksey takes pride in the aftercare the shop provides clients, he said. Instead of directing them to Walmart to buy an oil-based A & D ointment (with vitamins A & D), he provides two packets of “tattoo goo” to keep the skin dry and clean. The goo has a wax base, not oil, and therefore will not clog pores. The result: his clients don’t walk around with red bumps on their skin the few days after getting work done by him – as long as they apply with clean hands, as he instructs them, he said.

Cooksey also keeps a sanitary shop, he said.

“A lot of people think ‘Oh, they used a new needle,’” Cooksey said. “That doesn’t mean anything.”

Cooksey and Tater use plastic tube sleeves, wrapping them on: tables, bottles, their tattoo machine or “gun,” and the clip cords that power the gun. If it has anything to do with the tattoo process, it’s getting wrapped.

They use broad spectrum cleaner to kill any viruses such as influenza or hepatitis B or C. They also are well versed in the kill times of that cleaner (2 minutes) and the cavicide wipes they use (5 minutes) to kill viruses, fungi, bacteria or tubercles that might have even thought of making the shop their home and reproducing.

Cooksey said he has been influenced to keep his shop clean by his wife, Lisa Cooksey, 35, a medical technician at KSB Hospital.

“I’m married to someone who works in a lab,” he said.

The two artists are constantly trying to improve, Cooksey said.

“We study every day,” he said. “We look up artists and try to copy their style. Not a day goes by that we’re not learning.”

The younger artist is more succinct.

“We rock,” Tater said.

Skin Deep Tattoo & Piercing Studio

Where: 1813 Locust St., Sterling

Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Phone: 815-535-0788

About this Series

This story is the fifth in a series by SVM reporter Bridget Flynn called Sauk Valley Ink. The series will feature local tattoo shops and local perspectives on tattoos.

If you have a tattoo and a story behind it, our photographers would like to photograph you for publication. Please contact Flynn at or 815-625-3600 and she will arrange a photo shoot.

If you are a parent with an opinion about letting your child have a tattoo, please contact Flynn.

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