Is that a rodent skull on your head? Both Drew and fellow tattoo artist James Clark have an homage to the groundhog on their skulls. But, like many designs, the quirky tattoo has a deeper meaning.

It’s a personal thing

Tattoo artist Drew Clendenin talks tattoos, groundhog skulls and Aussies

There’s a groundhog skull tattooed on the heads of both Drew Clendenin and James Clark. One might think the two lost a bet, but they’d be wrong. The giant rodent skulls are actually tributes to loved ones. For Clark, his niece, and Clendenin, it’s for his recently born daughter. But, why a groundhog skull? 

     The idea began with Clark, whose niece was born on Groundhog Day. He wanted to get the groundhog skull on his own skull, and came to Drew to do the work. 

     “I was stoked, because I have only tattooed a couple other actual heads before, so I was excited to do an actual, nice piece like that,” Clendenin said.

     A few months passed, and his wife Leah’s due date of Jan. 29 was approaching. The predicted day came and went, and she eventually gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Janelle, on Feb. 2, 2018.

     “I didn’t even know when Groundhog Day was,” Clendenin recalled, “And so, baby was born, and halfway through the day, someone was like, ‘You know it’s Groundhog Day, right?’ I was like, ‘Oh… now James is going to want to tattoo a skull on my skull!’ There was no way I couldn’t do it.”

     Clendenin, who hails from Billings, started tattooing two decades ago. He studied fine arts in college, working on portraits and oil paintings, and graphic design. “But it was a really hard market to get into,” he said, recalling the early days of his career. “So, I thought, ‘Ok, tattooing, maybe that’s the road to go down.’”

     While he supported himself with full-time, Monday through Friday jobs doing things like masonry and kitchen work, he took the weekends to expand his tattooing skills, practicing as much as possible on himself and his brave, willing friends. 

     Clendenin Customs Tattoo opened seven years ago in Big Sky, and he’s worked on all sorts of people from tourists to locals and everything in between. On May 10, he worked alongside Clark, simultaneously  tattooing a regular at the shop. 

“This is something we have never done before,” Clendenin said with a grin. “This collaboration-type piece.” 

     Clendenin had tattooed the client—John, who asked that his last name not be used—several times before. John had a number of tattoos covering his back, done by a number of different artists, and he wanted Clendenin and Clark to fill in the blanks, creating a cohesive design. And, he gave them full reign artistically, allowing them to create as they saw fit. 

     Reclining face down, never wincing as the dueling tattoo guns buzzed away, John offered a client’s perspective on the appeal of tattoos.   

     “It’s a very personal thing, for me anyway. Every tattoo means something. I remember who has done every tattoo, and I know why I have every tattoo I have on me,” he said. “This isn’t just something you can throw away. For these guys, and any tattoo artist, that’s a really big responsibility.”

     John had yet to see what the tag-team tattoo artists were creating on his back, but felt confident in their decisions. 

     “It’s a crazy thing,” he said, explaining he came in for more art, because, “Once you get a tattoo, it’s addictive, everything tells a story for me. I’m very superstitious so a lot of them deal with that, or tell a story about not only me, but my children especially.” 

     Of the innumerable tattoos he’s done over the years, Clendenin said he can’t think of any specific one he’s most proud of. 

     “It’s really about the opportunity to be able to tattoo at all,” he said, continuing his work on a pine tree design. “I think it’s really hard to compare the little ones to the big ones, because you’re so grateful for those little tiny ones, and they mean just as much as a half-sleeve to people. And everything’s a new piece—I think that’s one of the bonuses of doing all types of tattoos here. You don’t get stuck with one certain style.”    

     Clendenin hopes to bring in more artists to his shop, offering them exposure to Big Sky. “Which I think is one of the most beautiful places on this planet,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to travel all over, and realize that this is a great place to do art, if you can make it, it’s hard to beat.”

     The reactions from newly-tattooed clients are a highlight of the job. Just recently an Australian mother and daughter came to his shop to have a small bear outline tattoo done on the daughter’s ankle. She said it was better than she could have ever imagined, and gave him an “Awesome Aussie” can cooler. 

     “It was cool, she was super stoked,” Clendenin recalled. “It was only a 10-minute tattoo, but it was a big deal for her.”

     Thinking about getting some ink? Message Drew on Facebook, Instagram or at Clendenin Customs Tattoo is located at 115 Aspen Leaf Drive Unit 1b, next to Brothel Bikes. 

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