Meet ace inker (and ‘Ink Master’ contestant) Janelle Hanson of Iron Quill Tattoo

Hanson recently competed on the hit show

The first time Janelle Hanson got a note from someone associated with “Ink Master,” the hit Paramount Network reality show that puts tattoo artists in competition with one another for fame and fortune, she doubted it was legitimate.

Hanson, 31, a Duluth, Minnesota, native who came to Madison in late 2017 to work at Iron Quill Tattoo on the west side, knew the industry at its worst. She apprenticed when women were mostly unwelcome. If doors didn’t slam in her face, she was subjected to sexual harassment.

So what to make of the email from “Ink Master” in fall 2018 saying there was interest in possibly having her on the show?

Hanson spoke to her boyfriend, Andy Hyde, also a tattoo artist at Iron Quill.

“Do you think it’s real?” she asked him.

“Let them know you’re interested,” Hyde responded.

Three months and numerous messages later, Hanson left for New Jersey under strict orders to tell no one that she’d been cast in season 12 of “Ink Master,” which began airing in June.

The shoot took six weeks. When we spoke in June, she couldn’t discuss details, but whatever the result, the experience was transformative. She’d never had a real mentor. On the show, they had coaches. Hanson had often underestimated herself. This time, she came to believe in her abilities.Meet ace inker (and ‘Ink Master’ contestant) Janelle Hanson of Iron Quill Tattoo

Hanson was introduced to the tattoo world by her uncle, who explained to his young niece that the tattoos on his arms were the work of an artist. Rather than being hung on a wall, Hanson’s uncle said, this art travels with the person.

“That concept was extraordinary to me as a kid,” Hanson says. “I liked to draw. Imagining that something I drew could be on someone in France, and that people in France I’d never met could see my art? That just blew my mind.”

When she was 14 and in eighth grade, Hanson took a bus to what she’d heard was the best tattoo shop in Duluth.

She handed a bunch of her drawings across the counter and said, “Here’s my portfolio,” having read the word in one of her uncle’s tattoo magazines. “I want to apprentice.”

She was immediately dismissed as too young – and being female in a male-dominated business didn’t help either. This scenario repeated itself over the next several years. Occasionally someone would at least show her around, maybe discuss fundamentals.

Even as Hanson struggled to gain traction in the tattoo culture, she allowed the chance for a scholarship to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to slip by after deciding not to go to the scholarship interview. Realizing she needed discipline, she enlisted in the Air National Guard. She studied nursing. Yet the pull toward tattooing was always there.

She’d begun getting tattoos herself – ”putting my own beliefs and memories on myself” – and getting to know and respect the artists who did hers reinvigorated the dream.

Hanson was getting a tattoo in the same Duluth shop she’d first approached at 14 when she heard they were looking for someone to answer the phone and record appointments. This was 2014. The owner gave her the job, with one caveat: “You are the counter girl. You will never be an apprentice.” He didn’t want women tattooing in his shop.Meet ace inker (and ‘Ink Master’ contestant) Janelle Hanson of Iron Quill Tattoo

Hanson outwitted him by coming in early, cleaning the studio and making life easier for the artists, some of whom reciprocated with advice and instruction. The boss threatened to fire her when he found out. Finally, eight months in, her boss abruptly said, “OK, you’re an apprentice.”

Her struggle proved worth it. She said the needle felt natural in her hand. She learned to clear her mind and focus. Hanson gained the trust of her clients. Word spread that she was good.

Further proof came at a national convention that first year when Hanson took third place in the color category of a “tattoo of the day” contest.

Jes Strickler, who owns Iron Quill, won an award that day, too. He asked Hanson how long she’d been tattooing and was surprised to learn she was relatively new. He invited her to do a guest week at Iron Quill, which went well.

Back in Duluth, Hanson was increasingly dissatisfied. She learned that male artists were paid more than her, and her work hours were undesirable. She got the sense that her boss was dismissive of her convention award. Finally, she quit.

Strickler was there with an offer to come to Madison. Hyde – Hanson’s boyfriend, who also worked at the Duluth shop – relocated as well.

“The thing that most impressed me about Janelle was her drive and determination to get better,” Strickler says. And he liked that she was different. “Most of our industry,” he says, chuckling, “is large, bearded men.”

Strickler, in the business for 16 years, was once offered a spot on “Ink Master” but as a single parent had to turn it down. He’s known many contestants over the years and encouraged Hanson.

“It was really fun,” Hanson says of her time doing the show, while noting some of the conditions – living in a house without windows, eating dodgy takeout food – weren’t ideal. “It pushed me. I found out a lot about myself during filming.”

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Even though I didn’t leave with the title of “Ink Master” I left with an abundance of knowledge from amazing people who had coached me throughout. I have looked up to them before my career even started, and some were a true inspiration for me to keep moving towards my goal; being a tattooer. Truly I am grateful to have had this opportunity and show myself that I am young in the industry, and there is room to grow and learn. This isn’t the end nor will it be the last big thing I do! This was an experience most will never get to do, and I’m so happy I got as far as I did!!! The world got to see the struggle of anxiety and what it does to your tattoos. The world got to see confidence and how it effects your work, and shows you that you had really nothing to truly worry about because you had the skill within you the whole time!! Finally the world got to see past hurts come to the surface and it showed me that I am still healing from it. After all of this being said, I am so happy I agreed to do this and to challenge myself. Push yourself whenever you can, because you never know what will happen; you may surprise yourself. @inkmaster #inkmaster

A post shared by Janelle Hanson (@ichasebadgers) on Aug 20, 2019 at 8:07pm PDT

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.