The first thing that meets the eye is a 200-gallon saltwater aquarium. A range of blue tangs, reminiscent of "Finding Nemo," to cleaner shrimp swim and scuttle about in a serene scene of coral and neon swirls.
A friendly mix of Sirius radio hits play over the speaker system, varying day-to-day by the occasional ‘80s station or middle-eastern inspired tribal thumps. A faint buzzing whines in the background.
It is a cozy place, painted in warm shades of yellow-green with a plush futon for visitors to anxiously await their appointment.
Dozens of awards and certifications decorate the walls and each client is greeted with a smile.
Welcome to Blue Lotus Tattoo and Piercing Lounge.
It is a far cry from the death-metal-blaring, grungy, nighttime tattoo parlor oft depicted in cable television lore. Inspectors would be hard-put to find a spot of dust let alone a health code violation, and each appointment is noted with detailed client information and a deposit.
Employees also present an air of playful professionalism, though here, sleeves more often refer to ink-covered arms than a portion of clothing, and earrings go far beyond a set of simple studs.
The hands of many run this anomaly of a parlor, but its beginnings can be credited to one man.
His wardrobe usually comprises glasses, a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap over chin-length hair that provides a casual reminder: This is not corporate America. When called upon in the middle of a tattooing session he also sports black plastic gloves and a white covering.
Meet the man behind the apron.
At the age of 43, Rob Beyer has been running The Piercing Lounge, and eventually the addition of Blue Lotus Tattoo, for almost 17 years. During this time, he has opened two more locations, one on Madison's west side and a private studio in Waunakee, to compliment his campus digs on West Gilman Street.
He's been in the business since it was still difficult to find someone who would lease him space and watched it grow into what he sees as today's over-saturated market.
"Ninety percent of tattoo shops shouldn't be open," Beyer asserted. "Inexperience, they don't care, they're just in it for the money. They're using inferior products. There's not a lot of tattoo shops that have been open for more than five or 10 years. They come and go with the wind."
So perhaps his shop has been around for so long because Beyer does it for motivations beyond monetary gain.
"Part of it was money motivated but that was a very smaller percentage," he insisted. "Mostly it was just giving people an opportunity to get a job in something other than corporate America or a factory. And it tends to be misfits, the outcast and downtrodden.Most of my staff now can actually hold down a real job, but for a long time there wouldn't have been one of them that could have got up at six in the morning and gone to work."
Head piercer John Kid has worked with Beyer for ten years and said Beyer has really helped him turn his life around.
"I think I know Rob better than anybody," he mused. "You know, he can be a real hardass, but there's a reason why he's gotten to, to where he's at, you know?It's not just giving me the opportunity and bonuses and money and stuff like that, but it's also a big part of how he runs things here [that] I've brought into my own personal life .... Just being organized, being on top of things, attention to detail and that kind of thing; I've gotten a lot of that from him."
Similar sentiments are echoed around the place as most of his artists and body modifiers suggested he went out on a limb when hiring them.
He admitted it can be risky sometimes.
"I would take somebody with a balls-to-the-walls work ethic over somebody that had an immense amount of talent but was flaky as often [tattoo artists] can be," he said. "Because a person that has that good work ethic can eventually achieve you know, the ability to draw, maybe not as good as the other person in the end, but [they] will be more successful because they're more well-rounded."
"I mean you don't know," he continued. "You can't put all your eggs in one basket on one person and you invest six, nine months, a year, a year and a half in them and then it doesn't work out. Then that whole time has been wasted with your effort, patience, your money... It happens all the time."
In a way, Beyer was also lucky to have found talented individuals who were willing to alter their lifestyles. A lot of the reasons behind his success are the high standards he sets for employees and himself.
Beyer is more than just a veteran in the tattoo industry.
He served in the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic for three years shortly after graduating high school and several years before opening Blue Lotus.
Tattoo artist Seneca Marks has worked with him for two and a half years and said he sees this strict background in the way Beyer runs things.
"He's a military guy, and he likes to use the negative reinforcement method rather than a positive," Marks said. "It's not like ‘Hey you did great today keep it up.' It's like ‘Hey, you fuck up one more time you're not going to have a job.' Socially acceptable or not, it works. I just think the way he runs his shop is pretty much the reason he is where he is."
Marks also said he has never met anyone quite like Beyer.
"He has a very unique outlook on life and relationships and success," he noted. "And uh, he and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but I've always had a certain kind of respect for Rob because of his tenacity and his foresight."
"He's always kind of plotting his next move," Marks said. "He never remains stagnant."
Noah MacDonald, who moved to Wisconsin from New Mexico, has been tattooing at Blue Lotus for less than a year, but he has already picked up on Beyer's work ethic and commended it as a necessity for the trade.
"You know, I really compliment Rob on ... his obsession with cleaning," MacDonald said. "You've got to be scared. We're a high-risk profession. I'm around needles and blood every day."
He also noted why it is sometimes necessary for someone operating in this industry to break their apprentices down before rebuilding them.
"It's a trade, so nobody wants to spend a year teaching you something so you can turn around and be like ‘fuck you' and go off to another place to make their money. I mean why would people do that?"
Beyer insisted he runs his shop the way he does because it's the way things need to be done, especially from the cleanliness spectrum.
"You can die in this job," he stressed. "I just don't want to die a slow and painful death because I'm cheap. Everybody who walks in the door has HIV as far as we're concerned."
The attention to hygiene has paid off however; Kid said the health inspector sometimes comes in just to say hi.
Beyer's transition to tattoo artist is not as neat as one might think. Read about his unconventional route to Blue Lotus and its continued success in the Arts page Monday, Dec. 11, in part two of this feature.