Categorized | design critiques

critique: Tower Tattoos

street-night-01aThis week in an email from Craig Scharton, Director of Downtown and Community Revitalization of the City of Fresno. He asked: “As some of the area’s leaders in architectural thought, what do you think the role of architectural criticism should be? Is it possible to raise consciousness about our built environment, standards of design and professional aspiration through this activity?”

In short, my response to Craig was that architectural criticism is essential for pushing our Fresno’s and the region’s built environment forward. We need to offer constructive criticism to buildings, architects, and developers that are not preforming. We also need to highlight and reward those that demonstrate high quality design and positively contribute to a healthy and vibrant built environment.

Craig’s question was timely because I was planning to begin writing critiques here. This fits within our mission of improving our built environment through education and discourse about architectural topics.


For this first critique I’ve chosen to review a building that is small in scale but very ambitious in design. I first took notice of Tower Tattoos when graphic designer Jodi Bearden brought an excellent sign design to the Tower District Design Review Committee. The design was to be applied to the building’s original blade sign on the parapet. In neon and art deco font read Tower Tattoos. The committee unanimously approved the sign with great praise. Since then I’ve kept my eye on the shop as they renovated the space at 716 E. Olive Ave.

1st Impressions

counter02aI first ventured into the shop in response to a twitter request from Travis Sheridan who needed some liquid pain relief for his new tattoo. As I walked in the door I smiled, because I could immediately read the amount of thought and care that was put in to the renovation.

entryday-aThe furniture seemed carefully chosen and well placed. There is a lounge area up against the storefront. Two men carried on a casual conversation in comfort, the street life carrying on just over their shoulders.

What caught my attention next was the front glass counter and display case in the form of an S curve. The jewelry within was well lit and lights01asparkled like gems and candy. Blue lights made the entire display glow.

The display counter is mirror by a soffit hanging from the ceiling. This is an elaborate space high hanging retro hanging lights and a guilded medallion in the ceiling. This feature obviously had some untold workstation02ahistory behind it.

Beyond the counter the space opens up with an expose barrel vaulted ceiling, steel trusses and skylights. The polished concrete floor is reminiscent of terrazzo and leads back to the 10 work stations where the artist puts needle to skin.

workstation01aEach work station is clean and open, surrounded by a partial height wall with a vintage dentist chair in the center and a stainless steel counter and sink with hands free infrared faucet. Artwork and knickknacks personalizes each tattoo artist’s work station. While watching distracting Travis getting a tattoo of Ferdinand the Bull, I had a good view of the artist at work through the tilted mirror.

Design Process

After this experience I knew I needed to dig into the thought behind each design move and uncover the motivation of Tower Tattoos owner & tattoo artist Kimberly Bearden.

With 18 years of tattooing experience, Kimberly opened her own 1 artist shop at 1140 Van Ness in 2001. A colleague once dubbed her the “Martha Stewart of tattooing.” She took it as a compliment that alluded to her craftiness, attention to detail, do it yourself approach, and enthusiastic spirit leading to success.

before02aThe Tower Tattoos staff grew to 8 in the small space leading to the need to expand. When searching for a new building she wanted something authentic, unlike the “strip mall architecture” building that she had leased space in. She loathed the low T Bar ceiling and square spaces.In 2006 she found what she was looking for in the building previously occupied by Lou Gentiles Flower Basket.

Kimberly hired architect Andy Lucas for the initial design work and code consultation. As the project progressed the design team became a family affair. She was helped by her sister, a graphic designer and her father a retired surveyor and city planner who worked for Fresno, Clovis, and Sanger.

work-aMost of the designing happened around her kitchen table. There she cut out scale furniture and moved around on an empty base plan of building. She worked through different scenarios remembering all the inefficiencies she had experienced tattooing in different spaces.

Designed around furniture and efficient work spaces. She strove to unite beauty and function. For example, the sky lights brighten up the space and make the experience more inviting and pleasing for the customers. But the natural light also creates ideal lighting conditions for tattooing. Kimberly said “The artists want an eagle eye view to see through the layers of skin for accurate work and in sunlight the ink shows it natural color.” She continued “That is difficult to achieve with artificial light.” Those conditions have attracted many artist that wish to tattoo in the space.

recycled materials

Also of note are the amount of reused and re-purposed materials used throughout the space. This came from the necessity to be economical and Kimberly’s love of the vintage art deco aesthetic. Wood framing was reused to build the workstations. The existing concrete floor was ground down exposing the rock aggregate, stained and polished. Furniture came from a variety of sources.

The poor economy was even taken advantage of:Â merchandise shelving came from a closed motorcycle shop; storage shelving from a closed Good Guys; work stations cabinets from the closed Travel Department of American Express’s San Francisco office. EBay and Craigslist were important resources that led to metal carts, light fixtures, vintage furniture, the Ceiling Medallion come from a 1920’s Chinese restaurant in LA, and even the S shaped glass display counter was found through EBay from a remodeling Washington Museum.

Opened space up by removing ceiling and exposing the barrel vault and trusses.

Future Goals

The Tower Tattoos plans are so ambitious that Kimberly has more projects planned for the future. She also owns the neighboring building that houses Mr Sushi and H&R Block. She plans to redo the signage above Mr Sushi and the facades of both buildings with strong art deco features. This will further contribute to the Tower District street scape and architectural vibrancy.

counter01aAnother future product is a rear patio enclosed on 3 side by the building and parking lot accessed from Broadway Ave. Overall Kimberly’s ambition and attention to detail are commendable. Tower Tattoos stands above all other tattoo shops that I’ve seen in Fresno and beyond. If you are like me in that you choose your dentist or optometrist based upon architecture, then I encourage you to get your next tattoo at Tower Tattoos and support quality architecture, rewarding those businesses that invest in a quality built environment.

Opening Party

Now that I’ve told you all about my opinions of the building come and see it for yourself. Tonight they will be holding a grand opening party in conjunction with the Central Valley Tattoo Expo. There will be food catered by Chiminello Catering, live music by The Martyrs and tribal dance by Fallen Orchid.

Saturday May 2nd, 11pm

$10 cover-charge

716 E Olive Ave.

Fresno – Tower District

This post was written by:

kiel - who has written 140 posts on archop.

Kiel Schmidt is founder and curator of archop

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7 Responses to “critique: Tower Tattoos”

  1. Hank Delcore says:

    I love it, especially the way they collected the interior elements and knitted it all together. I looked in earlier today and it’s a great space. What’s the next review?

  2. kiel says:

    Thanks, I’m trying to get an interview set up with Robotic Built Structures . Another one I have in mind is the new Univision building at Palm & Herndon. Specifically I want to talk about their communications tower. We will also take requests.

  3. The Fresnan says:

    Wow, great post/article, Kiel. I hope more business owners in town take the time to think about how their place looks as well as their product and service. It means a lot when you walk into a business and see they care about stuff like that.

  4. Hey Kiel ~ Nice post. I haven’t actually been inside but every time I walk by I am amazed because it almost makes me want to get a tattoo! This coming from a woman who barely wears jewelry! The interior design of Tower Tattoos is gorgeous!

  5. rudy says:

    Just out of curiosity what is your interest in the communications tower at Univision?


  6. ed says:

    ding dang, i’m late to this party, but great article.

  7. “Great post, love tattoo art.”


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