By Taylor K. Long
Though his shop’s name is Standard Company Tattoo, owner and artist Brian Barthelmes (pronounced Barth-el-mus, if you’re wondering) is anything but standard. Whether it’s his stature and his expressive face, his career path, which includes folk-rock musician and NFL offensive lineman, or his delightfully fun and bizarre art, nothing about Barthelmes could be described as typical or average.
So, where’s the name come from? “Most words are very loaded, loaded with people’s personal history, other experience and context,” Barthelmes says. “‘Standard Company,’ as words are so benign that most people aren't bringing strong expectations to the shop with them.” He also tried to think about a name that would fit with the community. “With huge traffic counts driving by daily it seemed important to think of the community impact,” he says. “So calling it like ‘Bloody Skull Dagger Tattoos’ seemed like it would be aggressive for the community.”
After a few years apprenticing and then sharing a shop with Chris Bowen at Vintage Soul (which moved to Charlestown, NH from its old location above Four Aces in West Lebanon), Barthelmes set out to open a shop of his own. This October marked the one-year anniversary of Standard Company Tattoo’s opening in White River Junction. Any new business comes with its initial ups and downs, especially one that involves physical touch amidst a pandemic. But Barthlemes and SCT have kept the needles buzzing, the lights running, the tunes blasting, and the dance moves flowing. They’re even adding new artists to the roster.
Barthlemes took an hour out of a very busy drawing, tattooing, business-owning, and parenting schedule to chat with me about his creative process, adjusting to work in a pandemic, his favorite Upper Valley businesses, and his adorable twins.
Taylor K. Long: How did starting and opening Standard Company Tattoo come together? You were tattooing over at Vintage Soul – had you planned to branch off to your own shop before Chris decided to relocate or did they happen at the same time?
Brian Barthelmes: Chris and I had been trying to juggle how to get both of our needs from the same shop. I wanted to put shit everywhere, and clutter drives him mad. He wanted to keep doing appointment-only, I wanted some walk-in carnival chaos. So, we had talked about it probably about a year before, when we realized we just have totally different needs. At that point I was looking at spaces. Originally my buddy Clint and Antoinette and Sarah from Abracadabra, we were working on this whole building as an idea together, and then it didn’t work out for them. But I recognized it was perfect for what I need. So, it was in the works, in theory, but it was a matter of the right space and timing. Then once that happened, Chris lives down in Claremont, Charlestown area, so the idea had been about going down that way, and I think he was excited to have a spot to make his own.
Taylor: I don’t want to make the whole interview about Covid, but clearly it’s been an unusual year, for businesses in general, but especially for businesses like this that involve physical touch. How has navigating that been for you?
Brian: We shut down probably two or three weeks before a mandate. I’m lucky because my wife works in public health, so we saw it coming. So we shut down, and really, like everyone we thought, ‘Oh, a couple months, and then it’s all normal again.’
Taylor: Just like everyone.
Brian: Just like everyone. Probably a month in when we realized it was a sustained issue, it became about educating ourselves on as much as, scientifically, we could see unfolding, to know what that meant. The month and a half before we reopened, I started coming down here every Friday and organizing and writing out ideas for what to do and listening to the Governor’s presentations, which were really helpful. I think Mark Levine is his name, the doctor?
Taylor: Yeah, he’s great.
Brian: I’m gonna make Mark Levine Fan Club shirts. That guy is the shit. I really like him.
So, then it went to phase two of how much can I understand the problems. We started talking to other friends who owned shops, trying to figure out what that looked like. Then we got that green light. The first couple weeks were like anything where you’re developing muscle memory for new practices. The first few weeks to a month were a lot slower, we were doing just one or two tattoos a day, figuring out how to clean and disinfect when people left, and getting used to tattooing in masks, which was its own weird thing. At least in tattooing you’re already dealing with blood-borne pathogens and contagions and cleaning and sterilizing, so that stuff all made sense and was in place, but it was about redefining how you work.
I think one of the hard parts is there are varying opinions on how strict or not strict. We’ve erred on the side of as much caution as possible. I’d say, for the most part, everyone in the Upper Valley who we’ve tattooed is on board. There have maybe been two or three circumstances where someone comes in without a mask, and I’m like yo, put this on or go. It’s been tough for some of my friends and clients that are in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York that even if they, as people, have good practices, our priority here has been to operate without going outside the Upper Valley. The idea we had was not to be a reason why people are coming from out of our area, to affect our bubble. So, it’s been a bit of an adjustment, but we’d rather be more cautious than not. It’s people’s lives, ultimately.
It’s been good, we’ve been busy.
Taylor: You’ve had the longest waiting list ever.
Brian: It keeps growing, which is cool. Thank you. Thanks, humans, my family appreciates you.
Taylor: And if you’re sustainable from business in the area, then you don’t need to expand.
Brian: Yeah, totally. I think part of it is no one has done anything in a long time, so a tattoo is like, ‘Oh shit, we’re gonna go hang at Standard Company and look at a bunch of pictures and listen to cool music. Brian’s gonna make weird jokes, Caleb’s gonna dance, and Amber’s gonna be sassy.’ I think part of it is that people just want to get out and do something.
Taylor: And if you’re not spending money on travel and gas, then that gives you more money to spend on tattoos, right?
Brian: Yeah, and food, and the bar… After three months of seeing no one except for Zoom meetings, the first couple days were weird. It’s all a bit more normal now.
Taylor: So, pandemic aside, how has having your own shop compared with your expectations of it? Was there anything that turned out exactly like you thought, or anything that was entirely different?
Brian: There was a big idea of what it would be, but I think for me that’s mostly an emotional idea. I don’t know that I had specific expectations other than an emotional state I would feel while I practiced the craft of tattooing.
Taylor: And do you feel you’ve achieved that?
Brian: I think we’ve gotten there. I’m worried all the time about stuff – more than the hope of what it could be was the concern. Like, ‘There’s never been a shop with all these pictures on the wall right in town, what if it doesn’t work.’ I think there was so much time spent considering, ‘How do I safeguard if for some reason no one ever gets a tattoo again?’ [laughs] But the success on the other end has been an enjoyable surprise.
I’m quirky. So it is nice to have a space where if I want to listen to weird Italian ‘80s disco music and dance for 10 minutes, I can do that. That feels really good.
The community response has been way more than I could have expected. There’s a part of me that wishes I had taken more space on initially because, especially in a pandemic, to space out, and with the growth rate that’s occurring – but at the same time, playing it smart and safe in a pandemic, when there was no income for three months and people supported me via t-shirts and hoodies and paintings, I was able to make that work because I didn’t take on too much. It’s a nice problem to be like, ‘Oh, too many people want tattoos.’ That’s a resolvable issue. If nobody wants the tattoos… that’s like, well, then I should sling some t-shirts.
T-shirts will be the next job. Followed by piano tuning.
Taylor: Speaking of which, outside of tattooing, you seem to keep really busy, as well, with graphic design and art projects. What were some of your favorite non-tattoo art projects?
Brian: Back when things were really hard, I finished doing this signage for Lalo’s Taqueria for Eddie Moran. That was fun, both the designing, which recently, I’ve been kind of nerding out on making my own typeset, so making the letters for that sign was really fun. I’d never tried to do a sign of that size, and then to make the front rooster and the rear rooster look similar – I’m not really good at reproducing stuff. So I finished the front side and was like – ‘That looks tight,’ and then I was like ‘Oh no, you have to do it again on the back,’ and I totally had a heart sink moment. But it worked really well. That one I’m really proud of.
I mean, all of The Pilgrims things ever, that’s my favorite. I’ve actually made them a lot of stuff that got turned down because it was too weird and inappropriate. But all of the Pilgrims stuff is really fun.
Taylor: Do you have a dream collab? Like a local business or anyone that you would love to design something for or with?
Brian: I have my Upper Valley crush businesses.
Taylor: Let’s talk about who they are so we can let them know.
Brian: Morgan at Valley Flower, she can do no wrong, I think it’s the coolest shop ever. I think of my favorite businesses, she’s the only one I haven’t done something with.
Then Eddie – Lalo’s Taqueria, formerly Tacos Tacos. That was a cool one – I made a cactus man for his truck that kind of looked like me. That was totally not on purpose. And the sign I did for the back of the truck, it’s in the taqueria now, it’s two skeletons eating dinner with a rooster on the center plate. I love that one. It’s cool because it’s weathered from all the miles that that trailer had.
And then, of course – the door I did for Abracadabra. The bathroom door. The shitter reaper. That’s me. That might be one of my favorites. It’s a reaper rising up out of the toilet and in a very metal font it says “Shitter.” Clint claims he’s going to take that door if they ever move.
I am a huge fan of C&S Pizza, can’t get over it. I want to make them t-shirts and stickers and merchandise. I’ll probably just do it one day. I’ll probably just mail them a mock-up. I really want to make pizza t-shirts.
Taylor: This is your chance to manifest it, it’s going to go out in the press, you can just let them know.
Brian: Hello C&S, I’d like to make a bunch of merchandise for you, thank you.
Taylor: It’s like sliding into the DMs but not quite.
Brian: I don’t think C&S has Instagram. I think that’s why I love them. They’re so good.
Funkalicious is the place next door, I’ve been doing work for Kevin.
Who else is on my list. Years ago, when the bowling alley was in White River—
Taylor: The bowling alley strip club?
Brian: Yeah, totally. When I moved up here, I didn’t know what was going on there, and I was at Shenanigans drinking beer and drawing weird pictures on napkins and all these people kept pouring in. Finally I looked at the bartender and was like, ‘I don’t mean to be weird, but where are all the people going?’ because there was no one in this big bar. And she goes, ‘Oh, sweetheart, you don’t know there’s a titty bar in the back?’ When I found that out my dream that point was to make t-shirts for the whole thing and call it the Family Fun Center with two bowling balls and pin, arranged, you know… so that’s a dream unfulfilled. When they went under I was sad that we never got to make the Family Fun Center shirts.
Taylor: What is the artistic process like for you – do you have a ritual, like “This is my space and this is my time,” or are you just throwing stuff down as it comes to you?
Brian: It happens a lot of different ways. One, it should be noted that I have 3½-year-old twins. We don’t have any family or support in the area, and my wife works a real serious job, too. So my existence is a whirlwind of total and utter chaos. So it kind of depends what it is.
Generally, my process for clients is that a week or two weeks before, I start looking out at the calendar and then I start drawing. It’s become busy enough with custom drawings that you have to make an appointment or I don’t have time, between the multiple customs in a given week and the freelance stuff. Then usually for my own joy and sanity, I’m always working on line drawings. A lot of these are doodling at home or on the couch or in-between things. A lot of the stuff I make that becomes flash are mostly joy drawings that I want to make. Those usually come out in a few different ways. Sometimes it’s just by shape, sometimes I’ll see something and be like ‘Oh, that’s cool as shit, I should make something like that.’
Taylor: I would imagine that someone who comes to you has a good sense of your style and your approach, but have you ever completely clashed with someone?
Brian: One of the tougher things in modern tattooing is that clients have access to the whole internet. And it’s not ever a client’s fault that they don’t understand that someone who makes pictures like these doesn’t make tattoos like that. So there can be a lot of explaining, like, ‘Hey, I know that they’re both tattoos and they’re pigment in your skin, but the way that I approach them doesn’t result in that look.’ It happens, but I think it’s better as a business, instead of either making them get how you would do it, or doing a bad job at how they want, I just send them to other places. Most people like that. Sometimes people are annoyed, and I have to be like, ‘I mean, I can do it, it’ll just be mediocre, and I don’t want to make a mediocre thing. It’s probably better if you were to get ahold of Chris Bowen, or go down to Goodfellows, or get ahold of Amber.’ I like the idea that someone can trust that if I say I can do it, then we can do it. If it’s something I don’t feel comfortable with, I can tell you to try somewhere else.
Taylor: You’ve got good artistic boundaries, that’s awesome. And thinking about when you were talking about setting up the shop and how it looks, there’s something redeeming in putting forward who you are and what your style is, because you’re going to attract people who are attracted to that.
Brian: Exactly, and that’s worked really well here. It is still funny, you’ll get someone who comes in for something that looks nothing like anything on the walls and they’re real oblivious to it, and we’re never rude, but it’s definitely a chuckle. But also, it’s cool. I’d rather have more people interested in tattoos than not, and if you’re an asshole, you’re just hurting the reputation of being a tattooer.
We’re in it all day, we’re a bunch of nerdy people who look at tattoos. And we’re like, ‘Oh that’s a bit of a subgenre between traditional and neo traditional due to the color-blending but the increase in the black whip shading really keeps it in the pocket.’ No one should know that but us. I don’t want to go to a restaurant and the chef is like, ‘Well, we’re not technically a fusion because there’s a lack of the use of a sesame oil within this particular dish.’ I don’t want to hear that.
Taylor: You don’t want to know how the sausage is made?
Brian: No, I kind of do. I love to cook. One of my dream collaborations is taking over Kevin’s kitchen for a couple nights every few months and cooking. I love to cook.
Taylor: What would you cook?
Brian: I don’t know. Dumplings, pizza, breakfast.
Taylor: You mentioned the twins. Has being a father impacted the way that you approach your art or your business?
Brian: Sure. Part of the idea of this shop was triggered a lot by them. I grew up in a small, rural town in Ohio, and there was no real subculture. There was like two types of people and that was about it. So having the kids even as a general idea, growing up in a town like that, was like, ok, how do I contribute to the already very cool culture and scene that was happening here that I want to be more abundant in my child’s existence.
When we were building this out, I loved watching the high school students walking by and there were these looks, at the mural, or Caleb and I dancing to power pop, and just the idea of what’s a tough tattooed man, but we’re in here dancing to some lady-fronted power tunes. I like that, and for my kids, I like that that is a thing.
But yeah, what don’t kids challenge? It challenges everything. I’m definitely way more efficient, cause I think they ate out at least 50% of my neurotic brain, because I needed it to focus on them. So I’m way streamlined. They chewed off the wasteful parts.
Taylor: That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. The people I know who are the most efficient at getting shit done are the people with kids, because they’re like, ‘Ok, I’ve got an hour,’ and they punch it all out.
Brian: Month five to eight is when they’re like Pac-Man. Just imagine Pac-Man just eating all the wasteful, time-consuming parts of you. And it hurts, it hurts real bad. Then you come out the other side, and you’re like ‘Dude, I can do everything in 20 minutes, no problem.’
I also draw a lot more robots, skull guys, ray guns, and swords, because my son is obsessed with them. [points to skull guy, double-ray gun, astronaut] This tattoo here, I drew for him and he’s just been waiting for someone to get it. He’ll ask every couple weeks, ‘Did anybody get the skull guy with ray guns?’ And I’m like ‘Not yet, buddy, but we’re getting close, man.’ So the whole robot phase was triggered by him. He made me draw a really good ray gun the other night, I gotta bring it in. I was really proud of that.
Taylor: And what are your kids’ names, remind me?
Brian: Emerson Owen Barthelmes and Poppie Annalynn Barthelmes. We call them Poppie and Emmy. Poppie’s named after my wife’s father who passed away, who we called Poppie. Emerson is loosely named after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Owen, Mike Kinsella from American Football. He’s kind of named after two very smart, bitchy poets.
Taylor: Love American Football.
Brian: I’ve had a crush on Mike Kinsella forever. Mike Kinsella if you somehow read this #Owen, I’ll make you all kinds of drawings. Please. Big fan.
Taylor: Speaking of which, you’ve tried on a bunch of different things for work and creatively (football, music). I know tattoo artists who are either like, this is it, I’m going to tattoo until my back hurts and I can’t do it anymore, or they’re like eh, tattooing is cool for now and we’ll see what happens. Do you think tattooing is it for you, you’re going to do it until you can’t do it anymore, or do you think this is a step in the process?
Brian: I think it’s probably both. Tattooing is magical enough that I can’t see ever getting sick or bored of it. Also, it’s a thing I wanted to do as a kid. I’m living my kid fantasy, so that doesn’t really get old. There’s enough to tattooing, the drawing, the implementation, the machines, the pigments, there’s the inter-personal part of it. There’s enough that yes, I think until I die I’ll be tattooing and getting tattooed in some capacity. But also, I know me, and I’m sure there’ll be some point where I spend like half a year doing some insane shit. Building instruments in South America while learning afro-beats from indigenous people. But I’ll still come back and tattoo.
Tattooing has held my attention longer than I think anything in my existence. And I haven’t even broke through to its understanding, it’s been a bunch of years. I think that’s why I like it. I’m like, ‘Oh, I can’t just beat you in a year? Wow, this is an incredible tradition.’ So yeah, I’m sure in some capacity I’ll tattoo forever. But I’m definitely going to get distracted and make a jazz quintet at some point, that also is like a comedy show mixed with like education and physics. I don’t know.
Taylor: Now, you did a pin for WinnyWeezy, right?
Brian: I’ve done a couple. The newest one we have is called Michael Jarden, air bod. It’s a Michael Jordan vignette of Air Jordan, but it’s a middle-aged dad with a dadbod. I’m stoked on that one. The amount of detail we got in. He’s bald with a lowball glass, and a polo, crocs, shorts, and socks. Michael Jarden, that’s so we don’t get sued. Michael Jordan, if you sue me, it’s cool, I love you, too, you’re my childhood hero, bud. I saw you on a helicopter once, it was amazing.
Taylor: Yes, the reach of this piece is definitely going to go that far, for sure. You’re giving me a lot to aspire to.
Brian: Totally. Dig into my love of Michael Jordan, that’s a whole other subject.
Taylor: What has the process of bringing in other artists to the shop been like? Did you approach them or did they come to you?
Brian: It’s mostly just all friends. Noah and I really did a lot of growing together. Originally he was going to open this with me and then he got a really good job opportunity and ended up down in Tennessee. So whenever he’s up, he works here.
Dan B who has worked here a bunch and who I’d love to eventually work here all the time, I met through Sam Pao, who did the mural and who’s incredible.
Taylor: They also did the mural at Lalo’s.
Brian: Yep. Wrong Brain is Sam’s place. We’ve been trying to have a Wrong Brain 2 up here. Cause Sam’s art is amazing and Sam’s clothing is incredible, but Sam also has sort of a collective arts space geared towards queer, transgender, displaced youth.
Caleb, who’s apprenticing and getting good really, really fast, he’s been kind of following me around since he was 19. I gave him his first tattoo when he was 19. People always say they want to be a tattooer, and he’s kept doing it. So he’s been with me in some capacity for three years, three and a half years. He’s doing great.
And then bringing on Amber and then our buddy Jeff who’s helping out, we all wanted to work together for awhile and the situation seemed like the needs all intersected.
Really, the struggle has been – I’m a good tattooer and a draw man, a good idea dude. I’m not a very good business person. So, getting Drea to start taking over that. Bringing her on has been great. Drea and I have been talking about working together in some way for a long time.
Taylor: She’s gotten a lot of tattoos from you.
Brian: Yeah, I started tattooing Drea from like before day one. So, finally our evolutions aligning put Drea back into the ability at the time that I needed help, which is the only reason it’s been possible to start adding more people. Cause that’s the part I’m not good at, but luckily Drea is. We kind of meet in the middle.
Taylor: What’s a favorite tattoo that you’ve done in the last couple months?
Brian: You know what tattoo I can’t get over? On Chris Rosenquest – of Hanover Strings, WinnyWeezy, check the web – I did this chicken head on him. It shouldn’t have been special for any particular reason. But I can’t get over that tattoo. It’s just a head of a chicken. I have been tattooing Chris in some capacity for a long time, and I have known Chris since Rhode Island, 10-12 years ago, playing music. He always kind of wants tattoos where I’m like, ‘Don’t do that.’ That particular night, we were trying to sell him on something tough, and I think he threw out, ‘Chicken head,’ and I was like, ‘I love to draw chicken heads.’ I drew this chicken head and he jokingly calls it the toughest chicken. It’s not really that tough. I can’t get over that tattoo. There’s this big ol’ comb. I love that chicken. You would think that some UFO stealing like a pig-dog, racing away – I love all those too. But for whatever reason, that stupid chicken. I’ve got a lot of chickens in town.
I think one of the highlights of the past couple years, maybe it was last year, a guy named Tyler Barsaleau who I’ve been tattooing for a long time, he had this weird gap above his bicep, and he said, ‘Draw me one of those weird robot things, and just do whatever.’ It ended up being the head of a horse with a space astronaut helmet into these two human arms that were alien-colored, wearing a power ring, that then went into a fish body, and the fish tail wrapped all the way around, and the whole back of the fish body had chrome shielding and tubes all over. That one I like because it was all the tricks I love and was so bizarre. When you’re drawing to a weird gap it makes you do weird stuff. I maybe wouldn’t have made the human arms and the fish tail, but it was this gap that was perfect for an arm and a fish body.
Taylor: Is there anything I didn’t ask about or that we didn’t touch on that you want to give lip service to?
Brian: I’m a huge fan of donuts. I’d love to see more upstart donut businesses in the Upper Valley.
Taylor: I support that. Have you done any donut tattoos?
Brian: I’ve done a few. I draw donuts a lot. Last Halloween my kids couldn’t decide if they wanted to be a bad guy Power Ranger character or a donut. So I made a bad guy Power Ranger character that was an evil donut. It had a big donut front, and a clown wig, and a leather jacket.
I could, for days, talk about weird things.
Interview has been edited for length.
Taylor K. Long is a writer, editor, and photographer based in Windsor, VT. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Press, New York Magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more.