Why you should care

Drew Wilson shows how bluegills, panfish and bass can leap off the skin in vibrant detail.

Apart from their machine, a modern tattooer’s most valuable tool is their Instagram profile — a calling card to show off their work and attract curious customers. One quick look at Drew Wilson’s account makes it clear what type of work he’s into: fish. From bluegills and panfish to smallmouth bass, this avid fly fisherman borrows from his off-duty passion to create stunning fish tattoos.

Sticking to bold outlines and saturated colors, trademarks of the traditional American tattooing style, Wilson inks freshwater fish with faithful detail and eye-catching radiance. Whether leaping from the water or ensnared on a line, the spotted and striped creatures are often designed to wrap around a leg or arm, as a one-off tat or an addition to a colorful sleeve.

Based at Brainstorm Tattoo in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Wilson, who’s also a painter, considers the Ozarks and its cool mountain streams his outdoor playground. “I can leave my front door and be on a smallmouth river in six minutes,” he says.

The designs that wind up on his clients often mirror the colorful trout and other species he catches several days a week. And they’ve earned him a devoted following among both tattoo-lovers and a close-knit community of fishing-crazy tattooers (Yes, such a thing actually exists, Wilson assures me).

Fish constitute only around 10 percent of his work — this is why he savors each one. “They’re extremely organic,” says Wilson, who typically charges about $150 per hour. “You can bend them in any shape, and fit them in any little gap you have.” That’s opposed to the more popular koi fish, which Japanese tradition dictates must be executed proportionally. Particularly striking are Wilson’s “troutnados” — trout wrapped in a multicolored whirlwind.

Josh Hood, from neighboring Oklahoma, has received 14 tattoos from Wilson, including a brown trout emerging from a rose and a scissor-tailed flycatcher, Oklahoma’s state bird. “He genuinely wants the best for you — he doesn’t want to give you something that’s not going to look good,” says Hood of Wilson’s work. Plus, he adds, Wilson’s “the nicest guy you’re ever going to meet.”

For out-of-state clients, Wilson’s happy to create a tattoo and recommend a local artist to ink his design. He looks at it as a way of of giving back to a profession that he says has given him everything. “If you just take from it all the time,” he says, “then you don’t deserve it.”

Just don’t forget to send Wilson a photo of the finished product. You may well end up on his Instagram page— surrounded by a sea, so to speak, of other fish.

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