Custom art is the focus at The Steel Paintbrush, LLC in Hamilton. The tattoo and piercing shop is also an art studio and gallery.

Jennifer Dennison and Liesel Humphrey are owners and artists and Karen Massie is body piercer and tattoo apprentice. Their clean family-friendly shop features their unique artwork styles and has a display board of their current designs. The three artists collaborate and work with customers to get them the design they want.

“People bring in ideas and designs often to commemorate an event or remember a person and then we start from there,” said Humphrey. “It’s really personalized – that’s why we don’t have flash art on our walls. We want people to come in and get something that is completely custom. Most of the time we think ‘what we can create for them that is going to be unique?’”

The three naturally gifted artists were raised in Hamilton. Humphrey said her mother was an excellent artist and Massie has been “dabbling in art” since she could hold a pen, her dad was a jeweler and was all about doodles, drawing and fine details. Dennison has a bachelor of art degree from the University of Montana.

“I’m definitely handy with a computer,” Dennison said. “I have an associate’s degree in information systems management. I really learned how to use a computer and media software. I can throw an image on a computer and pretty much do anything with it. I can draw in Photoshop – take one of my basic drawings, put it in my computer and create anything with it. That’s nice with the tattooing – providing custom designing, custom coloring and more. It is definitely great to have that art background.”

The artists do photography, beadwork, face-painting, pottery, paintings and more. They describe themselves as eclectic artists able to make art that “makes people feel good”.

“We each have our own style for sure,” said Dennison. “I have a more illustrative quality to my work, Liesel does a lot of surreal mountainous landscapes and Karen is more whimsical – a free bird. It is nice to give clients different options in different styles – they can really pick something that speaks to them and is aesthetically pleasing.”

“That’s the cool thing about people coming in and wanting custom work,” said Humphrey. “It takes us out of our comfort zone and pushes us to try things we’ve never tried. It helps us flourish. People bring in an idea and we develop it and put our style on it. Their reaction is priceless – they’re like ‘wow’ – it’s definitely a good feeling.”

“It’s nice when a customer comes in with something they are leaning towards and you draw several versions of it and you’re always excited when they pick your favorite,” said Massie.

The artists begin by listening to their customers’ desires, beginning with a quick survey detailing what they want, the size, pain tolerance, skin quality and tattoo placement. Then the artists work with the client on placement, detail and color, bringing in their artist training and experience. They remind them of the permanence of tattoos and may suggest reconsidering the placement or the drawing in general. They also help customers get the perfect design.

“As tattoo artists our job is to make sure no one leaves here with something they regret,” said Dennison. “Tattoos are permanent – we get a lot of first time customers coming in with old tattoos that they want covered up.

“There is a lot of problem-solving here – every day it is something new. It is a constant learning environment for us and it is great to work in a place where you’re always doing new things and new designs.”

Dennison said the biggest danger of getting a tattoo is blood borne pathogens and infection. She said that at The Steel Paintbrush every tattoo is given in a sterile environment with new needles and “gourmet” ink and customers are given detailed care instructions.

Tattoos only go into the skin about a sixteenth of an inch – piercings are deeper.

“Piercings are fun for me,” said Massie. “Someone wants their nose, belly button, ear pierced and I get excited for them. Piercing is different because it is not necessarily permanent – you can take it out and it will heal up. But it also can show personal character and personality. You can avoid every obstacle when it comes to piercing. People are worried about the tongue because it has big old arteries. Well, you can see them and avoid them easily.”

“You can be more spontaneous with a piercing,” said Dennison. “You can decide you want it and go get it done. It’s fairly inexpensive and when you’re tired of it you can be done with it.”

“And it’s quick,” added Massie. “It literally takes seconds. There can be complications – you get your tongue pierced it’s going to swell up that can cause issues. A barbell rolling around in there can cause tooth decay but you can be careful not to play with it. I’ve never seen anyone have nerve problems with piercings. I wouldn’t recommend foot or hand piercings but the sky is the limit with all the new styles of jewelry.”

The artists believe that having a tattoo studio that is female-owned and operated is unique in Western Montana.

“It makes it a more comfortable environment,” said Massie. “If a customer comes in and wants a tattoo in a more discrete place, she may not feel as comfortable with a male tattoo artist and the same with a guy. He may not want another guy tattooing him in a certain area. It is nice to have the option to go with what you’re comfortable with.”

“We really try to make this place as clean, friendly and comfortable as possible,” said Dennison.

“Whether you’re four and in to get your ears pierced or 72 and here to get a tattoo, we try to make every demographic happy,” said Humphrey. “We don’t want to look like your standard tattoo parlor.”

There are age requirements. For tattoos and piercings the minimum age is 18 unless there is a parent present. The youngest age for ear lobe piercing is three years.

The trio of artists have been friends for over 15 years and said The Steel Paintbrush feels like a family business.

“We aim for the most positive, comfortable, family-friendly environment,” said Dennison. “We wanted to pursue our passions and create what people like. I think that’s what everyone looks for – the ability to follow their dreams and passions.”

“We see a lot of smiling faces,” said Massie. “That’s what makes it great – a lot of happy people satisfied with the work we’ve done. Referrals are a great feeling. Our tattoo shop is kid-friendly with a chalk board wall and crayons and colors. We’re not just tattoos we are ‘art central’ and encourage art.”

“We have our own style that we want people to come in and check out and see what we can do for them,” said Humphrey. “Word of mouth is getting around pretty fast that we’re very clean, professional and talented.”

The Steele Paintbrush is now open five days a week – Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m., at 925 N. First Street, Hamilton. For more information call (406)214-7200.

Reach reporter Michelle McConnaha at 363-3300 or


Staff Reporter

Reporter at The Ravalli Republic