Spotlight Iowa City: Needlework as high art


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With bumblebees on their ring fingers, a happy couple walked out of Nemesis Studio about a year ago. But the tattoos weren’t just symbolic — an official ordained minister inked them while simultaneously reading their vows.

Matthew Cooper, an inker and the owner of the South Linn Street store, got ordained in February 1993. It was his brother’s idea.

“I told him, ‘No, not really,’ and he said, ‘Too bad. I already mailed your form in.’ ”

Weeks later, Cooper, an atheist, was a minister thanks to Universal Life Church.

Cooper says he can’t count how many tattoos or weddings he’s performed. For him, the importance of these deeds comes with the “bonds” he develops.

“In terms of the artist-client relationship, there’s not another job out there like it,” the 34-year-old said, and the fun of his work is that people wear it.

He said weddings are fun, too, but they tend to be more serious.

“It’s just as emotional for me as it is for [the couple] — there was one time I had to suck it up and fight back a few tears,” said the burly, bearded man with facial “crop-circle” tattoos and several hoops hanging from his lobes, eyebrows, and bottom lip.

Friday will mark the 10-year anniversary of the first tattoo Cooper performed. He has worked across the nation, but is glad to return to Iowa City, a town the Newton, Iowa, native “fell in love with” as a teen.

“I’ll never feel more comfortable walking around looking the way I do than I do here,” Cooper said.
Cooper got his start in body art as a piercer working in Seattle, where he heard his calling.

“All I did was sit around drawing, and someone asked me one day if I was going to waste my time only being a body-piercer,” he said. His facial tattoos were also a factor in his decision.

“I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘What the hell did I just do? I could have just ruined my life,’ ” he said. “Then I decided I’d just get really good at tattooing.”

Owning Nemesis for almost six years, Cooper has also nailed down the managerial aspects, said John Schmalfeldt, an artist who has worked at Nemesis for more than five years.

“We do things like a team [at Nemesis], so the Coop doesn’t have to come down too hard,” Schmalfeldt said.

According to one of Cooper’s regulars, Jeremy “Junior” Robe of North Liberty, the artist doesn’t come down too hard when he’s tattooing, either.

“I wouldn’t go to anyone else,” Robe said. “He’s very light-handed — he doesn’t grind the needle into you.” Cooper said he honed this touch by doing 27 tattoos on himself.

Cooper even presided over Robe’s wedding, which was a traditional ceremony. Cooper’s other weddings are usually more unorthodox, though, ranging from a three-minute service in a beer garden to a medieval-theme marriage to a Middle-Eastern style in which he wore a peach ceremonial robe.

“That was a special one,” he said. “Because you rarely see me in anything other than black.”

He loves both tattooing and marrying people, Cooper said, and he plans to do both for years to come.

His mother, Marlene Omodt of Modesto, Calif., is proud of the interesting life her son has.

“Not everyone gets to do what he loves,” she said. “He’s very lucky.”

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