Before agreeing to tattoo his subjects, Kalispell artist Jake Bertelsen hands them a questionnaire, to better understand their vision.
If it doesn’t jibe with his passion and artistic energy – if the client is looking for an off-the-wall rosebud or a Marvin the Martian, for example – he might send them somewhere else.
Don’t mistake his passion and selectivity for arrogance, though. Bertelsen is merely acknowledging that he’s not the best-suited artist for every tattoo.
But then, Bertelsen’s tiny backwoods studio outside of Kalispell doesn’t draw just anyone off the street. People seek him out, hailing from all over the state because of his atypical style. And now, on the heels of winning a pile of awards at the 208 Tattoo Festival in Boise, Idaho, he’s building name recognition in the region.
Still, for Bertelsen it’s also about honesty, which is why he expects a deeper relationship with his clients.
“I mean, I tattoo in the middle of the woods, there’s turkeys running around outside. But people drive from all over the state to get tattoos from me,” Bertelsen said. “I have these people come into my life, and they’re not necessarily artists, but they have a vision. I want to get to know my clients and find out as much as I can about that vision.”
If you’re going to spend north of 80 hours under a stranger’s humming tattoo gun, establishing a relationship takes on an elevated level of importance.
But the questionnaire wasn’t necessary when Bertelsen agreed to ink a sleeve for Tien Pham Windauer, the Vietnam-born, Columbia Falls transplant whose restaurant, Tien’s Place, is a community fixture, and whose remarkable escape from Communist-controlled Vietnam to Northwest Montana makes him something of marvel.
Windauer has also been unwavering in his support for Bertelsen, both as an artist and a young man. They’ve both endured good times and bad.
When Windauer hit a rough patch as a young man, Bertelsen’s uncle was a strong model of support, and Windauer has in turn offered ballast to Bertelsen when he fell on turbulent times.
“With Tien, it was different because I have known him for so long,” Bertelsen said. “He was there for me when I was tattooing myself in my parents’ basement under the glow of a headlamp, and he was there for me when I went to Boise and won a major tattoo contest.”
At the 208 Tattoo Festival, attended by some of the best tattoo artists in the world, Bertelsen won first place for the black-and-white sleeve category, taking the honors for the sleeve he inked on Windauer, who attended the convention.
Bertelsen also won second place for large-scale color tattoo, while a portrait of Bruce Lee on his wife placed second in the black-and-gray portrait category.
But Windauer’s tattoo is unique, both because of the relationship it illustrates and the story it tells.
Windauer’s unlikely journey to Columbia Falls from Vietnam began in 1983. Under the cover of dark, Windauer and 49 other refugees, known as “boat people,” fled the war-torn country in his father’s wooden fishing boat, skippering the vessel down a machine-gun patrolled route on the Mekong River, a perilous escape choked with hundreds of dead bodies – a haunting reminder of the danger they faced. He was 13 years old.
When the Malaysian coast guard discovered Windauer’s boat, many of the passengers had fallen desperately ill, but miraculously they all survived. By the time they arrived at a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Windauer was so weak that he needed intravenous therapy.
One widely cited book estimates that 500,000 of the 2 million Vietnamese “boat people” died during the escape, but Windauer said escaping the oppressive Vietnamese government was worth the risk.
Once he had successfully escaped to Malaysia, Windauer was selected from among thousands of Vietnamese children as the adopted son of Bob and Judy Windauer, of Columbia Falls, in March 1984.
As an adult, Windauer had his father’s fishing boat tattooed broadly across his back, a symbol of overcoming odds, and a token of his gratitude to his father’s sacrifices.
But the story wasn’t complete.
He’s since started a successful business and raised a family in a community he loves and supports, and he wanted to express that storyline as well.
To help him with that expression, he selected an artist he’s long believed in – Bertelsen.
“He’s always been such a good kid, and he’s become a good friend,” Windauer said. “It’s just so great to see how far he’s come. I’m proud to showcase his art.”
Bertelsen is preparing to move into a commercial studio off of U.S. Highway 93 between Kalispell and Whitefish. And while his humble beginnings are evolving, he’s committed to the philosophy that has guided him to this point.
“The biggest thing I can say is just be honest with yourself and you can do anything,” he said.