[Featured Photo by Maddie Fox Photography – Megan Hoogland at work]
Mankato business owner Megan Hoogland is an artist of incredible skill. She can create photorealistic images of just about anything: stalking tigers, grinning GIs, beloved grandmothers, famous celebrities like Johnny Cash and Marilyn Monroe. When you look at Hoogland’s work, it’s like looking at a photo—which is even more impressive when you realize that her canvas is actually the human body.
Hoogland, who owns Mecca Tattoo on Broad Street in Mankato, is one of the top female tattoo artists in the U.S. In her more than 20 years of experience, she has traveled around the world with her work and been featured in national and international magazines. Her tattoos win awards at national conventions, while her reputation has grown so much that she currently has a one-year waiting list for eager clients.
“It’s really addicting once you start doing it,” Hoogland said about her work. “Once you get hooked, that’s all you want to do.”
A different path
Hoogland grew up in Owatonna and planned to become an interior designer after she graduated from Owatonna Senior High School. She moved to Arizona for her schooling, but she returned after three years because she realized that wasn’t the path she wanted to pursue after all.
It’s really addicting once you start doing it. Once you get hooked, that’s all you want to do.Megan Hoogland
At the time, the 22-year-old wasn’t sure what was going to come next—until a friend of hers suggested she become a tattoo artist. Hoogland had always had a knack for anything artistic even without any advanced study, and the idea of working on human bodies intrigued her. So, she found an apprenticeship—the only real way to learn the art of tattooing.
“You have to apprentice,” she explained. “You can be self-taught, but that’s seriously a hard way to learn. I learned from the person that I was with the first year in Owatonna, and then, when I started traveling, that’s when I started learning from other people.”
Hoogland spent some time tattooing in Northfield before moving to Mankato in 1998. She started with a private studio, Cactus Tattoo, but eventually opened her new business, Mecca Tattoo, located in an old Victorian house on Broad Street, in 2011.
Honing her craft
Hoogland said it took her about five years to really become an expert in her craft. She specializes in portrait tattooing and reproduction work, especially large-scale, black-and-gray pieces. However, she’s also a master with color, geometric designs and anything else a customer might request. Depending on the size and intricacy of the request, her work can take up to 30-60 hours to complete, and she has a one-year waiting list for new clients (returning clients can get in a bit sooner).
One challenge Hoogland faced when she first started was the fact that tattoo artists were very secretive and didn’t want to share tips or advice with anyone else. All that changed around 1998, when more tattoo artists began participating in conventions where experts could demonstrate their craft and discuss the industry together. These conventions usually last a weekend and attract artists from around the world.
I learned something new every time I went and met new people.Megan Hoogland
“That’s when the industry started getting better as a whole, because people started sharing information instead of keeping it themselves and their shop and not sharing their secrets,” Hoogland said.
Hoogland has traveled to dozens of conventions throughout the last 15 years, both as a visitor and as a presenter. She started small, visiting events in Minneapolis and La Crosse, Wis., then expanded to places like Florida and California. Eventually, she added international locations like South Africa, Puerto Rico, England, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada. For the overseas conventions, she would usually schedule a two-week trip and set up a guest spot at a local parlor.
“Conventions are just a big party,” she said with a laugh. “All we did was tattoo for 12 hours a day and drink all night. It was a huge networking [opportunity]. We would just sit around and watch each other work and ask questions and share information. I learned something new every time I went and met new people.”
As fun as the conventions are, though, they can bring their own challenges—notably, the time commitment required to attend. Hoogland has four kids, and she said it was difficult to maintain a presence at conventions around the world with a baby in tow.
“I was still raising a family and traveling,” she said. “If I had a baby, I’d take the kid with me and someone to help me watch her. [My daughter] has been to Milan, but she doesn’t remember it. It was something that I had to do. If I got invited to a big show like that, I wasn’t going to turn it down just because of the kids. It’s been really hard to have a career and raise kids. Obviously, your kids come first, but you have to support your career too, because if you back off from self-promotion at all, it’s really easy to be forgotten.”
A world-class artist
It was through these conventions—and some “shameless self-promotion,” as Hoogland says—that she started to really carve out a name for herself in the tattoo scene, eventually becoming one of the best-known female artists in the world. She began getting invited to conventions as a featured artist, beating out artists from around the world to participate in the International Puerto Rico Tattoo Convention in 2019. She’s won countless convention competitions, though she doesn’t enter them; instead, folks sporting her work on their skin will enter their tats as a thank-you to her, and she’ll bring home the trophies.
I was always striving to learn as much as I could. That’s how I became the best.Megan Hoogland
For Hoogland, the trophies are nice, but they’re not her goal; that’s simply to always become a better artist.
“I was always striving to learn as much as I could,” she said. “That’s how I became the best.”
Hoogland was also featured in a slew of magazines, such as Inked, Tattoo Flash and Tattoo Society. In 2010, she was voted as Best Tattoo Artist by the Minneapolis City Pages, and she was listed as one of the top 100 tattoo artists in the world in the book Tattoo Prodigies 2 (2014) and the Mammoth Book of Tattoo Art (2011). She also helped secure Mecca Tattoo’s “Best Tattoo Parlor” win awarded by Southern Minn Scene Magazine in 2016.
All in a day’s work
Hoogland has eight artists working in her parlor, which recently added laser removal and cosmetic tattooing services. The business has expanded so much that it took over the second floor of its building last year. There’s still space for one more artist, but Hoogland said she doesn’t plan on expanding much more right now.
“I think our shop’s as big as it could be,” she said. “With eight artists and laser removal, we’re pretty full right now.”
Hoogland herself has been extremely busy in recent months, though she’s trying to cut back so that she actually has a day off now and then. In addition, she can’t work for too long at a time because—like most tattoo artists—her back and neck start to suffer from the positions she’s in as she works.
“It’s really hard for me to work all day, because my neck ends up hurting,” she said.
I can’t imagine doing anything else. Any negative aspects of the job are outweighed by the job itself.Megan Hoogland
Another challenge might not be so obvious: She has to not only skillfully ink her customers but also keep them occupied during their hours-long sessions.
“It’s actually really stressful, because you have to not only work on someone and put something permanent on them, but you have to entertain them while they’re there,” she said. “You have to have some sort of sparkling personality, or otherwise people aren’t going to want to spend a lot of time with you.”
Despite these challenges, Hoogland said there’s nothing she would rather be doing.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “Any negative aspects of the job are outweighed by the job itself. Our job is pretty awesome.”