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Insider Profiles

He Came for the Rock 'n' Roll, but Stayed for the Nature

Bart Willis"I still love the music. If I want to go out and have fun, I know I’m going to be rewarded," says Willis (right).


Bart Willis came to Austin for the music, but took up tattooing to be practical.

"I was playing country, blues. My favorite guys were here — Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, Joe Ely, the Fabulous Thunderbirds," he says. So he left his home in Canada and moved to Texas to pursue a musical career.

But when his wife became pregnant with their first child, Willis decided he needed a better way to support his family. "I'd started getting tattooed in Canada and was friends with a really good tattoo artist there. We both moved to the States about the same time. He agreed to teach me. I loaded up my car to go to California to learn, and came straight back [to Austin] and did it my way. It would have been a two-year apprenticeship [in California]. I needed to be here to be a dad."

So Willis taught himself to tattoo, and his timing was perfect, just as tattoos were going mainstream. He developed a trademark style based on West Coast native art, which he studies every summer in Canada. "I spend time with the natives up there, live on the reserve and study, then I come back and apply it to my art here." Influenced by the heavily tattooed Haida Indians, Willis' "Pacific fusion" designs incorporate bold lines, lots of black and images of nature.

"I'm an outdoors guy," Willis says, and Austin has lots of places for him and his family to go. "We like Zilker park, the botanical gardens. The Lady Bird Wildflower Center is a beautiful place — I love to go out there. And it's always a treat to be able to go out sailing on the lake. Everybody should have a friend with a boat."

He's also a bird-watcher. "You think of Miss Jane from "The Beverly Hillbillies," he says, "but there's a whole little contingent of us rock 'n' roll guys who are into bird-watching."

Central Texas is on a major flyway for migrating birds, and in the springtime you can see them at Hornsby Bend (which is actually a sewage pond). "Anywhere you go in the world, that's where the birds are. It's one of the birding hot spots here," Willis says.

The Texas Capitol, worth visiting in its own right, he says, also gets a surprising number of birds. "It's famous for its warblers, because it has big old trees."

And Willis explores other parts of the Hill Country when he can. "I like Pedernales, all the swimming holes. Tubing in San Marcos is a highlight of every summer. We went to Schlitterbahn a lot when the kids were little. That was big fun."

So Willis came to Austin for the music, but stayed for the nature. And the music. "I still love the music. If I want to go out and have fun, I know I'm going to be rewarded." But his life has taken other turns since he moved down, and he's let his own musical ambitions go. Willis' explanation makes perfect sense: "I don't care for the hours anymore."

Check out Bart's Austin.