Though never undergoing the needle himself, well until shortly before the apprenticeship began, the art of giving — and getting — tattoos has developed into a full-blown successful passion for Wilson, who said he was proud to break into the industry here at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Trading in the urban metropolis of St. Louis, Leo Wilson decided around 2008 it was time to join the family business and make the permanent move to the Lake of the Ozarks.

After beginning his career working for his aunt and uncle, apprenticing under his current boss and other longtime Lake-area tattoo artists, Wilson has been a staple at the Bad Donkey Tattoo parlor in Osage Beach since 2009.

Though never undergoing the needle himself, well until shortly before the apprenticeship began, the art of giving — and getting — tattoos has developed into a full-blown successful passion for Wilson, who said he was proud to break into the industry here at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Since 2012, he has won 14 tattoo competition awards and nearly covered himself from toes to neck in various colored ink. His Instagram page, @leotat2, where he showcases thousands of his pieces, boasts nearly 5,000 followers.

“I apprenticed at Lakeside Tattoo down on Bagnell Dam Strip. Worked for my aunt and uncle that owned the shop, and my mother worked worked there, too. I just kind of hung out there and met all the guys and Jared Yarber (owner of Bad Donkey) worked there already. Jim Peters worked there, kind of learned from them, tattooed under Dr. Dave,” Wilson recalled recently at his work station.

“Just coming to the shop and getting tattooed by the guys and meeting everyone, I just kind of got hooked into the system. Once you get them, they’re addicting, you start to think of everything as a new tattoo.”

Though Wilson always considered himself creative, someone who would mess around with paints, rattle spray painting cans, woodburning, and tinkering with scrap metal and wood to make decorative pieces; something about the permanency of imprinting a unique piece of art into a person’s skin has allowed Wilson to explore a new creative avenue to much success and appreciation by his customers.

“It never goes away. You just find a different channel for the art. With this being a busy tourist shop, we’re able to basically take anything that walks in the door and get it done. As opposed to a shop that only does black and white, only color, or new school or realism, we will kind of do it all. It just depends on what the customer wants and we’ll make it happen,” Wilson said.

“Basically they come in with an idea and a placement of where they want their tattoo and what we do is sit down and put our own twist on the tattoo, make it custom. We don’t want to corner anybody in. You’re not going to run across the same tattoos over and over gain.”

With fellow coworkers who go by “Rooster” and “Hawaiian Jim,” the staff at Bad Donkey shares a sense of humor, style and friendship, but also takes their jobs incredibly seriously. The shop is nearly spotless and Wilson is quick to point out safety precautions taken before and after tattoos are completed including proper sanitation, the use of brand new, disposal equipment and after-care products and instructions for customers.

Whether a person is coming off the street for their first tattoo or a long-time reoccurring client, Wilson said the key to quality customer care, as he points out Bad Donkey’s Best of the Lake 2017 tattoo parlor award, is treating everyone the same, making them feel comfortable and working with the client to achieve the best placement and design features.

“You can place something in a bad place and it not look, what I mean is you can have a good tattoo with a bad placement,” Wilson said. “It depends on the tattoo, forearms are a good place, but you have to take into the account the contours of the body, how the tattoo is going to lie. If it’s going across the ribs, you have to take that into consideration in how you lay the design, how it’s going to look afterwards.”

One of Wilson’s favorite aspects of the job is fixing a faded or poorly done tattoo, commonly referred to as a coverup. He enjoys recreating something that has lost meaning or importance, into something new. It’s personal for Wilson as he’s had some of his own tattoos covered up and redesigned as he runs out of available skin.

“I really like doing black and grey right now, just really having a lot of fun with it. You’ll kind of go through stages. When you start getting all the colors you want to play with those a little more,” Wilson said. “Realism and black and grey, it’s really fun. We also like to go to shows and conventions.”

Wilson started entering his work in 2012 and has received 14 awards from various shows in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and an annual tattoo convention in Santa Rosa, Calif. Some of Wilson’s recent awards include “Best New School,” “Best Most Unusual,” “Best Back Piece,” and “Best Small Black & Grey” to name a few.

“You end up going up against 20 to 50 people, usually a judge’s panel with three to four judges each time,” Wilson said. “I got 14 right now, and my goal is to get at least one more. I’m just very proud to represent the Lake, you know it’s where I got my start.”