For many years, tattooing was synonymous with masculinity. Tattoos were often associated with the military or prison, and tattoo shops were run by men. But in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Missy Hoch is evening out the industry with her brand of female energy as the owner and operator of Gold Heart Tattoo, a tattoo shop on the city’s northside.
When Missy was growing up on her family’s apple orchard outside of La Crescent, Minnesota, her exposure to tattoos was mostly through those adorning Hoch Orchard’s seasonal employees. “We had a lot of people working there from all walks of life,” she says, which meant a variety of tattoos and styles. Her interest in the artform only grew from there, and she got her first tattoo on her 18th birthday. She hasn’t stopped since, “I don’t think I’ve gone longer than six months without getting a tattoo.”
A lover of the arts, Missy attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout. After earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2012, she came back home to La Crosse to pursue a career in tattoos. Within a year, she was working at the front desk of a local shop and then started an apprenticeship. “As soon as I was given a tattoo machine, I tattooed all the time,” she says.
A decade ago, female tattoo artists were almost non-existent in the area, Missy says. She estimates that the ratio was 30 male artists to one or two female artists, including herself. “I had plenty of clients that would come in and say, ‘Oh wait, a girl’s tattooing?’ I even had a guy tell me that tattoos are for boys as I’m standing in front of him with my own tattoos.”
She equates it to the former notion that nursing was meant to be a profession only for women. But she’s starting to see a change. “Now it’s much closer to 50/50,” she says. “I am so grateful that we’re evolving.”
When Missy opened Gold Heart Tattoo in 2018, she found herself holding not only the title of artist, but business owner as well. It suits her, even when sometimes it means carrying the burden of the industry’s gender norms. “Being a woman in a male dominated field comes with a million pounds of things you have to deal with,” she says.
“As a female business owner, there is this perception that you don’t have it together and people will try to strong arm you. But I’m lucky to have a support system of female business owners and other women in tattooing.”
She attributes some of this determination to being raised by business owners. Missy watched her parents run their orchard and learned from a young age that “if you want something, you just have to go and do it.” She has enjoyed doing just that for the last five years, taking control of her career and her space.
This “go for it” mentality has followed Gold Heart Tattoo from its first location to its new one, opened in the summer of 2023 just down the block on Caledonia Street. When Missy got the opportunity to purchase the building – one that needed a little love – she jumped, or one might say climbed…14 feet in the air, in fact, to paint the exterior walls. The work has paid off; The space has been transformed into the airy, welcoming, disco-ball-adorned environment she envisioned. It’s “a space I want to hang out in,” she says.
Joining Missy in the space are three male artists – Zane Decker, Mike Marty, and Landon Sheely. They are independent contractors, but together, the four artists are a family. And though tattoo shops aren’t necessarily the first place you think of when you think of family-friendly businesses, Gold Heart is a welcoming space for everyone. “These guys don’t have any of the issues of the ultra-masculine industry,” Missy says. Instead, they bring great ideas and an abundance of dad jokes. “We always say the shop should be called, ‘Old Dad’s Tats’ or ‘Three Dads and a Stepmom,’” Missy laughs. “Nothing is ever super serious here.”
Missy appreciates their input and each of their individual skills. “All of us have our own fortes,” she explains. They push each other as artists, bouncing ideas and techniques off each other. “We are constantly looking at each other’s work,” she says. “We all design using Procreate on our iPads so we’ll watch and say, ‘Oh, that’s how you’re stenciling that.’” The work done at Gold Heart is more collaborative than competitive, with clients often rotating between artists.
Beyond the welcoming, lived-in space the crew is creating inside the Gold Heart Tattoo doors, Missy is excited for the outdoor opportunities the new location offers as well. With a large parking lot and some adjacent green space, she’d like to host outdoor events, possibly even a seasonal art market. She hopes it will also benefit nearby small business owners that, like her, are helping to revitalize their northside neighborhood. “It really feels like the energy on this street is on the precipice of being more art- and small business-focused,” she says. They’ve reminisced about block parties of years past, and now, Missy is hoping these types of events can become a reality. “I’m excited to work with other businesses to amp that up a little more on this side of town,” she says.
When it comes to actually tattooing, Missy’s current interests lie in colorful, illustrative designs. She supplemented her work during the pandemic by doing commissioned pet portraits, and that has overflowed into her tattooing. “I really enjoy tattooing people’s pets,” Missy says.
She also loves pop culture references, particularly anything that she can have a little creative freedom with. “The weirder the better,” she laughs. “If you give me an inch, I’m taking a mile.” From a Harry Styles mermaid to Golden Girls cats, Missy loves to make it creative. “I am going to try to get it as original to you as I can and I’m also going to make it bizarre and hilarious.”
For the time being, this is where Missy is focused. “Right now, it’s about living in this space and experiencing that and just tattooing,” she says. And it’s a great place to be – in a new home with her tattoo family, welcoming clients in the best way. “We want to make sure you get a good tattoo but also have a good time getting a tattoo.”