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Meet the team behind Artery Ink — a Milwaukee company that wants you to love your insides

Mara Natkin (left) and Gloria Ramirez are the artists, founders and owners of Artery Ink in Milwaukee, Wis.
Audrey Nowakowski
Mara Natkin (left) and Gloria Ramirez are the artists, founders and owners of Artery Ink in Milwaukee, Wis.

Would you be able to identify and draw what the lungs look like? How about a spleen, heart, or even our GI tract? There’s a Milwaukee company that specializes in apparel featuring hand drawn anatomically correct designs. Through t-shirts, cards, prints, stickers and more — their mission is to build community while inspiring you to love your insides.

Artery Ink was founded by Mara Natkin and Gloria Ramirez. Both have a background in art: Natkin is a trained illustrator and Ramirez a graphic designer. They’ve been together for 14 years and married for four, and their shared love of art paired with a fascination of the human body eventually led them to leave their service industry jobs and start Artery Ink in 2014.

"Floral Guts" by Artery Ink. The drawing shows the stomach, small intestines and large intestines, which make up part of your "gut."
Image courtesy of Artery Ink
"Floral Guts" by Artery Ink. The drawing shows the stomach, small intestines and large intestines, which make up part of your "gut."

Natkin explains how key health struggles in their families shifted their perspectives and careers to make the leap into becoming art entrepreneurs: "It was actually in 2013 that my aunt passed away from breast caner, my grandpa died, and [Gloria's] aunt died all within a week of each other. And it was very hard and it really made us think about our lives and were we doing what we wanted to be doing," she recalls.

From reflecting on their careers to their personal art, Natkin and Ramirez also started their own journeys into improving their health and wellness. This led them to see a doctor who explained how the whole digestion system worked and what it could impact. Natkin says they were "shocked" by what they learned.

"How did we not know what goes on in there?! We were becoming fascinated with learning about it, understanding how our bodies worked, changing what we were eating, changing our lifestyles," she explains. "And we couldn't believe how awesome we started to feel, and we became really passionate about that, and we thought, how can we relate this in our art in some way?"

Thus Artery Ink was born. Not only does the pair love a good pun, but all of their drawings are done with pen ink and all the shirts are screen printed with ink as well. The company started with greeting cards, prints, and just a few shirts.

Ramirez said they knew that they had something special because people were intrigued by the anatomically correct designs and the demand to be at markets and shows increased. "There was a point where we're like, 'OK, if we don't explore this one 100% we're never going to know the potential of it. So we decided to quite the service industry and give our full attention to Artery."

What originally started part time in a 10x10 bedroom, Artery Ink now has seven team members and work out of a 4,800 square-foot studio on the south side of Milwaukee. As the business grew, healthcare professionals started becoming interested in their designs and started to request custom shirts.

Image courtesy of Artery Ink
Artery Ink's "Heart of Healthcare" design. Hidden within the anatomical heart design are healthcare objects such as a stethoscope, mask, test tubes, ambulance, EKG, syringe, DNA, a thermometer and more.

    "We were at a point where we'll just say yes to everything and figure it out and just try," recalls Natkin. "If someone would’ve told me that I was one day going to create anatomically correct illustrations for medical professionals, I’d be like, no way! Because I didn’t go to school for that. I didn’t even know what a spleen looked like; I didn’t understand all that. And it's just such a good testament to say you don't have to know it all in order to figure it out and be successful at doing it."

    As interest in Artery Ink grew, especially from healthcare professionals, Natkin and Ramirez note they had to educate themselves on drawing anatomy. From coaching from an anatomy doctor to visiting a cadaver lab for research, all the designs they make are true to the human body — minus the artistic details on the inside of the organs.

    "We'll work with [the healthcare workers] to make sure [the design] is right, and that's been such a fun thing especially as we get into these different departments," says Natkin.

    Some of their designs feature the heart, brain, lungs, the spine, the digestive and urinary system and much more. Ramirez says that each design goes through a type of collaborative dance between her and Natkin until it's ready to digitalize for printing.

    "Very early on it just became a thing for the both of us, where Mara does the actual design digitally and then she prints it for me and then I go in with my pilot fine pen and do all the little details on the inside," she explains.

    Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, Artery Ink shifted their attention to creating designs for shirts that were specifically for fundraisers.

    "We just were heartbroken [for our healthcare friends and community] and thought, what can we do? Can we do anything to help? We were in the process of making 'The Heart of Healthcare' design ... and we were trying to finish it, not knowing what was coming. And then when [the pandemic] happened, we thought this would be a great time to release this design, and we can use it as a fundraiser to raise money for Feed the Frontline campaign," Natkin recalls.

    Image courtesy of Artery Ink
    Part of Artery Ink's January Community Collection is this shirt, "Help Bennett Beat Brain Cancer," to help raise awareness of pediatric brain cancers and provide funds towards advancement and research of pediatric cancers.

    Their goal was to sell 100 shirts, but once they released two designs they sold 900 shirts in the first week and donated $12,000 to the campaign. "We just knew that this is what we had to be doing and continue to do," she adds.

    "Because we know that if you have a platform, we believe that you have to use it for good. Otherwise, what's the point?" says Ramirez. "Giving people an avenue to help is everything for some people, right? A lot of people want to do something they just don't know how. If you give them that something people will show up, most definitely. And we have seen it time and time again."

    Since the pandemic, Artery Ink continues to prioritize giving back through their Community Collection items. One to six items are designed per month that are dedicated to various causes that are for primarily Wisconsin-based organizations.

    "[We're] so grateful that we [are able] to use our art in this way ... and it's really cool to learn about these different causes and be able to support people that we care about and feel like the community cares about too," says Natkin.


    Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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