Meet Luke Pytlik: tattoo artist, ex-Marine, Rotarian

Tattoo artist Luke Pytlik creates a Rotary wheel on fellow Rotarian Dane Wunderlich's leg.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Dane Wunderlich

The man lying facedown on the table has no business laughing. At the moment, a tool is firing ink-filled needles into his left calf, combining the concussive force of a miniature jackhammer with the power of a pneumatic drill. “Imagine a thousand moving bee stings,” says Dane Wunderlich, describing the needle sensation with a smile. “Or maybe tiny razor cuts.”

“Or being stabbed with a miniature X-Acto knife over and over,” offers Luke Pytlik, the tattoo artist wielding the humming ink injector, as he creates the Rotary wheel that Wunderlich expects to display with pride for the rest of his life.

Pytlik and Wunderlich both belong to the Rotary Club of Temecula Valley-New Generation, located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Wunderlich is the club’s current president, Pytlik its sergeant-at-arms and chair of its international service committee. Wunderlich’s mother has been a devoted Rotarian for decades, so it made sense that he’d become a charter member of his club at a young age. But Pytlik, an ex-Marine, never gave Rotary a thought until he found himself jetting to India in 2012 on a Group Study Exchange. Today, he says simply, “Rotary is my religion.”

As if to prove he literally walks his talk, Pytlik set out with another friend, Army reservist Bradley Petersen, to hike California’s 211-mile John Muir Trail this past July. In the process of getting in shape for it, he came up with the idea of using this trek to raise money for a Rotary project dear to his heart: the rebuilding of a dilapidated elementary school in Nicaragua. He’d discovered the school a few months earlier, on his first international service trip after becoming a Rotarian. In the little town of Francisco Laguna, he had found more than 100 children sitting on a dirt floor under a porous roof in a wobbly structure with only two of its four walls – conditions that Pytlik called “totally unacceptable.” He’d vowed to return and help create a functional building.

Of course, that takes money. To raise funds he sent out fliers, used social media, and promoted the idea of sponsoring his hike by speaking at other clubs in his district. He raised most of the money from his own clients, talking about his plan while tattooing. Thirteen arduous days after they began, Pytlik and Petersen reached the summit of Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

A resourceful, unflappable road warrior, Pytlik is just the sort of person you want to have along on a Rotary mission to places most people don’t even want to know about, let alone visit. My guess is that the District 5330 Rotarians who interviewed Pytlik for the Group Study Exchange picked up on that quiet strength and refreshing lack of swagger.

Although Pytlik says he grew up poor, the Indian experience completely changed his perspective. “You’re walking down the street and there are full-grown men standing in front of a pipe shooting water out into the street, taking showers. Vendors are selling all these different-sized and -colored used dentures, displayed on the ground. There are so many differences in what people think of as their needs, you can’t even comprehend it at first.”

India, says Pytlik, changed everything for him. “Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve stopped being so upset about how things haven’t gone as perfectly as I’d wanted. I thought I’d be rich by the time I was 35. I wasn’t happy. Joining Rotary helped me focus on something outside of what’s going on for me.”

Pytlik’s visit to Nicaragua came about because another club member had wanted to learn to surf. By chance, Crystal Martin had learned that the eco-resort where she attended surf school was partnering with Waves of Hope, a nonprofit Nicaraguan community development group, to provide jobs, repair buildings, and bring fresh water to impoverished locals.

When she returned from Nicaragua and reported on her discovery, club members expressed interest in joining the group’s efforts. By the end of 2012, Pytlik and other club members were helping to repair a school and dig a well in Manzanillo, Nicaragua. During that visit, he came upon the school in Francisco Laguna, vowing to help bring its students four walls, a secure roof, desks to sit at, and a real chalkboard to replace the jagged piece of slate their teacher was writing on. Pytlik estimates the project will run about $20,000 to complete. Whatever it takes, though – another John Muir trek or a walk on the moon – he’s up for the task.

“There’s a saying going around that Rotarians are selfish because of how good we feel when we do something for someone else. That kind of selfish. It’s true for me.”

Adapted from a story in the January 2014 issue of The Rotarian