From inmates to in business

(First published in the April 12, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Jenni Brooks and Ariel Ippolito were in jail together five years ago. Today their salon and tattoo studio is a message that people can turn around


Jenni Brooks (seated) and Ariel Ippolito transformed an empty studio into Meraki Salon and Tattoo, and hope to inspire others to turn their lives around.

Back in 2013, Jenni Brooks and Ariel Ippolito sat in jail together and both had the realization that this wasn’t how they wanted to live their lives anymore. They resolved to change.

Today, the evidence of that change takes the shape of a storefront at 306 First Ave. in Wausau. Brooks opened Meraki Salon and Tattoo March 1, and Ippolito joined her with the tattoo portion of the business on April 1.

It’s a dream both had for some time, and they both worked hard to get the businesses going in short order. Brooks signed the lease on Feb. 1 for the smoky, fading orange colored studio that once belonged to Brian Edwards and in about one month turned it into the fashionable, energetic space it is today. Arial did the same with the room behind the salon, transforming a storage area into a posh little tattoo studio complete with a mermaid theme (which is decidedly a theme of many of her own tattoos).

The road to business owner wasn’t easy for the two, who both have had trouble with the law in the past. They say some of their former correction officers and probation agents are now clients at Meraki. Brooks and Ippolito are open about their past, because they want to inspire hope in others who might be in trouble and doubting themselves. “We want people to know that you can change your life, and you don’t have to live like that forever,” Brooks says.

The two wound up in jail at the same time, Ippolito says, for different reasons. Brooks had received her fourth OWI, and Ippolito had been jailed for fighting. They both wanted a different life, and helped give each other confidence and inspiration.

Brooks worked at Master Cuts in the Wausau Center mall until it closed, and then worked for Kasha, which she credits with teaching her the business side of the salon trade. Ippolito worked as an apprentice in Marshfield before starting her own studio connected with Meraki—an important step that allowed her to disconnect from the people in her life associated with criminal behavior. The salon’s name is Greek, meaning to do something with your soul, or putting yourself into what you are doing.

That might be the perfect name to describe what Brooks and Ippolito have done. They both describe a mix of corrections officers who were supportive of them, and those who told them they wouldn’t amount to anything. The supportive ones have become regular customers of Brooks, who specializes in color treatments.

Brooks will celebrate five years sobriety, and Ippolito has stayed out of trouble in that time too. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous even helped renovate the salon to get it up and running in a month’s time. “Sobriety took five years, and I still struggle,” Brooks says. “I have the tools, like AA, now. The people I surround myself with are supportive, I don’t live that lifestyle anymore.”

“This didn’t happen overnight,” Ippolito adds. “There were lots of nights of tears, hopelessness. But you can choose to make a difference. Life is what you make it.”