Q: How does someone learn how to be a tattoo artist?
A: In Washington State where I learned, you do an apprenticeship at a shop with an artist who has the time and the interest. You watch and learn from them. A lot of my apprenticeship was scrubbing floors with a toothbrush, making needles, and walking the guy’s dog.
Q: What was the first tattoo you ever did?
A: Technically, I was the first person I did.
Q: And how did it turn out?
A: It’s not the best piece I’ve ever done. It’s a rubber duck on my thigh. It’s a flaming devil duck with a giant Cyclops eye, swimming through a lake of fire.
Q: When was the first time you tattooed someone other than yourself?
A: Well, when the guy I was learning from finally decided it was time, he went to a bar and announced to everybody, “It’s my apprentice’s first day. Who wants a free tattoo?” And surprisingly there were a lot of volunteers. He picked the drunkest one.
Q: And how did it turn out?
A: I wouldn’t say that it came out OK. I was nervous; we were both very shaky. Alcohol is a blood thinner and he bled a lot, and it showed.
I’d see this guy around town all the time, and I told him to come back after a few months, but he never did.
Q: How did you ever improve? How could you practice?
A: You can practice on a lot of stuff, like grapefruit, or synthetic skin, which is like dried baloney… Some people use pig skin.
But there’s really nothing like working on a real person. With people there are so many millions of factors, like where on their body you’re putting the tattoo, their body chemistry… It also depends how they’ve treated their skin and how old they are. People in their 70s and 80s have really thin skin. You try to just put the needle in the second layer of skin, but I’ve tattooed people as gently as I can and I’ve seen the skin split open like I was dissecting it.
Some people take medication for acne, like Doxycycline, and they’re embarrassed about it so they won’t tell you.
Q: What does that do to their skin, if they’re on that medication?
A: It’s like drawing on a wet paper lunch sack; it’s really mushy.
Q: As a kid did you aspire to this job?
A: I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do as a kid, but I knew I wanted to work mostly by myself drawing pictures and listening to music. I wasn’t interested in tattoos for a long time because my mom had gotten it done when I was 13, so it didn’t represent anything edgy or cool for me. I wrote a children’s book about that first experience, called “Mommy’s New Tattoo.”
Q: Do you do lots of butterflies?
A: I’ll do butterflies, flowers… If you turn down hearts and butterflies, you turn down your bread and butter. I’m not a snob about it at all. In the end, it’s their body.
Q: So you’ll do most things that people want?
A: I don’t refuse much. You have to be insanely good to do portraits, and I’m not there yet. I also don’t do anything hate-related, or gang-related. Like swastikas, SS symbols, most things with the word “pride” in it. I also don’t tattoo people’s faces.
Q: What are the most memorable designs you’ve done?
A: More memorable than the designs are the different people. So many kinds of different people. Although it takes somebody really exceptionally weird for me to remember them.
One time, two people came in, really skinny, dressed all in black, wearing Ramones t-shirts. The girl was real fucking intense and she said, “I’m looking for the right person to do my tattoo. My friend is going to read your aura.”
And I said, “That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard, so sure, go ahead.”
And the guy said, “You called it weird! You can’t be the one!”
But the girl drew me the design and said she needed the right person to not judge her. She said it was a triangle, a line, and a circle. I thought she was talking about something from AA or NA. Then she said she was going to show me the sketch but she insisted that I couldn’t keep it.
It turned out to look like a rune from Norse mythology. It was really little. And this part I’ll never forget. When she showed me the sketch, I said “65 bucks.” And she said, “I can see your aura brightening.”
After that they were super-cool. They came back in a couple weeks and she said, “I got this design from the star people.” And I thought it must be a band. But then she said, “_The Star People_,” and pointed up to the sky.
Q: Anyone else that sticks in your mind?
A: Yeah, one time a guy came in; he acted real twitchy, like some speedy street drug users are. He had a big bag of books with him; he was maybe 40ish. He said, “I have a lot of scars on my arms, how does that work?” and I said, “Let’s take a look.”
So he took off his shirt, and from shoulders to wrist were all these mangled, lumpy, fucked-up scars!
I said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but were you in an accident?”
And he said, “Some friends of mine set me on fire, but don’t worry, they’re dead now.”
Q: Did you tattoo him??
A: Yeah, and it was awesome!