Kevin's Tattoo Journey....
I started my Tattoo Apprenticeship in January 1992. I learned under Temple Drake in Bremerton, Washington. Home of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Bangor Submarine Base. Tattooing was just starting its first major renaissance with a crop of talented young artists learning the ancient craft. Influenced by Heavy Metal, punk rock, movies, graffiti, pop culture, Saturday Morning Cartoons, Comic Books, Underground Art, skateboarding, etc... This brought on a "New School" era of experimentation.
Many were learning to apply tattoos doing preexisting FLASH imagery. Pre-drawn designs, ready to tattoo, that clients could pick off the wall like a menu and get tattooed on the spot. Not feeling artistically satisfied, the new breed of young tattooers started drawing up their own custom designs. This birthed many tattoo styles that are common place today. New school, Neo/Modern Traditional, Bio-mechanical/Organic, Portrait & Tribal to name a few.
The popularty of Tattooing was just starting to take off. Tattooed bands were all over TV. Tattoo magazines started popping up. Conventions brought a ton of exposure. They created a venue to share information, watch the elite work, and purchase more "modern" flash designs.
The Alliance of Professional Tattooists was created as more states started creating regulations for this craft that remained underground and ignored for so long. This brought on the first Tattoo specific Bloodborne Pathogen/Cross Contamination Seminars. In the age of deadly bloodborne diseases, these courses served to create a safe work environment for the tattoo artist and tattoo collectors. Safer, cleaner studios helped attract a wider audience. More people interested in getting tattooed created more opportunity for artists to specialize in one style of tattooing. It soon became obvious that one could not master all the styles of tattooing popping up and evolving at such a rapid rate.
Tattoo Technique, the shop I apprenticed at was truly Old School. I started tattooing with Plastic Stencils, using Don Nolan adjustable frame tattoo machines. .000 bug pins to make tight 5's. Shaded with 6 flats. Shaving with a Straight Razor, wooden foot stool, lap towel, kleenex and large spray bottle filled with Green Soap. I miss the days of that thick scent of green soap and nicotine when you would walk into a tattoo shop.
I was exposed to the art of Alphonse Mucha in art school (1991). I knew I wanted Art Nouveau incorporated into a full sleeve. For me, a full sleeve represented being a legit tattoo artist. Day 1 rules: Never tattoo a face. Only tattoo someones hands, finger, neck or head if they already had full sleeves. Someone who has lived with large coverage for a while and knew the consequences they would face getting such visible tattoos. So, full sleeves always meant something. Once you earned your sleeves, it would open up doors. I knew from day one that I would plan my work out with large pieces. Besides putting in the work, tattooing full time, getting guidance (the art, designing proper tattoos, getting ink in the skin, dealing with clients, drunks, assholes, cheap skates, crybabies, junkies, sluts, bikers, etc...) there was a lot going on in the tattoo world that I was not getting exposed to.
In March 1993, a year after I started tattooing, I had planned a trip to Austria with a friends family. After a few days of skiing in the Alps, I took a solo trip alone. I bought a train ticket to Lausanne Switzerland in the hopes of meeting and getting tattooed by Filip Leu. http://www.leufamilyiron.com/
Filip had started tattooing at the age of 14. Both of his parents were tattoo artists and traveled all over Europe, India and the U.S. Filip's tattoos were bold, thick lines, custom tattoo designs with a style of art unique to the rest of the tattoo world. He was'nt just copying existing designs. He was making everything his own. You could hold a picture of a skull by a dozen different artists side by side, and Filip's would stand out. Unfortunately, they had no phone at the time. All correspondence was done by handwritten letters. When I finally located 34 Rue Centrale, and hiked up to the 3rd Floor with the iconic Leu Family Family Irons studio door, covered in stickers from tattoo artist from around the world. The hallway was wallpapered with the famous twisty new school tattoo machine advertisements for Filip's parents- Felix and Loretta Leu. I knocked, but no one answered. It was 9am on a Monday morning. I wandered around town for the day. Heading back every few hours to try my luck again. I ended up down the street a an "alternative" clothing store, found a girl with a (for then) large tribal tattoo across her back. I asked her about the studio, and she had one of their flyers. They were only open to the public on Thursday-Saturday. All other days were appointment only!!! She had several little tattoos by both Felix and Filip. She thought I was nuts for traveling half way around the world "just to get tattooed by a hippy dude from Lausanne". She had no clue how much further ahead of the rest of the tattoo world Filip was.
After sightseeing for a few days, I made plans to head back to Austria, then back to the U.S. As luck would have it, as I was headed to have dinner, I saw Felix walking down the street. I jumped in front of him and started spewing my story- how far i traveled, I want to get a half Sleeve from Filip, been knocking on your door for 3 days, blah blah blah.... He said he was going to make a phone call, and to just meet him at the shop in 20 minutes. 20 gut wrenching, butterfly swarming minutes later i pounced up 3 flights of stars to the famous doorway. Knocked. This time the door opened. Loretta smiling and inviting me in.
This was a small 4 room apartment/studio. They lived and worked here. Raised 4 kids here since 1978. It was like a sculpture/shrine to tattooing. Walls-ceiling covered with art, skulls, jewelry, photos, upcoming tattoo projects, art projects (homework). I spent the next 3 hours talking to Felix and Loretta. Sketchbook open-- taking notes of every ounce of information they gave me. They were all about sharing information with other artists, and holding nothing back. I drilled then with Questions: Where they were from, how they got into tattooing, needle groupings, techniques, how Filip got his start, the kind of things he made Filip do growing up art wise, how to mix grey washes, single needle tricks, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, putting in the work, drawing tips...... total brain melt.
The bad news was: A. I couldn't just walk in and get a 1/2 sleeve tattoo on the spot. Very naive on my part. B. Filip had retired from tattooing. He was burnt out and having hand issues. He had moved with his wife Titine to Ibiza Spain to play music and rest. I was super bummed, but excited as well to get home and start experimenting with this new information.
San Francisco, CA ( the Mecca of tattooing in the 90's).
November 1993. I had made an appointment for a girlfriend at the time to get tattooed by Aaron Cain @ Everlasting Tattoo. The goal was to meet him, and see if his tattoos were as good as the pictures in the magazines. Once again, entering another iconic studio, I was blown away. Not only was the artwork-- years ahead of what 95% of the tattoo world was seeing at the time. His studio was a private, custom only studio. No Flash. No walkins. Hidden in a basement apartment in a residential neighborhood. Aaron Cain, Mike Davis, Schmoe Dog, Knobhead. All in their early 20's. Aaron was developing his own tattoo language based off of HR Giger, the artist who is the principle designer of "Alien". Bio Mechanical. Organic shapes repeating themselves, made out of shiny chrome and metal. She got an ankle band. Once again I rapid fired questions, and luckily he obliged to share. His approach was very different from what I had been exposed to. This was my first time seeing someone 'calligraphy' lines. Use a Magnum needle. Mixing and Blending so many colors/ creating a new palette as he went. A super nice guy as well.
That trip, i also stopped by Ed Hardy's Tattoo City shop. It was close to closing time and the only one there was Freddy Corbin. Super laid back dude. I was tripping out on how smooth the black n grey shading was on his arms. When he found out I was still using 6 flats he freaked. Informing me that they work great for whip shading side to side, but if you try to pack in color, when you go up and down- it's like cutting someone with a razor blade. He gave me a quick lesson on how to make magnum needle groupings. Once I got home, I made my first batch, and started to practice with them.
I booked a tattoo appointment with Aaron Cain, Everlasting Tattoo. He had a few Mucha Art Nouveau inspired pieces in his portfolio and on his wall. I knew I wanted a girl with Mucha style hair on the upper half of my sleeve. I decided on a Twisty Chrome Nolan style tattoo machine, Iwata airbrush, Straight Razor, and large twisty pencil on my forearm. Aaron Cains Bio-Mech underneath. In March 1994, I drove from Seattle- 14 hours- to San Francisco to get my sleeve started. 5 hours of drawing, and 5 hours of tattooing. I now had a full sleeve outlined and calligraphied.
6 months later, I was booked for my 2nd session. This time I planned on 2 days back to back for color from Aaron. I had also booked an appointment at Primal Urge (Marcus Pacheco, Jeff Rassier, Elio Espana, and Timothy Hoyer) with Elio Espana for a quick little souvenir tattoo. I drove down with a friend, for a week in the city. Goal-- check out as many tattoo shops as possible. One of the first stops was Erno's Tattoo a short walk from Haight/Ashbury. At the time Greg Kulz, Patrick Conlon and Nalla Smith were there. Greg was carving a niche with his large tribal tattoos. He had a tribal spine tattooed down his whole back. Nalla & Patrick were 2 sides of the same coin. Collaborating on art projects, doing super unique tribal designs that mixed solid black shapes, negative space, bones, celtic, & bio-mech. Their porfolios also filled up with animated Girls: pointed ears, elbow spikes, high heeled fetish shoes, Super long legs, big pouty lips, Fetish gear (leather/latex/buckles/whips). No one in tattooing had this much unique art style influenced heavily on animation, comics, cartoons. I booked an appointment with Patrick Conlon for the end of the week.
Driving across America
6 more months and I had my final appointment to get my sleeve finished by Aaron Cain in San Francisco. I put together a plan to visit a friend in Florida. Drive alone cross-country, Finish my sleeve, check out some of the best tattoo artists in the country, and check out National Landmarks. From Seattle, I first visited Dave Lum's studio in Salem Oregon. San Francisco, to finish my arm. Patrick Conlon had started working at Everlasting Tattoo by now. Off to Reno, Las Vegas, Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon, Brian Everett's in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Austin Texas to visit Chris Trevino at Perfection Tattoo. Swung by Houston/Bob Shaw's place. New Orleans, Louisiana-- Electric Ladyland. zipped past the southern states into Florida. Spent a few weeks in Fort Meyers, FL. Checked out Bike Week in Daytona. Took a trip as far from Alaska as possible, to Key West Florida. I met Greg Eppy, Lou Perdomo, & Doreen. Spring Break was in full swing and they invited me to do a guest spot. I ran back to Ft. Myers to grab my equipment and spent a week in the Keys, tattooing and Partying. After Florida, I travelled up the East Coast. I had booked and appointment at Lil Vinnie's Tattoo in Westminster Maryland with Dave Waugh. Dave tattooed my Left inner bicep. Dave and Vinnie had put out some 'new' sets of flash. Fairly traditional designs, but done in a more animated, modern drawing style. Those sheets could probably considered the first 'modern traditional' tattoo designs. A love and appreciation for classic tattoo designs, but drawn up with modern flair-- calligraphied lines, color gradations, foreshortening, highlights....
Onward to New Jersey, home of Paul Booth. Back then, Last Rites was a very tiny, one room studio, down a back alley, off of a side street. Paul had become famous for his black n grey demonic tattoos. It took me a while to finally find where it was, but once again, no one answered when I knocked. There was a comic shop around the corner that I ended up in. The owners knew Paul's van, because it had tattoo stickers from overseas all over it. As I left the shop, once again, there is Paul walking out of his shop, to his car. He stopped me before I could get started. Said he's super busy and has to get to the bank, but he's doing a back piece tomorrow. So come by and hang out then. Followed by "Shotsie's a couple towns over, go check his place out!"
Pre GPS, i found a phone booth. Looked up Shotsie's in the Phone book. Got the address, used a map to figure out how to get to the town, and asked for final directions at a gas station. (Pretty archaic by today's standards, but that's how people found things back then) Met Shotsie Gorman, Skotty "Flying Ace" Lowe, Gary, John Bergin, & Tommy. (**coincidentally, Elio [Primal Urge] had apprenticed with Shotsie) Shotsie was looking to open a second tattoo shop and was looking for new artists. I had my portfolio with me. He looked at my tattoo photos and artwork and offered me a job. I told him that would be a big change-- moving cross country, splitting home, etc. but I would consider it.....
The next day I headed back to Paul Booth's studio. I showed up around 1, figuring he would be settled in by then. Sure enough he was working on shading in a full back piece. My Aaron sleeve was healed by then. Paul and Aaron were good friends, and wearing quality tattoos by quality artists helps to open doors and loosen lips in this trade. Once again, I took the opportunity to drill him with questions for the next 7 hours. He was tattooing Darren Ashbaugh from southern Illinois. I only worked with black shading and color, so being 2 feet away watching Paul work was eye opening. Black n grey is a very different process of application. Paul's approach was not as straight forward as traditional tattooing. Plus he had a ton of great tattoo stories, gossip, product info, art advise, how to present your work/photos to get to do the projects that cater to your drawing style...
Still heading North out of Jersey, I headed to Buffalo, New York to check out Paul Massaro's shop. Over the border to Canada to check out Niagara Falls. Back down to Florida, pick up a friend headed up to Alaska for the summer, we bolted straight to Chicago to see Guy Aitchison @ Guilty & Innocent. Again, my bad luck, not open and we were only in Chi-Town for 1 day.
We did go into Jade Dragon. By far the worse factory shit shop ever. Crap tattoos, highest prices in town, constant turn over of beginning artists. Yet Fat Joe was a businessman. He spent thousands of dollars in advertising-- 4 full page ads and a dozen smaller ads in the phone book, billboards, radio spots, bus benches, you name it, he would advertise on it. Catering to the lowest common denominator clientele that had no clue. Truly the McDonald's of tattooing. Relying on peoples ignorance to stay in business. More people complained about the shitty tattoos, rude service, jacking up the price at the end for a mandatory t-shirt and 'healing' cream. Squeezing every penny out of tattooing, giving nothing back.
We did swing by Chicago Tattoo, Cliff Raven's old shop. It still had some of his original Flash from the sixties hanging on the wall.
High tailing it West, we headed to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul to check out Acme Tattoo. Don Nolan had settled down there. Nolan was 1 of the top Artist tattoo artists through the 60's and 70's. Back then the big names, and few people truly doing custom drawn tattoos as well as big body work were Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven & Don Nolan. Don had worked with Temple soon after he opened up Tattoo Technique in Bremerton, WA. Original hand painted flash from Don still hung on the wall when I worked there.
Through the badlands to South Dakota. Mount Rushmore was the final national monument on my list. I'll be honest, it looks just like the pictures. We hung out for 3 minutes then got back on the road to Seattle. A month and a half of traveling, gypsy tattooing for extra spending money, sightseeing, checking out tattoo shops. Every tattoo shop has a unique personality. There are always things to gleam from visiting other shops. Creative ways to set up a station, art, decorating, signage, portfolio presentation, furniture. I usually take notes on the things that I can add to what I am already doing. Anything to make my tattooing more efficient.
..... There is more, much more. Stories, pictures, videos. Stay Tuned. :) Kevin