A Visit to Mystic Eye Tattoo

I took a ride over to Mystic Eye Tattoo yesterday, looking to take some notes for further field research. It was nice out, sunny and not too cold for once. The shop is about ten minutes away. I’d stopped in earlier to make sure that it would be okay. Matt Doherty, the artist who is working on my sleeve (which has not been touched in over a year..tattoos are not cheap) told me that it would be no problem.

So, here I am. It’s 4:41 p.m., Saturday and I’m in a strip mall that has seen better days. Mystic Eye Tattoo is on Greentree Road in Turnersville, next to an auto body shop that apparently (if their sign is to be believed) specializes in transmissions. The tattoo shop anchors the left flank of stores. The rest are, in this order: C&E Uniforms, Japan/China Food (a very original business name), and Crown Chicken/Crown Taco. All except the tattoo shop are ghosts of businesses past. Empty storefronts, dark and desolate interiors. There is a “Quick Shop” in the lot next door.

I grab my notebook and pen, and back up pen, and smile inwardly that I don’t have to wear a jacket today. The neon sign on the door says “Open”. The front window case is filled with Egyptian statues, a big Buddha, gargoyles and obelisks..all very intriguing and mystical.

Field notes, p.1

I enter the shop and the front room is empty, except for the girl sitting at the computer, behind the counter. I recognize her as one of the artists, but she doesn’t know me. It’s been over a year since I’ve been there. She smiles and asks if she can help me. I can see down the hall into Matt’s room. He has someone on the table, being tattooed. There is a dark-haired girl sitting in the room as well.

I tell who I am and that Matt said it was cool if I came by. I remind her that Matt started my sleeve (a tattoo that covers your entire arm). She says, “Oh yeah, I don’t think you had long hair then. It looks good long.” I thank her and tell her I plan on growing it out (much to my wife’s chagrin). “Yeah,” she says, “I have friends that tried to grow it out but had to cut it because of work and all. You should keep growing it.”

I tell her that I just want to take some notes, observe a bit. I notice she does not have a client and so I ask her if I could pick her brain a bit as well. She agrees, just as soon as she is done sending her message on the computer. It turns out she’s on Facebook. The guy who was getting tattooed eventually comes out from Matt’s room and busts her chops for being on Facebook on “company time.” She tells him, jokingly, that she has “a fan group.”

Field notes, p. 2-3

I sit in the front room, on the larger of the two green super comfy couches. The coffee table is covered with at least 30 different tattoo magazines. Some of the titles are Tattoo Society, Tattoo Review, Inked, and International Tattoo. A majority of them feature beautiful women in provocative poses on their covers.

A variety of art adorns the lime green walls. On the wall to my left an Indian brave rides a charging boar through a jungle, and a flower blooms to reveal dancing figures of flame bodies. Plastic bamboo plants and ferns fill out some of the corners and line the walls. Plastic ivy winds along the walls. There is a corner curio cabinet with more statues of Pharaohs, Greek sculptures and Aboriginal boomerangs. The wall across from me is covered with awards and certifications. More primitive statues decorate the shop, many of which seem as though they could be pulled out of the pages of National Geographic or Smithsonian Magazine.

Two rows of fluorescent light fixtures illuminate the shop from the drop ceiling. A radio is playing from one of the back rooms. It’s quiet. The buzz of the machine does not permeate the air like you’d expect.

Tracey Morse, the tattoo artist who spoke to me when I came in, walks out from behind the counter, through one of those swinging doors, like a hinged gateway separating the lobby from the realm of ink. “So, what’d you want to ask me?” she says. She sits down on the couch across from me. She’s wearing jeans, green Doc Martins (oddly similar to a pair that I sold once on Ebay and, to this day, regret doing) and an artsy kind of shirt with sheer sleeves that make some of her own tattoos visible as if looking at them through dragonfly wings.

Tattoo by Tracey Morse

I’d gone into the shop with the intention of just making some observations and recording data about the environment itself, but now I was faced with a spur of the moment interview. I’m quick to adjust. I ask her to talk to me about the process, about the machines she uses and needle sizes and uses. Tracey begins to rattle off facts and data about the machines that sound more like a motorhead discussing engine dynamics than a tattoo artist talking about her machine.

She talks about the variables in the machines. She tells me that she uses a coil machine that requires more adjustment and tinkering based off of needle grouping. These groups can range anywhere from one to five needles and more variables react to the gauge size of the respective needles.Tracey tells me that Matt uses a rotary machine that relies more on voltage settings to determine the speed and force of the penetration, as well as the depth setting of the throw. She is spitting facts as if she were telling me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She talks about pre-calibrated force and resonance and as I nod and scribble into my notebook, she says “I’m probably speaking Greek to you.” I wonder if Greek would be easier to learn.

Field notes, p. 4-5

Tracey explains that a lot of the control over the machine just comes with practice and experience. A tattoo artist can gauge the operation of their machine by the chattering, “like a car engine.” She uses a meter to measure how smoothly her machine is operating in order to take any of the guess-work out of it. She talks a little about the specifics of needle gauges and weight. There is a spring gauge setting that depends on how small the needles are. My head’s spinning, but I know that she has a customer coming in soon and I want to see where this conversation goes. I don’t want to interrupt her for exact mechanical functioning of the machine. There’s more I want to hear about the process and besides, I know I can come back to them, or email Matt if I need clarification.

Tracey explains that needles fall into a few different layouts: round grouping, stacked, fanned out (staggered) and round shaders. These are the typical needle configurations. She uses at least two machines per tattoo, especially if color is involved. A typical machine selection is one with fine needles and another bold shader (there are various shaders: liner shaders, bold shaders, etc). If it’s a simple name tattoo, she might just use one machine.

Field notes, p. 6-7

I ask them about the colors they use and what that entails. I understand that once you open them up you have to use them. Tracey explains that they have expiration dates and that you pour what you intend to use for a specific tattoo into a work cup. Some are very concentrated and she’ll use water and glycerine to thin it a bit. They come in 1 oz. to 8 oz. bottles, depending on the color. They use a lot of white and black, and there are different kinds of black. For instance, there’s blue-black and then heavy black.

Matt is done in the back and is standing at the counter listening. “Blue black?” he says. They engage in a discussion about the different shades of black.

We start talking about the process of the tattoo and how it starts with the concept. Matt explains that a large part of the process is being able to aesthetically incorporate a customer’s ideas and intent. Tracey adds that a lot of the tattoos are very meaningful and you “form a bond with the person.” I notice that there are no flash panels on the wall, or books of flash (flash is a  pre-designed, stock tattoo to use). Matt says that flash is still used a bit and that there are some good books, but the trends have mostly moved past that. There are a lot of trends in the business, like for a while every person who came through the door wanted Chinese lettering. I suppress the urge to laugh. I have such a tattoo on my chest. It is the hexagram for “The Traveler”, pulled straight out of the I-Ching. I was 19 and one of my best friends and I had the same symbol put on the same spots on our bodies. No regrets, but it’s funny to hear it called a trend.

Matt believes there is more custom work now because you have more artists getting into the tattoo business. The work coming out now is influenced by the artists getting into the trade.

Field notes, p. 8-9

“It’s less cookie cutter,” Tracey adds.

Matt expounds on it and explains that tattooing used to be treated like, and considered, more of a trade. Now it is more of an art form. This is a sentiment that has been repeated numerous times in the research I have been doing. It is a sentiment expressed by newer, younger tattoo artists and retired, venerated tattoo artists like Crazy Philadelphia Eddie.

Tracey tells me that was how she got into the business. She didn’t know anything about tattooing, but she brought in her own art for her tattoo. At the time they did not have any artists to create original tattoos. They had boards of flash on the wall. She started doing their art for them, drawing tattoos for the tattooists. It got her foot in the door and that’s how she started.

I ask her how difficult it was to transition into working on skin. “It was different transferring to a new medium,” she says. “The machine runs you at first until you master the variables.” She worked on friends and volunteers for a little over a year before she was ready to take on paying customers.

She’s getting ready for her appointment now, up and about. I tell her how it still seems so complicated to me and how much I have been learning. I mention my awareness of the terminology and “machine” vs. “gun.” “Yeah,” she smiles, “gun is a cardinal sin word.”

“Have you gone to any of the conventions?” she asks. I tell her that I did go to the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention. She tells me that the New York convention is a great one to go to. She believes it’s in May. She’s not sure about Baltimore, she’s never been.

Field notes, p. 10-11

We talk a little bit about the freedom of being a tattoo artist, how you have the artistic freedom to create, you can dress how you want, grow your hair if you want, live free and able to openly express your individuality while meeting interesting people from all walks of life. Tracey says she “counts her lucky stars every day”. She’s extremely happy with her lot in life. She pulls at her hair (it’s kind of pulled up and back into a ponytail/bun kind of thing). “You don’t even have to do your hair,” she laughs. “But you still have to present a decent appearance. You have to have respect for the people coming in. You can’t be a douche.”

I’m making some more notes about the shop in general. Matt and Tracey are gearing up for their 6:00 appointments. A younger guy walks in, prob in very, very early twenties, if not twenty on the nose. He asks if they “charge by the letter.” Tracey tells him that they “charge by style, intricacy, and how much time it takes.” She asks him if he wants to see a style book of lettering, but he declines. She also tells him that if he has a sample or something they cold take a look at that. He looks a little bewildered, as if the idea of standing in the tattoo shop itself is intoxicating. “Do you take walk-ins?” he asks. Tracey says that “more often than not we’re booked.” She recommends an appointment.

Tattoo by Matt Doherty

Matt comes around and has a seat on the couch formerly occupied by Tracey. It’s like a tag team tattoo artist information feed. Matt starts to tell me more about the act of tattooing. You have to hold the machine at a 45 degree angle. You can tell, he says, just by the vibrations of the machine hitting the skin if it’s a good line or not. Again, it comes with time and experience.

We talk about the influx of tattoo shops in the area and the growing business nationwide. He mentions Empire Tattoo for instance. He says that they have now 4 or 5 shops, all in the last year. But, he says, the owner markets the hell out of his business. Matt uses pizza parlors as an example. He explains that it’s not too hard to make pizza. There are pizza places everywhere in south Jersey, but they all manage to generate business. And with pizza, he’ll still eat it even if it is just “tolerable.” However, with tattoos, it’s a little bit more complex. “If you’re good, you’re good,” he says. “Your work speaks for itself.” People find an artist they like and feel comfortable with and dedicate their business to them. Less skilled artists are usually cheaper, he says. Again, I think, good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good. It usually works itself out, he explains. The more detailed, more complicated tattoos are going to require a better, more experienced artist.

“You have to promote yourself,” he says. “Not too many tattoo artists do that.” Matt went to school for graphic arts, specifically for things like book covers and fantasy art. He tells me that those artists pound the pavement. They research prospective markets and potential employers. It’s a lot of work in order to be successful. You don’t see that in tattooing. It seems to be more of a laid back, let the work come to you kind of atmosphere. But, he explains, the owner of Empire Tattoo has a billboard, has had mailers, bought a commercial spot last year during Monday Night Football.

Matt tells me that he is actually taking the shop over. Dave, the previous owner (and his previous boss) is already living in California. Matt has promotion plans and ideas for mailers and coupons (yes, tattoo coupons. Start clipping). I ask him if he intends to make any major changes. He’ll keep the name, he says, but the first thing he intends to do (as he eyes up the lime green walls) is paint.

He also tells me that he has a new apprentice, a friend from art school. She is close to being able to do work on paying customers. The process of apprenticeship entails a lot of drawing, a lot of practicing on friends and volunteers. Matt and Tracey both say that they had people lining up to volunteer. “If you mess it up, just fix it when you get better,” their friends would tell them. An apprentice needs to do about 2000 hours (one year) before the board of health comes in to certify them. They also have to take a blood borne pathogens course.

Tracey’s customer is in, a woman named Rachel. She is getting a dog memorial on the back of her neck, a paw print. Apparently she is on an antibiotic and has to call her pharmacy to make sure it’s okay to get tattooed. While she is on the phone, Matt and I discuss tattoos and mysticism and shrunken heads. Did you know that the headhunters shrunk the heads of their victims so that their soul did not escape to seek vengeance on them? Yeah, wild, huh? Rachel is off the phone. It’s okay to get tattooed.

Matt orders his dinner from a new delivery place. Some kind of turkey wrap. It’s nice to see he’s eating healthy. Matt appears to be in good shape, short cut hair, no visible tattoos from the biceps down, except for the pencil thin mustache on his finger. There is a picture in his tattoo room of he and his girlfriend with their fingers up under their noses, displaying their elegant mustaches. The sign on the counter states that there is a $100 minimum for any tattoo. A $1oo deposit is also required.

We sit and talk about school and kids. He remembers pulling at least one all-nighter a week. As a painter and fellow creator, he is interested in the whole process of what I am doing and understands the value of objective research for a subjective piece. It’s like panning for gold. You cast the net, pull up a whole load of silt and filter it through for the good stuff. We talk about my other projects and about painting and how easy it is to get bored with a long project. For him, it’s doing the background after the excitement of the detail work. For me, it’s sticking with a long novel when fresh ideas present themselves.

Field notes, p. 12-13

We talk a little bit about his new daughter, 6 months old. We talk about the couches. He thinks the one he is sitting on is just not deep enough. It’s just casual, comfortable talk, the kind of interaction that lends itself to a long-term relationship in which I can speak freely with him and he with me.

But, it’s getting to be that time. Tracey is in her room with Rachel. Matt has to get his station together for his appointment. He let’s me know that if I have any questions at all or need any help, just stop in, call him, email him. Whatever I need to do, he’d be glad to help me out.

Tattoo by Matt Doherty

We talk about my unfinished sleeve. He tells me that he’ll cut the price a bit for me, giving me about a 30% discount. He looks it over again and gauges how long it will take to finish certain areas. “I’m much faster now,” he tells me. He also says that some of the original needs a little touch up detail, some of the lines and some color need work. He says that’s free of charge, just come in and if he doesn’t have an appointment, he’ll work on it. “I’m a lot better than a year ago,” he says. “The more you do, the better you get.”

We shake hands, and I assure him that I’ll hit him up if any other questions come to mind. I have the itch to get more work done on my sleeve and so if the money tree decides to sprout a new branch of spare cash, I’ll use some to work on my incomplete sleeve. I’m going to try to get in and get a little touch up work done on it, take him up on his offer.

I see good things happening for Mystic Eye Tattoo. Matt is young, energetic and driven to succeed. I know he’ll do well and I look forward to seeing them succeed. The afternoon was, as has been all of my research thus far, fruitful and successful in building a bridge into the future.

Reality Check with Brad Kingett (Post interview report)

I arrive at the new Glassboro Barnes and Noble early, a feat I save for school and writing related projects. I’m supposed to meet Brad here, in the cafe’, at 6:30 p.m. The cafe’ is fairly empty and I try out about five tables before settling for one that falls victim to the least amount of sunglare. I feel like Marcel Proust, particular in my choice of seating arrangements and comfort, trying out table after table. The floor to ceiling windows of the ghost town cafe are like magnifying glasses, channeling the sun right into my eyes. Sitting down is better, it hides you from the solar death ray.

I take out my notepad and set up my laptop. I open up my interview document, intending to refer to my bullet points as the conversation ensues. I’ll wind up not referring to it much at all as the interview drives itself and I remember a lot of the points that I wanted to discuss. I order my grande mocha, with whipped cream, and relax, splitting time between my drink and watching the door. I’ve never met Brad and we didn’t elect to wear some code garment, like a red sombrero, or “Members Only” jackets.  There are now four other tables with customers, but I am the only one that looks like he is prepared to interview someone or transfer the plans for a super secret new missile system to Tom Cruise. I decide that Brad will probably be the guy to come in with his head on a slow swivel looking for me.

At about 6:40 p.m. Brad walks in. At least I think it’s Brad and hopefully not somebody looking for super secret missile system plans. He’s scanning the cafe’ and I stand up, “Brad?”

“Yeah,” he says. He’s smiling, that’s always a good start.

“Joe McGee,” I say. We shake hands, he gets a drink (something in a small cup, I’m not sure why I notice the small cup, but I do. Now I’m feeling imperialistic with the might of my grande cup. I make a mental note to stop making mental notes of his cup, forget my cup, get on with the interview).

Brad is a little taller than me, caucasian, and young (23). He’s wearing a t-shirt, flannel and a windbreaker kind of jacket. He has shorter blonde hair, with gel in it, waved over to one side in a preppy punk (and this would not be an insult to Brad) kind of neo-rockabilly fashion. He’s clean-shaven and his ears sport large gauges (those earring piercings that create large holes in the lobe). Brad will later tell me that they might be 5/8 of an inch. He’s not sure exactly, but they’re some “weird size around 3/4″ but not 3/4”. The earrings are important because they connect to tattoos, aesthetic expression and a definition and discussion of a deviant subculture, something Brad connects to and feels comfortable in the company of like-minded individuals. During the course of the interview it will become apparent, as my sleeves become pulled up, and my longer hair and obvious earrings are evident, that we share a connection to this related subculture.

We sip at our drinks and engage in some small talk. He apologizes for being late, says he’s never been to this Barnes & Noble. He wasn’t exactly sure where it was. He’s from Sewell, so he’s close.

Brad is an artist besides a photographer and film maker. I mention that I understand he has some art in a gallery here in downtown Glassboro. Yes, he says. He thinks it’s on Front Street, he’s not really sure. He knows it’s across from a BBQ place. He believes it’s been open about a month. I get the impression that he has a lot going on and the art aspect is in the background right now. I’ll come to find out later that he also works at a law firm and this weekend he spent 15 hours filming footage for the potential show that got my attention in the first place. It was a very hectic weekend, he tells me. A lot of people backed out, making for a very frustrating time. He tells me that out of 15 hours of film, he probably has 15 minutes worth of decent footage, stuff he can use for the show.

I ask him to tell me a little bit about his background and about art. I want to know what he likes to work with and how he got to where he is. I basically open the floor up to Brad and he runs with it. Brad turns out to be quite the talker and at times I have to almost interrupt him to focus in on something he says (something I don’t like to do as it can often be seen as stepping on someone’s toes). But the conversation unfolds like a tulip in May and I let Brad go, scribbling away on my notepad.

Brad tells me that he likes to work in a lot of different mediums. He started with drawing and sketching, before progressing into painting and then finally into film and photography. He names Ralph Steadman as a major influence in his art career, highlighting the fact that Steadman did Hunter S. Thompson’s illustrations for his book. Brad liked Steadman’s use of the fountain pen and how the artist can use the ink mess as part of the art.

"Rats in the Kitchen" by Steadman

At the end of our conversation, after the notepad is away and we are just two tattooed guys discussing movies on Netflix, he’ll tell me that “Escape through the Gift Shop” is about Steadman. But in the moment, we’re discussing artists who have influenced his own work. I mention artist Greg Simkins as another who does some neat things with inks. He mentions Shel Silverstein and the surreal style of Tim Burton.

He enjoys working mostly in black and white and in drawing images. He tells me that usually only looks at the image once and then draws from memory. Whatever features stand out in his mind are those that get exaggerated or focused on.

Brad went to St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. In school he tended to get in trouble for approaching projects in a different light, something strange when you consider the inherent individuality of expression in the nature of art itself. Because of this, he was mostly a “C” student. He tells me about a class they had on the holocaust and this “very dark” painting that he did. After it was graded and no longer required for the class, Brad wanted to do something with it. There were paintings hanging in the English hallway. He found an old nail and bent it a bit, pushing it further into the bricks so that he could hang up his painting. It stayed there for three years until included in an art auction where it was sold to a private buyer. “It wasn’t even supposed to be there,” he says, smiling. “It was my own little mark I left on the school.”

“I don’t think you can grade art,” he says. “You can tell if someone is there to genuinely work, or if they are there just because it is required.”

Art by Brad Kingett

We toss around the idea of defining art as the end result of someones creation. Is it something produced by someone with true skill, someone “who can actually draw”, or is it something that looks cool? Brad says that he likes drawing made up creations because it comes from his imagination. Who is to say what is right and what isn’t at this point?

After drawing and painting, he went into film. Brad was heavily into the music scene, both as a participant and as a spectator. In fact, this was where his love of tattoos and piercings started. He was (and is) into the punk and hardcore scene. He started shooting video of the bands as a result of spending so much time with them. He was following the music, spending money and discovering that the bands had no money. By filming the scene, he could be involved and maybe make a buck. However, he needed money to buy film, gas and equipment. And, oh yeah, food. You know, the important things.

Brad realized he’d have to branch out. He started Risen (pronounced Rye-zin) Industries in 2007 and got involved in infomercials. He did a 10 minute video for an Aflac insurance agent about supplemental insurance that was put on the client’s website. It successfully developed more business for Brad and gave him the confidence to pursue this further as he understood that he could expand his work.

Brad moved from web clips to television commercials. Risen Industries filmed a commercial for Empire Tattoo (Sewell, Pitman, and Clementon) that aired on MTV in the late hours, or as Brad categorized “when people with tattoos would be more likely to be watching.” I ask him if he got ink out of the deal and he laughs, “Yeah, I got some ink.” However, none is visible to me at this point (and later, Brad explains his desire to appear mainstreamed as much as possible).

Right now he does a lot of weddings, which he claims to “absolutely hate.” But he does them because they pay “phenomenally.” He explains that it’s almost a crime to charge what he does, but he has to. If you don’t charge the exorbitant amount of money that people expect to be quoted, they won’t hire you because they think you must not be good or that something is rotten in Denmark. People expect to be charged a lot for wedding photography. For Brad, the prospect of doing these kinds of things is necessary, but not very exciting. It’s like a routine documentary about people who he has no connection to. However, this affords him the ability to do the more creative projects, to fund the kinds of things he is actually interested in. He compares it, in a way, to being a tattoo artist. “You do it because you have the skill, but you are doing specifically what they want you to do.”

According to Brad, some people call this “selling out.” But again, this is a necessary means to a creative end. The fun projects will not fund themselves. He laughs at the notion of “selling out.” He says that he could show me pages and pages of scripts for so-called “reality shows.” If you ask him, that’s “selling out”, right there.

Brad is in the process of opening a second branch, Risen Industries Sucks. The original incarnation of his business would handle all of the tamer aspects, such as wedding and photography. Risen Sucks would handle all the band stuff, head shots, artwork and off the wall projects. He explains that he can’t have that stuff in his office with all the wedding photo people because it gives the wrong impression. It comes down to balancing the reality of business versus the desire to chase the imagination.

Chasing the imagination brings us to the current film project that first attracted my attention. Risen Industries is shooting a reality television show at Sinful Creations, Vineland, New Jersey. With the success of TLCs shows like Miami Ink and LA Ink, as well as the apparent attraction to a misconstrued sense of NJ (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of New Jersey), Brad recognized an opportunity to jump on board with something as promising as this. What really attracted him to the project was the approach they wanted to take. They wanted a reality reality television show.

Their show is going to illustrate those things that you don’t see in the others. They want to focus on the people coming in to get tattoos, and that sometimes it’s just because it looks cool. Not every tattoo has some epic back story. They wanted to show that it is personal and invasive, that the artist is on your personal space. It’s intimate, they are touching you and the obligatory small talk is like going to get your hair cut.

The artists in the show consulted other artists to pick their brains about what they might like to see presented. One complaint is that those other shows never show a price, they never show money changing hands.  It reminds me of a placard I saw in Mean Street Tattoo (Queens, NY) shop: “A cheap tattoo ain’t good, and a good tattoo ain’t cheap.” The artists had issues that people don’t realize how much tattoos cost, that they are expensive.

They wanted to show that tattoos hurt. On those TLC shows, Brad says, you never see anyone cry. In the last weekend of filming, there was a girl getting the entire top of her foot done. There’s a lot of bone there, he explains. It hurts. “You never see tears on t.v.. The pain is real.”

Brad talks about a tattoo artist that was getting a tattoo machine tattooed on him (something that only a tattoo artist can get put on their body, according to Brad). This tattoo artist said that he “hates getting a tattoo.” He liked that tattoos, but he hated getting them. “It hurts when you are getting it and it hurts for a few days after. I hate this.” Brad laughs. “You don’t hear ‘This sucks’ or ‘That hurt’.”

They want to make sure that people know what they are getting into so they don’t waste their time, or the artists time. People need to know this stuff, says Brad. He talks a little about the pain and procedures involved in removing tattoos. “Tattoos were never meant to be removed,” he says. Incidentally, my brother John, who lives in Texas is getting a tattoo removed from the inside of his forearm. He tells me that the process hurts ten times more than getting the tattoo. He is five sessions in and probably has five more to go.

Laser tattoo removal - 5 sessions in

They also want to show the fun involved. They want to show what really goes on. On the last day of filming, the shop manager managed to clog the toilet and they filmed the entire episode. “It was just funny,” says Brad. “You’d never see that on other shows.”

And there are snippets that won’t make the final cut, but provide insight never the less. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the correct form of terminology: Tattoo machines NOT guns. One of the artists yelled at Brad about his reference to a “tattoo gun”. Brad replied that “both put holes in you.” “Yeah?” said the artist, pulling a gun out of his drawer. “This one will kill you.”

They are shopping it to Bravo and MTV right now. MTV seems to be the most interested.

The applicants for the show submit their name, age, picture of themselves, tattoo idea, body location, color or black and white, and reason for getting it. The artists have a chance to review and sign off on the ones they are interested in doing. This is a chance for the individual artist to showcase their own skills. Some are good at portraits, others enjoy pure black and white work, while others like illustration. Brad explains that it is a combination of what they are good at and what they are interested in.

Area artists are, according to Brad, excited about the project, but at the same time a bit hesitant. Brad thinks that they are waiting to see the final project and reserving their judgment until then. He thinks the show is going to surprise a lot of people. And yet, some artists will still claim that they “sold out.”  Brad explains that everyone strives to be successful but once you hit that level of success you are out of the circle. You have “sold out.” Brad goes on to explain that the whole process is an act of doing what someone else wants you to do in the first place. With art, nobody is forcing the buyer to purchase it. They buy it because they like it. The artist did the work that he wanted and left it. With tattoos, you are doing what you are hired to do. The point I imagine he is getting at here is that, at what point do you decide to scorn someone for the success they reap by doing work for hire in the first place?

Brad laughs and says that if it were an accounting reality t.v. show, where they were auditing on t.v., they’d probably be applauded by their peers. He mentions the Sistine Chapel. It’s just hired work, he says. “Painting the walls in a pattern. Hired painters.”

Creation of Man; Sistine Chapel

Another tattoo artist echoed Brad’s own sentiment. Being a tattoo artist in and of itself is selling out, he said (his words not mine). His reasoning was that you are taking someones idea, someones creation and doing it for money. That tattoo artists are paid to create someones vision beyond their own. This particular artist was a painter and for him, tattooing was a means to earn money for his painting. “My talents get me the money to do what I want.”

We come back full circle to the art. He tells me that he has drawn up some tattoos for people. They take it to the artists and the artists put their tweak on things. He thinks it is cool that “something you created is something they put on their body.” It “commemorates something you did.”

I ask him about the separation for an artist, that moment that someone buys their art and takes it with them, what does that feel like and in a sense, is this feeling the same for a tattoo artist that sees his work literally walk away. Brad describes it as “bittersweet.” On the one hand, you are losing something you created, he explains, but on the other hand, someone wanted it bad enough to pay you for it. As an artist, he explains, you make a conscious decision to put a price on something that you have created. You give it value and if it is desired enough, that price will be paid. If it’s something that you hold so dear you wouldn’t dream of getting rid of, you just don’t put the price on it in the first place, you wouldn’t put it out there for sale.

Brad’s love of the entire art process is most evident when he tells me that if he were to come upon someone viewing a piece of his art, raving about it, desiring it, and talking to him (Brad) unaware that he was the artist, he would just give it to him. “It’s yours,” he says, complete with an offering hand gesture. “Because that’s someone who really loves the art, not someone saying, ‘oh, this would look great in the living room’.”

On the subject of art, I ask him to tell me his thoughts on the art’s ability to “speak.” He explains that some things need an explanation and if you are around, or if you are the bearer of the tattoo, you can offer that explanation versus someone completely missing the point. I make a note that perhaps this means the objects cannot speak on their own, if they need someone to translate, but as I write this, I begin to think that maybe they do speak. They just say different things to different people. Brad states that some tattoos have bigger meaning than others ( a sentiment echoed by other artists, most recently by Matt Doherty and Tracey Morse of Mystic Eye Tattoo).

But, to Brad, the tattoo represents a subculture. He likes when he sees someone with tattoos or piercings because he knows he’ll be able to relate to that on person on at least some level. “You share a culture,” he says. “It tells me that you’re in the same realm that I’m in. That there’s some common ground.” If he is in a room, or at a party, and he doesn’t feel comfortable, he knows that he can hang with a person who shares that connection. “A single serving friend,” he jokes. “Both oddballs.”

Brad explains that he is a straight edge (someone who abstains from drugs and alcohol) and that if he sees someone else with an “X” on their body, he knows that he has a kindred spirit.

He acknowledges that people are quick to judge. He believes that they probably think, “Oh, here comes trouble.” He goes on to say that “if someone gets to know me, they might be glad they did because otherwise they might have missed out on meeting a good person.” He understands that his choice to embrace a seemingly deviant appearance brings with it questions. It’s part of the territory. He does not get upset and tells his friends to act the same way. “People are going to ask questions,” he says. “Don’t be angry at them for that.” He doesn’t think it will ever be completely mainstreamed. The parental influence is, in his opinion, too strong. Parents pass down to their kids that you do not get tattoos.

We talk about the gauges he has in his ears. He tells me he got them because he was bored. Again, he works in a law firm during the day and can’t get too crazy. He has flesh tone gauges in case he needs them for work. But mostly he will not go any bigger with them because it’s a cost issue. He doesn’t want to buy any more jewelry.

When he gets older he thinks his tattoos will serve as memories, like a scar. “It’s a moment and a memory,” he says. These are stories of and from our lives.

This echoes my theory of aesthetic expression and inner identity as outward expression. That tattoos are shards of soul gazing.

We wrap up the official side of business and Brad tells me that he has a shoot coming up in the next few weeks and that I’m invited to come down and hang out, take notes, ask questions. He is eager to answer any other questions that I have and let’s me know that if there is anything I need to know, just shoot him an email. We talk about movies for a bit and Brad says that it is so nice to sit and have an actual face to face conversation, especially in this crazy world of text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and emails.

It’s about quarter to eight. We’ve sat and talked for over an  hour and could probably talk for hours more. We shake hands (he has a strong handshake, always a solid attribute) and Brad leaves, reminding me to email him with any questions I have. I tell him that I will, of course, do that and also keep him informed about where the project goes. I thank him again.

I pack up my stuff, spend a few minutes perusing the magazine section and then head off into the darkness of the mid-March night.

If You Build It, They Will Ink: Tearing down the walls of tattoo “tradition”

There is a movement happening in America that you may not even be aware of. You see the signs around you, inked across the skin of soccer mom and goth girl alike. The bank teller hands you your change and your eyes flit across the colorful chain of flowers tattooed around her wrist. Your neighbor mows the lawn, tank top proudly worn to expose the guns and the tribal swirl covering his shoulder. Professional athletes, covered in tattoos, are idolized and celebrated. Tattoos are no longer “confined to sailors and street hoodlums” (Levins). Celebrities, what we embrace as near royalty in modern society, show us, through their own ink, that tattoos are no longer for the shadows.

Actor Johnny Depp Photo Credit: Tattoo Retro

In fact, the tattoo industry (as of recent reports) is the sixth-fastest growing retail industry in the United States. Within 10 miles of my house alone, there are 20 tattoo studios. These are not back alley parlors where designs are chosen from boards on the wall and customers are herded through on skin canvas production lines. These are warm, sterile, creative places where tattoos are done mostly by “appointment only”. These are places like Mystic Eye Tattoo, DNA Tattooing or Patrick Tattoo, where every attempt is made to cater to a growing middle-class of tattoo customers. What is the fastest growing demographic of the newly tattoo initiated? Middle-class suburban moms.

The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion explains “tattoo marks are clearly symbolic… Tattooing in preindustrial societies dominantly relates the tattooed person to a social group or totemic clan, age or sex category, secret society or warrior association… As societies grow more complex and the division of economic and social labor becomes more refined, tattooing becomes more a matter of individual choice and serves the purpose of self-expression… As the technology of the art develops (for example, the invention of the electric tattooing needle), so do the designs and colors multiply, allowing considerable scope for self-expression and making statements about the self… Contemporary tattooed men and women wear on their bodies subtle and beautiful expressions of a continuous tradition that links deity, nature and humankind.” (The Encyclopedia of Religion (16 volumes) Macmillan Publishing, New York, Mircea Eliade, editor, 1987, vol. 2, p. 270).

Tattooing, an art dating back at least 4,000 years (“Tattoo Renaissance,” Time magazine, Dec. 21, 1970, p. 58) is now recognized as a fine art. As John Berendt wrote in Esquire magazine:

“Serious artists…are joining the ranks of tattooers and their designs are being exhibited in museums and featured in expensive coffee table books; fine-art tattooers are, furthermore, leading an effort to improve the image of tattooing….Fine art tattoos…appeal to an affluent, well-educated clientele…The new-style tattooee doesn’t merely pick out a design from the tattooer’s wall; he has an image in mind when he arrives at the studio and then discusses it with the tattooer, much as an art patron commissions a work of art.” (“That Tattoo,” by John Berendt, Esquire magazine, Aug. 1989, p. 32. Thanks to Hoag Levins for supplying the reference).

Tattoo artists themselves, from the celebrated stars of LA Ink (TLC), led by the incredibly talented Kat Von D

Kat Von D

of High Voltage Tattoo and Miami Ink (TLC show), led by the legendary Chris Garver to the local ink scribes of South Jersey, are now recognized as professionals with highly regarded skills.

Chris Garver

When Patrick Levin wanted to open his tattoo business in Camden County, New Jersey, in 1998, he became the first person to be registered under New Jersey’s new tattoo regulations, recognizing him as a “professional” and acknowleding his trade as an “art“.

Patrick Levin

But the highly regarded and much sought after talents of these ink masters are not merely contained to local proximity. People are waiting on appointment lists and traveling out of state to seek work from artists who they feel best represent their identity, their soul. Brandee Gordon, owner of Native Ink Tattoo in Elwood, IN, recently told me that she often has customers fly in to get work done from her. She has also traveled to them, going as far as London to tattoo clients. This is art, appreciated, celebrated, even venerated.

There is a renaissance blossoming of identity and individual celebration. Fine art walks amongst us, gracing the skin canvases of friends, neighbors, co-workers and strangers. There is a desire to share ourselves with the world, from the outside in. People are no longer content to hide behind the walls of their flesh. We are, in a sense, tearing down the walls and the skilled artists of the tattoo industry are helping to lead the charge.

“Your body is a temple, but how long can you live in the same house before you redecorate?”

Brandee Gordon of Native Ink Tattoo