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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.