I began tattooing professionally way back in 1990 (eeek) while pursuing an associate degree in Graphic Design and Illustration at the Art Institute of Atlanta. Before college I was just some do-it-yourself, punk rock kid from the suburbs, trying to find a way to make art my living. Like a lot of tattoo artists, I was influenced greatly by the music, attitude and philosophies of the 80s underground music scene. In fact, during high school, I made extra cash painting leather jackets and doing flyers and record covers for the local punk rock/metal bands until one of them asked me to design their band logo and tattoos. I briefly experimented with hand-poking tattoos on classmates after getting my first tattoo at 15 years of age, but it was too crude and thus quickly abandoned. When the band approached me about designing their tattoos, I picked up a few modern tattoo magazines to see what could be done and was blown away by the quality of work possible!
Inspired by the groundbreaking works of Ed Hardy, Guy Aitchison, Paul Booth, and a handful of others, I started to explore tattooing as a valid career potential, even while attending a commercial art school. A few weeks later, I was learning how to tattoo from their artist and soon employed by Painless Paul Nelson at his world famous Ace Tattoo Studio, Atlanta’s oldest and most respected tattoo shop. I worked at Ace for a few years, learning all I could from my teacher before eventually opening my own space, which is still around today and called 3rd Eye Tattoo Co.
Wanting to learn from a variety of artists, in 2000 I decided to pursue journalism in my spare time and began conducting interviews with acclaimed artists for many of the top tattoo magazines of the day. A few years into writing, I started getting a bit frustrated with the various publishers and their lack of respect for tattooing and the artists featured in their publications.About that time I met my next mentor, Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone, (a living legend at the time, RIP, and the man who inherited Sailor Jerry’s studio upon his passing), and we started discussing the idea of creating a tattoo magazine by and for tattoo artists. Soon after, Tattoo Artist Magazine was born. Since then, it has been one whirlwind ride after another. I’ve traveled the globe many times over, visiting exotic places, working at international tattoo conventions and collaborating with the best of the best in the tattoo community to create what has become the most respected tattoo magazine ever. What a joy and privilege it is to represent tattooing at this high level. TAM has always been a true labor of love because tattooing changed my life and the lives of so many successful and respected artists in the world –no matter what the background, upbringing or cultural environment. The TAM project is about sharing these stories and celebrating everything positive and transformative about the art and craft of tattooing.
Be aware of the bigger picture
I sure wish I’d have known that tattooing would one day be on television and become mainstream, or that tattoo artists would actually become pseudo-celebrities. I wish I’d known that the Internet and then social media would evolve to impact the craft of tattooing as much as it has. I also wish I had realized that so few artists would care enough about any of it to join together and help make a positive difference in the world of tattooing- for themselves, the history and future legacy of tattooing, or for their clients; I would have started working even harder to have a positive impact! Tattooing is an ancient and sacred craft, and it’s also an art. Both the advancements of tattooing and the preservation of its history are important. But more important than all of that is the welfare and education of our clients and future clients. People need to be taught. Our voices are much more powerful together than apart.
Work on becoming a great artist first
The very best advice I can give someone interested in a career in tattooing is to first focus all your effort on becoming the best ARTIST that you can be. Tattoo artists are a dime a dozen, but the REAL artists will ALWAYS stand out! Go to school, take classes, learn about line and light, shadow and texture, master some painting medium and learn all you can about design, flow, and basic color theory BEFORE even thinking about learning to tattoo. The field of tattooing is absolutely inundated with mediocrity, with only about 10 percent of working tattoo artists really being worth their salt. And only the few, perhaps even 1 percent, are true innovators and masters of the craft. Hence, the only way to thrive and make a name for yourself is to first perfect your art to a high level and then learn the skills of tattooing.
These two things are not the same; they are very distinct disciplines. Far too often I see kids trying to learn how to draw and how to tattoo simultaneously. In the old days it was possible to hone your art skills while growing as a tattoo artist, but the days of flash tattooing (designs on the walls of tattoo shops) and street shops are in quick decline. Tattooing is HARD! It takes 5-10 years of serious study to even start to understand what you’re doing to the people who entrust you with their skin and their futures. It needs to be taken much more seriously than it is. And if the public knew and understood this, they’d stop going to bad shops getting bad work from bad artists. Do your homework.
Apprenticeships can make or break a career
It comes from 25 years of experience –GET AN APPRENTICESHIP! And get that apprenticeship from someone who’s been tattooing for more than 10 years and has quality work to show for it; not the kid down the street who has no experience or training but opened a shop because he thought it would be easy! If you can’t find a reputable place to learn, then it is most likely because you lack the artistic ability to impress the pros enough to take you on. Work on your art and do it right. And PLEASE don’t buy a tattoo kit and start ruining peoples’ lives.
As I said, this is a HARD job and it takes years of training to understand and execute good, quality tattoos. Once you’re good enough to get in the door, pay attention, learn everything you can, study, be thankful, and get tattooed by the best artists in the world, building lasting relationships with as many as possible. Don’t ask questions, don’t try to impress anyone, just pay them for their skills and collect good tattoos. Those experiences and your reputation, combined with hard work, will carry you through.