Interview by Dats Racana
1. How old are you, and how long have you been tattooing for?
I’m 29 years old, and I was born and raised in Connecticut, USA. A few years ago I moved to Austin, Texas, and in 2011 I reached my 10-year tattooing milestone.
2. Can you tell us, what is the thing that made you decide to be a tattoo artist?
I’ve had a lifelong interest in art, and a lifelong urge to express myself creatively, through images and words. During my teenage years, tattooing caught my attention because it seemed like a perfect way to combine my artistic creativity with my rebellious, countercultural attitude, in addition to being a fun way to make money. I admired the lifestyle freedom and status that the local tattooers seemed to possess, and disillusioned with my sheltered suburban upbringing, I sought an apprenticeship from the age of 16.
As I’ve grown older, my original rebellion has greatly evolved into a more mature approach to living “against the grain”, and I don’t think tattoos are very rebellious anymore—everyone has them—but that sort of attitude and energy was a large part of my original curiosity.
3. How did you learn to tattoo?
After trying to find an apprenticeship at local tattoo shops as a teenager, by age 18 I finally found a local tattooer named Mark Savaikis who was willing to teach me, in return for cash payment and working at his shop. So I paid the money, scrubbed tubes and swept floors, and learned all the basic skills of tattooing over a 6-month period. Then I did my first tattoo, practiced on my friends for a few more months, and then quickly began tattooing real customers.
After 6 more months of walk-in tattooing, I moved to a more custom art-oriented studio called Darkside Tattoo, where I continued to learn some more advanced aspects of tattooing by observing the guys there, like Lou Jacque, Eric Merrill, Julio Rodriguez, Sean O’Hara, Anthony Plaza, and Joe Capobianco.
4. Did you attend a special art school?
After graduating from grade school, where I attended special arts programs for creative students, I immediately enrolled in a local art college in Connecticut. I studied art at this school for 1.5 years until I landed my tattoo apprenticeship. Soon after beginning my apprenticeship, I dropped out of art school to focus on learning tattooing full-time. Over the years, I’ve continued my art education on my own, without college. I still take art classes whenever I can to keep my mind and my skills sharp, but I’ve never completed my original college degree program.
5. Who are the tattoo masters that influence your art?
Throughout my career, the tattooing of Guy Aitchison has been a profound influence on my approach to the craft, and the technical process of tattooing. Of course there have been many other influences along the way, such as the old Darkside crew, Paul Booth and the original Last Rites crew, the Kern brothers, and many of the friends I’ve made like Adrian Dominic, Sean Zee, Jeff Ensminger.
6. You've spent some time with Guy Aitchison. In many ways, he has inspired a modern-day tattoo revolution. How has this affected you?
Part of my early tattoo learning was buying a copy of the original notebook-format of Guy’s book, “Reinventing The Tattoo.” I spent many intense hours reading and studying this book as a young tattooer, and it sparked my imagination, opening me up to the possibilities of the tattoo art form. I channeled this creative energy into developing the style and techniques I use today. Studying Guy’s tattoos, and getting tattooed by him (and Paul Booth, at the same time) early in my career gave me the courage to experiment, so I started thinking of new ideas to try on skin, such as pixelated tattoos, halftone printing dots, water and fire that looked like they were in motion, and photographic affects like focus and blur, and lens flares.
After several more years, Guy caught notice of my improving work, and eventually invited me to collaborate with him on a tattoo project. This was a full sleeve on the amazing tattooer, Carson Hill. Since that time we have also collaborated on some paintings, and in 2010 my tattooing career came full circle when Guy asked me to tattoo him.
He and I have many similar attitudes towards life, society, and politics, as well as sharing a strong work ethic, so this helped form a good artistic relationship between us.
7. Politics seem to be very important in your life. For example, you're straightedge, you speak out regarding animal rights and environmental issues, you've made a poster for the anti-capitalist event Buy Nothing Day. Can you tell us about your personal engagement?
Politics are indeed very important in my life, but I’d like to clarify the word “politics” because in my country, the normal use of that word has a very negative meaning for most people. To me, politics doesn’t refer to elections and politicians and government, it refers to a wider sense of awareness and caring involvement in one’s community, the world, social circles, and culture; essentially, knowing what’s happening around you and realizing the effects of your thoughts, actions, and decisions.
This conscious, actively engaged approach to life is what I mean by “politics,” and for me, it has its foundation in a sober, drug-free lifestyle. Since I grew up involved in the punk rock/hardcore music scene, I adopted the label “Straight Edge” which refers to this way of living and originates from song lyrics by the hardcore punk band Minor Threat. However, to me Straight Edge is just a sub cultural label that refers to the deeper practice of striving to live with extreme mental clarity, focus, awareness, and self-respect or self-love. We do this by abstaining from intoxication, addictive substances, and confronting our own impulsive behaviors.Upon this solid foundation, it’s possible to engage in all sorts of personal health practices, lifestyles, and spiritual or worldly pursuits with a higher degree of effectiveness and receptivity. It allows a person to be more in tune with consequences and perceptive of injustice and the suffering of others.
So of course, in this modern world that has been turned upside down and heavily damaged by ruthless capitalism and corporate greed, if we care to look we can see many people, societies, cultures, and non-human life forms that are suffering or being exploited. Logically, next comes the question “what can I do about it?” And I think most answers are valid, just as long as we are trying with sincere intentions, to do something, no matter how small. In my life, this means speaking out whenever I’m given the chance to have an audience, such as with this interview, or on my website, or in my interactions with friends and family. I also donate money and time to various causes that inspire me. But the most important thing for me, is to make sure I’m living well, treating myself, my relationships, and my surroundings with care and compassion…and always remaining open minded so I can keep learning and improving. I try to “be the change I want to see.”
If I had to make a short list of the most influential forces to have shaped my life experience, it would be:
-indigenous cultures, nature, and natural health
-meditation and Buddhist teachings/philosophy
-the principles of Choice Theory and Non-Violent Communication (NVC)
Without going into long explanations of each, I’ll just say that they all interact and blend together to give my life value, meaning, truth, and purpose. Because of them, I choose a different lifestyle than the dominant Western, capitalist/consumer lifestyle that surrounds me.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the things in the list above can do some Internet searching with those words to find various resources like books or websites. A favorite one of mine relating to modern anarchism and inspired living is www.crimethinc.com, and one of my favorite health and natural lifestyle resources is www.danielvitalis.com
8. Painting is also important in your life: can you tell us more about your last book, "Sharp-Focus Realism In Oil?"
After approximately 8 years of developing my painting skills and knowledge on my own, in addition to my tattooing skills, I started to realize the many connections between the two artistic mediums that were of extreme benefit to my overall progression as an artist. I experienced firsthand how important it is as a tattooer, to practice art in other mediums in order to build your skills and avoid stagnation. So I began to formulate the ideas for a painting seminar, to help advance the artistry of the tattoo community, after being asked to teach a class at the Hell City Tattoo Festival here in the USA, around 2007.
I focused my 3-hour seminar on the basics of oil painting, such as materials and supplies, archival techniques, and then progressing into more advanced special effects techniques such as layering and glazing, to achieve convincing realism with oil paint. The class was aimed at people who already have some experience with either tattooing or oil painting, or both, as well as basic art knowledge of things like color theory, form, and light. In addition to the seminar, I wrote a short booklet explaining all of the concepts, which every participant received as part of the course.
This booklet, combined with teaching the seminar over the last few years, inspired me to expand the original material into a much more thorough 130-page full size, hardcover book. This was published through Guy Aitchison’s Proton Press, and released in November 2010. This book covers all of the information I teach in my seminar, and much more. It also features many full color reproductions of many of my paintings from the last 10 years, so it’s great for art collectors, not just aspiring oil painters or tattooers. Anyone can order a copy of the book through www.tattooeducation.com
9. Is there something you'd like to add, or to say to the readers of TATTOOLIFE magazine?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my artwork and thoughts with you. I hope that what I’ve done can enhance your life or inspire you in some way, just as I hope to be inspired and improved by what you all are doing…