- Posted by Carl Hallowell
- On February 22, 2018
Can’t believe I’ve been a Dallas tattoo artist 23 years now. Sometimes it just amazes me- that’s over 8000 days. Yep, tattoo artists can do math, especially percentage-based math, as we give a percentage of what we do every day to the shop we work for. That is why we accept tips in the tattoo business. 100% of your tip goes to the artist. Well if the guy under charges you and you have to over-tip he’s doing the shop a disservice. The finer points, the subtleties, can be gleaned from experience. When you get that price right on the head, you’ll give him a nice tip and he’ll still walk away with plenty to pay his shop.
The shop is his lifeblood. His shop is his support system. The shop was most likely there before he came along and it will most likely be there after he moves along. The reputation they have been building all these years makes or breaks the tattoo artist that works for them. That name that brings people in the door, one after next. And I work for one of the biggest names in the business- Elm Street Tattoo in Dallas, Texas. What’s more, I work for the elite chapter, Heart in Hand Gallery, where every tattoo we do is done in an all private studio setting by appointment only.
Is this the end-all be-all of the tattoo experience? Is this the evolution of the practice? In many cases yes. Any private tattoo studio setting is modeled after the Traditional Japanese tattoo studio. It is a scaled down production in which the vibe, energy, and attitude of the room is created by the artist and customer alone. When Don Ed Hardy came back from working under Kazuo Oguri (Horihide) in the ‘70s, he opened up his own walk-up appointment only private studio in San Francisco. Every piece was designed custom for that one customer just like it is in the Japanese way. Hardy always had the reputation of working fast. I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall, see how many people he took per day. He’s also known as the best draftsman in the business so I guess we can surmise it didn’t take him all that long to draw up a design just for you.
But check it out – it’s your appointment with the man and you’ve waited it out. And then you show up on that special day and he produces a drawing for you, maybe out of a manila envelope. I have felt this excitement myself many times over in the tattoo business when going for one of my tattoo appointments by one of my chosen artists. The exhilaration of seeing the drawing that they have produced for you based on your conversations is just amazing. They have taken your idea and distilled into this picture that’s better than you could’ve imagined. You look at this and you’re just on cloud nine and you’re ready to lay down some skin and walk away with that picture.
Keeping the Tradition of the Tattoo Artist
Well, a lot of this is the way I do my work day by day. I dive deep in the consultation phase to try to see what it is you’re really wanting. And then I go about setting that to a traditional tattoo framework. Let me tell you about working outside of the traditional framework. You look like you’re trying to play football with a baseball. You look like you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. You look foolish because you’re looking at one of the strongest art forms in American history and yet you want to change it, “make it better“. You look like you’re driving a truck backwards. You’re taking something that makes absolute total sense and it’s part of a complete system of thought and imagery and you’re rearranging it to make no sense. And you’ve gone out of your way to do this! I find it funny in a way, but I also find it sad.
Part of the great tradition slips away each time one of these inexperienced tattoo artists slaps on a design devoid of meaning, tries to create a new style, or follows the Instagram trend of the day, blindly and soullessly ripping it off till there’s nothing left there but an empty carcass of a drawing, of a tattoo. Many people I express this to cannot grasp the truth of it. How can I be so bold as to call it the truth? Because many men greater than I have said so.
Imposters Need Not Apply
Some pup putting on a Michael Keaton as Batman actors portrait in 50 shades of brown should’ve stayed in art school. We really didn’t need that type messing up the business. It used to be that we hung the designs on the wall that we wanted to do. That was your selection. It wasn’t the artist’s imagination. It wasn’t about how he wanted to show off that he knew where light was coming from and how that lit a particular object- just a meaningless subject, usually. It wasn’t a visual masturbation. It was the hard-core unabashed truth coming through from these designs that were hung on the wall.
Well if the customer and I can see eye to eye I will come up with a traditional tattoo idea that will work for them, suit their meaning, suit their aesthetic intentions, suit the emotion that they want to pass on to the viewer of this piece. A lot of times there’s resistance, often times, a slight lack of faith in my ability to understand what it is that they are wanting. But this is a natural part of the tattoo process, as nobody can do their own tattoo. You have to cross that bridge of trust with the artist that you have chosen. Choosing that artist wisely then is of paramount importance.
I believe a big part of what makes an artist worth his salt is his experience. The fact that he’s encountered that design before. He’s engaged it. He’s found his own way of working with that design, becoming that design. Never mind the myriad mechanical problems that arise during each tattoo, he’s faced those many times as well. When it comes to keeping the studio clean, he’s done that day after day, year in, year out. When it comes to hearing your concerns, he’s there for you. When it comes to helping you through the pain- hey, he knows with this feels like for he’s been collecting them a long time too.
23 Years of Pure Dallas Tattoo Artist Experience
Wow… 23 years. So, I guess I can say when you’re looking for an experienced Dallas tattoo artist, you’re looking for me. When I meet that customer for his appointment or her appointment, the excitement is palpable, for both of us. They are so excited that they’re going to walk out of there tattooed at the end of the day. And I am so excited because we’ve talked about it and we’ve got a traditional tattoo coming right up.
I don’t get right down to business. Really, this is a people business. Maybe even more important than the design itself. Why do people get tattoos, none of us really know! We do it to replace something that’s been lost. We do it to add to what is already a very rich life. We do it to celebrate accomplishments and mourn losses. We do it, it is given, from one to the other. I’m privileged to wear the tattoos that I do and to have gotten them by the people that did them. In most cases.
There’s a lot of talk about regret when tattoos are discussed. But I found regret is slight among those of us who wish to wear this art. There is a subtle sting though, that never goes away, looking at a piece done by a guy whose heart just wasn’t in it, or just didn’t get it, or care- someone who was messing with something they didn’t deserve to mess with. Someone who didn’t realize that this was a people business. Someone who put themselves above their customer. Somebody who put the money before work. Someone to whom the tattoo gods send the customer who doesn’t deserve a good job. I guess there have been a couple of times when I needed to serve a little time in tattoo hell myself. And I carry those reminders. And I don’t want to go back.
And so, at the appointment, the customer and I sit around and catch up, or get to know each other. There’s always such a great excitement, such great conversation when the stakes are high. Finally, I’ll grab the scroll of papers and unroll them to produce the drawing that I brought for this particular customer. It will be different from the last that I showed the last customer, even if it is another black panther tattoo, another Dragon tattoo. It will be different and it will be designed with this one person in mind. This design will have a purpose.
Well, I’m so happy to be a part of this process. I love taking my time with each customer, putting 110% into each piece, each person. Not to spread myself real thin. In contrast, the most real tattooing on earth probably takes place in those old time shops that are left over from the 70s, the 60s, or before. Guys like the great Tony Polito of New York who sit behind bulletproof glass and knock your tattoo out in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. True transmission of power, true transmission of the soul from the mind to the skin and Wham Bam thank you, ma’am, you’re done.
Maybe he will have time to shake your hand next before blessing the next customer with a real American tattoo. Mike Perfetto is another one of those guys. I believe that Mike Schweigert of Asbury Park carries on this tradition. I believe that Mav Mess of Portland Oregon carries on this tradition, as he learned from the great Terry Tweed. I believe the Keith Underwood of Austin carries on this tradition as taught by the one and only. Well, if you know then you know. And then there’s Eric Perfect- look this guy up in Webster’s under real tattooing.
Time Changes But a Classic Tattoo Artist Does Not
Of course, you got to say the times have changed. The needs of the customer change. Customers today want bigger, more impactful pieces. Whereas a medium sized tattoo on the bicep used to be standard for a first tattoo now it’s a half sleeve. Tough to knock one of these things out on a busy Friday night at the tattoo parlor but I’ve been to known to do so many times. I just like working big and working with a kinetic force. If you’ve followed my blogs then you’ve read about the place where the artist goes when he needs to stoke artistic energy. It is a coal room of the soul and the artist heaps shovel full after shovel full of coal in the fire, even as he shovels pigment into the dermis… But that’s a story I’ve already told.
You know, I asked a couple of teachers what’s the main thing wrong with the youth of today, they both agreed it was a sense of entitlement. Then I asked a couple of teenagers if they thought the youth really were afflicted with this sense of entitlement. They agreed it was absolutely true. In an unexpected addition to the conversation though, they explained that a lot of this entitlement was hoisted on them by their parents.
Well, I am old enough to believe that respect is earned, not given out for free. I believe you have to pay your dues. I believe that you should reap the rewards once you have put in the work. And I believe that much of the beauty that we experience as Americans are privileges, and not our God-given rights.
This does run anathema to the concept of entitlement. But as I discuss the needs of the modern customer, I can see a better side to the entitlement. It is the belief that you are worth something. You are worth the very best. You do deserve all the good things in life, just because you were born. And why not, should we not all strive to be treated greatly, should we not all strive to be the best we can be, to have the best things that we can have, to wear the best tattoos possible? Maybe there is a little dignity, a little pride in the entitlement of the youth of today. Maybe there’s a little good in this phenomenon that we must agree is very bad.
Respect for your elders slips away the more you dignify yourself too much. The more you put yourself up on that pedestal the more you cast down others. The more you are above criticism. The more you’re impervious to help. And then the chain of tradition that goes back to the ultimate source, which is God himself, breaks like a hair and disintegrates before it even reaches the earth. The railroad earth of Kerouac. The salt of the earth of the Stones. The earth blues of Hendrix. You have to see yourself as being in the middle. You have to assume the responsibility of your experience, while still keeping an ear open to your elders, to your peers, and even to the mouths of babes, whose idealism and hope for the future drives many bold ideas towards life in general and tattooing in particular, to the course of this conversation.
Talk about how times have changed, here I am having to explain to you the reasons why, wherefore, how and when of tattooing. It really used to be just hang a sign and go. By the time I got to it I hung a sign and placed an ad in the phone book. Nowadays my wife wonders why we keep phone books around. But I do go to them now and then as old traditions are a part of my life. But yes, in these days I feel I must reach inside myself and pull out these words to share with you, the main goal of which is to pull you into my tattoo work so that I can have some of your skin. So that I can keep myself in the conversation that we already have begun with these lines, this dotty black shading, and these bright colors.
Meet Your Next Favorite Dallas Tattoo Artist
This time I’ve done it a little different, whereas I used to type on my old Smith Corona typewriter, for the poetry of my younger days, now I use a laptop computer… But I bang the keys like Bukowski, clacking away into the night, albeit without the Handel or the handle… But this time I have performed this blog by dictation to my phone so please, tell me whether you enjoyed this one more less than my other blogs. It’s been kind of fun to sit here and talk like an old man reminiscing over his past and spewing forth whatever knowledge he scrimped and saved over the years. And let me say that I am very happy to spend the time, to dig deeper, to investigate this beautiful world of tattooing, especially with you. It takes two of us to do this thing. And you can only do one customer at a time. So why rush? I like to enjoy you just as I like to give you much to enjoy my work. I hope you find it much more than a picture. I hope you find in it the transmission of the roots of traditional tattooing like I said going back to God himself. May I be a conduit for the true reality. May I always serve the tattoo gods in the most honest of capacities. May I create for each customer a tattoo that will bless your life in every way- from family, and friends, to self, from success to happiness, to health!
If you are looking for a true, traditional piece of tattoo artistry that breaks the mold and dares to be bold, get in touch with me today.