Stepping Back To Look At Traditional Tattooing

April 26, 2018 by Carl Hallowell 0 comments
Stepping Back To Look At Traditional Tattooing

You know, taking a step back from anything for a little while always seems to have the effect of renewing the way I approach it. There is strength in consistency, and yet, there is an undeniable energy in change. I suppose in many ways I have always been afraid of change. But as I delve deeper into the art of traditional and Japanese tattooing, I welcome it more and more. A new angle to attack it from. A new process, to replace the old. Trying to improve, one needs new tools or illumination as to how to use the tools you have differently.

Many customers ask “have you always been able to draw?” I guess the answer is “kinda.” I feel my talent lies in “seeing.” Discerning what looks good from what doesn’t. What feels right, or wrong. Balance in the work. Thankfully, I have practiced ten thousand hours. I now feel that I can draw. I can make things look the way that I want them to at long last. Set against many of my peers, my drawing may look too simple, too unrealistic. However, I choose to draw this way and am very proud to say that I am creating the work that I believe in. I just don’t like complicated imagery, too many accouterments, or realism of almost any sort. This is tattooing. This ain’t art school.


The Approach To Traditional Tattoo Designs

I have often stood at the rail of the tattoo shop while a customer peruses the flash. I help them out, talk to them, listen a lot. I try and put myself on their level, whether it be above or below my own. My vitriol for much of the attitude I have witnessed in the tattoo business bubbles up in me like acid reflux. You know what- I don’t care. This is my renewed approach, after all. Is it possible that I could remain positive for awhile? Anyways, I’ve seen so many of ‘em scoff at the good ol’ designs, the simple designs, the Traditional Tattoo designs. “Nah- I don’t want nothin cartoony man” is their battle cry. It is usually followed up with “Where’s y’all’s tribal?”, or “do you do portraits?” Funny thing is, their friend will be hip. He’ll say, “How much you get for somethin’ like this?” whilst pointing at a Paul Rogers anchor design on the wall. You put that thing on him it is often just a month or two later his buddy comes back with “say… you remember that anchor you did on my buddy? I was thinking about getting something like that…”

The thing is is that these things were designed to live in the skin. They are easily underestimated hanging there on the wall, laminated, and push pinned there, yellowed with age. That guy had seen too many people compliment his friend’s anchor. He had seen how good that thing looked in a dark bar or in the glaring sun. The tattoo he got was overly detailed, too fussy, borrowed from fine art or graphic art. Nobody looked at it much. It didn’t look like a tattoo as much as it looked like the cover of one of those five-dollar art books you find at half price books. That anchor just sang, man! It stood there, with its proverbial chest out! It didn’t hide behind subtleties. It was “what you see is what you get”. That’s the way I believe that tattooing should look.


Traditional Tattoo Connoisseurs And The New Age

Am I once again preaching to the choir? I’ve always had a problem with that! Fact is, if you’re here, reading this, you dig the traditional tattoos. You get it. You are part of this thing, this larger whole, this society of tattooing that goes back to early America. You’re not interested in figuring out a cuter way to do it. You’re not looking for the next new thing. You’re not swept off your feet by shiny things. You are the salt of the earth. And I commend you. The work you wear with pride and deservedly so. I’m lucky to know y’all. I love you all, I really do.

But what of the newly curious? What of the new acolytes? What will guide their path? Tattoo TV? Fashion magazines with a little black tattooing exploited here and there? Tattoo supply houses whose products are all named after a famous tattoo artist? Or will it Be the spirit of the DeVita? Will it be Charley Wagner, Charlie Barrs, Richard Stell, or Bob Roberts? And what of the wolf in sheep’s clothing traditional tattooing of the kids of today? Why doesn’t it look right? What is wrong with it? Is it that it is too clean? That it looks like it took six hours to put on a two-hour tattoo? Is it that the combinations do not make sense? Is it because there has to be a rose affixed to everything? Is it because they went to Urban Outfitters before the session? Or am I growing old, leery of what has become passable in today’s society and tattoo community?


Industry Has Watered Down The Art Of Tattooing

The tattoos that I like I just think are “right” and all the ones I don’t, I just think are “wrong”. Much like music, almost everything out there is garbage, and then you have the special ones, the real ones, the true music makers. I guess what they say is “follow the money”. If drum machine beats sell records, by god, get a drum machine. If an all black, geometric tattoo gets a thousand likes on Instagram, by all means, mimic that, repackage it, resell it. Never mind that you’ve watered it down. Never mind it’s a big rip off of the few who used to be interested in that marginal form of tattooing. Hey, just see if you can do it. See if you can find a customer who follows that same Instagram page. Then, set about making that money! The hippest, freshest money available to date. The hottest thing on the market. A total commodity, man! We’re in the money! Just watch those likes start pouring in.

Is that what’s wrong with much of the so-called traditional tattooing that I see these days? Are these the posers, the barnacles, the fly by nighters who have somehow gleaned that this style is the bedrock of world tattooing? Do they know, somehow, that it is cool, valuable? Are they also exploiting it like the tattoo convention promoters and the Chinese machine companies and the tattoo artists who do not wear any tattoos themselves?


Carl Hallowell Expresses His Gratitude

Mostly I am very happy to stare at my own four walls in my private studio room at Heart in Hand. I am so grateful that the owners and manager of Elm Street Tattoo opened up this tattoo speakeasy in the heart of a rapidly changing Deep Ellum. Everything has changed but the flash on the wall. I have Dave Gibson there, Chris Trevino. I have my own work there. I have my customer there and that is what it’s all about. We do the work in secrecy but it will travel out into the world soon enough. We are proud, but we are quiet. We are colorful, yet we are subdued. It is not a show. It is life. The real deal. No dress rehearsal. Putting on work, hour after hour, the needle never gets tired. I get up to go to the bathroom, the customer stretches out for a minute. Then I crank the rheostat and the magnum hits the skin again.

I have less interest in the work of others. What is the task at hand? I don’t need to mock the work my friends are putting out, that is their thing. I want to work with my customer to create something that is ours. I am busy trying to catch up to my own workload. I am lost in the process of creation. I am not independent, by any means. I lean on Horiyoshi iii, Kazuo Oguri, Bill Jones. But I am outside of the cause and effect of the business as a whole, at this point. I like it out here. It’s free. It’s wild. It’s my dominion.

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