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Grez Tattoo Artist Interview


All right LSTers, here's an older interview I did with the very talented Grez from King's Avenue from last year. The magazine in which it appeared only published a very abbreviated version and, after talking with Lochlan and getting permission from Grez to post it, I thought this would be a good place to share the full version.

Since it is somewhat dated and a portion of it already appeared, most magazines wouldn't be interested. And since I've shelved the book project for now, was just looking for a kind of free and open place to share. It's not quite as exciting as a video interview, I know, but it's a good read and there are some great pieces of advice in here.

Grez talks about getting tattooed by D. E. Hardy and Chris Conn, his realization of how important the use of black is, and the biggest thing he's learned from tattooing. Massive question. Stay tuned for part 2. Hope you enjoy.

Let’s start with a little background information.

The first tattoo I ever did was February 1, 2000. I have a photo with a little digital imprint and I use that as my marker. I started in Syracuse, NY, my hometown. I was in college and graduated in ’99. About halfway through college, two of my best friends opened up a shop in Syracuse called Halo Tattoo. I was there for the opening and was constantly there during breaks, like for Christmas break I would be there all day every day because they were hardcore kids I knew from the music scene that just happened to be tattooers.

I was an art major in college and started collecting [tattoos] at a young age. They offered to teach me and I kind of hinted at it. I was hanging out and doing a lot of drawing and was hoping my friend Ron would ask. He agreed to teach me when I graduated. So I graduated in ’99 and started tattooing in 2000, February 1st. And a couple months later they unleashed me on the clients.

I was there for about two and a half years. I knew at that point, even before I started at Halo, I told them, “Listen, I’m going to stick it out for a couple years but I need to be in a bigger city.” They’re the best people in the world there, in Syracuse, they’re my best of friends, but I just felt like I needed the city life, a little more fast-paced. Now, I’m actually trying to get out of that.

Where did you move after Syracuse?

My wife and I moved to Boston. We lived in Boston for three years. I worked at Redemption tattoo in Cambridge, [Massachusetts]. I met Mike [Rubendall] at a convention in probably 2003. It’s pretty random how I ended up here but I feel like it was destiny, because he and I get along so well.

He was tattooing my best friend. He was doing a sleeve on him, and I call my friend who was living in Queens to tell him my wife and I were moving to New York and he just happened to be with Mike. And Mike got on the phone and said, “Hey, you wanna work for me?” And I said “Absolutely.” I came out and hung out with him for a day or two, shook his hand, and moved here a few months later.

This shop is amazing.

It’s crazy. When Mike first opened, when he was putting the shop together, he asked what kind of surfaces we should get to work on, and I didn’t want to throw out anything too expensive. I didn’t want to tell him anything too crazy. And then I came to the shop and see granite floors and I’m like “Oh my God, never mind! You got it under control.”

We came out here and this place was demoed and two weeks later, the amount of work that was done I couldn’t believe it. I’d say he did probably 75% of it in a month. He had guys working around the clock. When I moved here, he said he’d hoped to be open in July. But he found a few places and they weren’t down with having a tattoo shop in there. So he lost a few [places] and then we didn’t open until November. I was trying to travel a lot and just make money while he was trying to find a location. And then he found this location, which is a few blocks away from where he grew up, so it seems perfect that he came back here.

I know nothing about Long Island.

I didn’t either. The first time I ever came out here to meet him was the first time I’d ever been to Long Island. I live in Queens and I commute out here but it’s really not bad.

I work five days a week, sometimes six. I haven’t been doing that in a while because I got really burned out on it.

That brings me to the next point that it’s so apparent that everyone here works so hard. There’s none of that two or three days a week nonsense.

Yeah, everyone here really busts their asses. That’s something that’s great about Mike. He’s not one of those guys that watches workers bust their ass just so he doesn’t have to work. He’s just as intense about his work as everyone here. I’ll look at him and I can’t be stressed. He’s got so much more on his plate than I do. He has everything done on time and he’s a great person to work for because he’s still truly passionate about tattooing.

I was even talking to a tattooer the other day and he said it was such a bummer to work for people who don’t care about tattooing anymore. Because then you just feel like you’re working for them. They’re not trying to learn anything. Here, it’s just such a healthy environment for all of us.

Any of these guys can come up to me and be honest. Say when I put a drawing on the table, they can say, “This is wrong, this is wrong and that’s wrong.” They know my work and they see my drawings every day. Sometimes they can pinpoint problems with [the drawing] that I don’t see because I’ve been staring at it too long. I trust these guys enough that they’re not just screwing with me. I’ll take their points into considerations and make a lot of changes because of them.

Everyone’s honest with each other and it’s really rare. I’ve worked at some shops guest-spotting and it’s almost like the tattooers are competitive and it’s so unhealthy, like an unhealthy competitiveness. They’re just kind of looking over everyone’s shoulders and it’s just not a healthy environment.

Your tattoos have such a great look to them, no matter what it is. How do you think your style’s evolved since you started?

Starting at Halo, those guys did a lot of traditional work and that was what I was more drawn to as far as tattoos go. By starting off with traditional, it just gave me the perfect foundation to learn. You hear it a lot, but American traditional is just the best formula to learn. It’s clean lines, solid color and shading. It’s usually a third black, a third color and a third skin. It’s such a great recipe to build a tattoo that lasts.

That’s what I feel my foundation was but when I look at my old work… You know, when you sit there and you’re drawing and an apprentice, I would sit there and I knew I had so much to learn. Looking back, I feel like my older work wasn’t really traditional because it didn’t have any kind of weight to it.

I think a lot of that comes with having confidence in your work. I didn’t have confidence putting in huge fields of black and color, or to use heavier lines. But as I became more confident with the machines and my own work, starting to work with other artists from out of town, like from DC, some of the guys from Jinx Proof and Adam Barton came from California. We hit it off and we actually connected more through music than we did through tattoos. But working with him, painting flash together, it really took my work forward.

I took huge steps forward because when I thought I was putting a lot of black in my work, I realized I wasn’t really putting any. I saw how powerful his work was with the heavy amount of weight and all the black. I feel like that was a pinpoint in my career that really showed me that I was going in the right direction but not doing anything right. I kind of wasn’t doing adult-looking tattoos, you know? I was kind of dancing around and doing too many fades, trying to make things too fancy. When all I needed to do was strip everything down more.

Do you try to keep a traditional thread running through your work?

No, I think it depends on the image. Sometimes I can do things really simple and sometimes I render them with a lot more depth. I like doing a lot of black and gray, also, which isn’t really related at all to traditional American, it’s more like Renaissance and Christian artwork. People come in for crosses or a cross and rosary beads and I love doing that stuff. I feel like it’s a good break from the traditional American stuff. A lot of people come in for Japanese, too, and I’ve been doing a bit of that, but I feel like it’s impossible to break from the American influence on my work, which is okay with me.

It’s a little heavier and stiffer, but I like that I’m not trying to make it look like Horiyoshi, but more like an American kid’s take on Japanese themes.


Is there any style you lean towards, then?

It’s tough because I feel like there are three different styles I really enjoy doing. And there are all different kinds of images. But I’d say ultimately, I like to tattoo good ideas. There’s a guy that came in who I am doing a Japanese monster sleeve on and it’s pretty heavy. It looks like it’s got a very American approach to it. But he came to me with all these monsters that I didn’t know anything about. And they’re really interesting stories, so I thought his idea and approach and his ideas of how he saw his arm going, how he wanted to lay it out, was very inspirational. People come in with great ideas and it inspires me.

Sometimes I do more research on the idea, or just try to do some digging, especially in Japanese tattooing, try to get to know the story so you’re not just throwing a bunch of filler in there that doesn’t make sense. Mike knows a lot, he knows his shit. So luckily I’ve got coworkers I can ask and some friends in California who know more about the work. But I’d say I like any great idea.

What are the challenges?

I feel like any kind of challenge is good. I feel like everything should challenge me. That’s good and bad sometimes, because sometimes you can over think it and beat a classic idea into the ground by trying to make it a little different. But then I can look back on it and say, “I stepped all over my dick, I shouldn’t have tried that.” But I feel like mostly everything should challenge me to try to keep it classic and fresh at the same time.

There’s such a fine line between keeping it old-looking and taking a new approach on something old but keeping that traditional look where it can be timeless. That’s the major trick. All these styles have lasted for years and years and still look good. You look back on Sailor Jerry’s work, and it still looks incredible, his flash and even the photos of his tattoos. But you don’t want to do the same thing, you want to have your own twist but you still want to capture that classic look, that bold classic look.

How about tattooers that inspire you?

Aside from my coworkers, I’d say the number one answer is Ed Hardy. I’ve been tattooed by Ed before and watching the master at work was unbelievable. It was insane.

I still can’t believe how fast he works. It’s so fascinating because you realize the time he came from, he was doing acetate stencils with powder, the graphite transfer, and watching him outline things you realize no movement is wasted. He’d go right into one image into the next into the next so the line would never stop, just what would work in that angle. And you realize a lot of that is just he way he learned.

He has the perfect balance between having things classic with a new twist. His work is timeless and he takes risks. Any artist that takes a risk is really inspiring. Whether it works or not, I recognize it as being very ballsy. I think it’s healthy, it’s healthy for everybody. Sometimes I’ll see tattoos and I’ll think, “Wow, I really don’t like what that guy did,” but I can respect it because it’s different. A lot of people don’t try, and everybody tries new things here and there.

Aside from my coworkers, the three major influences are Ed, Dan Higgs and Chris Conn. Those guys have the same balance as Ed: a new twist with a classic look. Chris and Dan, their work is so far apart. Dan’s work is so simple and so heavy, and so broken down. And Chris’ is a lot fancier but it has this simplistic, powerful quality to it. When I started at Halo, I had Dan Higgs’ set of flash, his ’97 set, hung right next to my station. So I was constantly staring at it and it really had a long-term affect on me. Not to mention, one of my friends was getting a sleeve from him and the work was so incredible, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. I got tattooed by Dan a few times before he quit.

Were you able to get tattooed by Chris Conn before he retired?

Yeah, a few times. Luckily I got ‘em all in there. Dan was always on the east coast, so my wife got a sleeve from Chris and I’d been tattooed by him a few times. We used to just fly out to California and get tattooed, mostly when we were living in Boston. It’s so good to watch other people work on you and you learn so much. You come home inspired.

Any tattooer you wish you could’ve gotten work off of?

I’d push it back to Greg Irons, I would’ve loved to have gotten something from him. Sailor Jerry, I’ll start going back kind of far, like Bob Wicks, some of the older guys, Owen Jensen. Their flash, to this day, I look at it and I just wish that one day I could paint something or design something as nice as they did.

I feel like every time I look through a Jerry flash book I see new stuff. There’s this beautiful simplicity that’s so hard to capture. It’s so hard to simplify something and keep it beautiful at the same time. It’s the ultimate pain in the ass. It’s the ultimate goal for tattooers. It’s so easy to add all the frosting but the way that he strips stuff down, same with Dan [Higgs], his stiff is so simple, I feel like he breaks things down into shapes and I still strive for something like that. I’m always trying to grow in that direction, always trying to simplify. Trying to find a perfect recipe.

So, you were really hesitant about the interview…

Well, it’s backfired a few times. Did you hear about the airbrush thing? This certain magazine that will go unnamed, it came out a few months ago. They do this thing where they airbrush people. They were in here one day and they did an interview and they change everything you say, it’s insane. But they were like, “We gotta get a group shot, we gotta get a group shot.” And I was here on my day off, tattooing a friend, and I said I had to go. So [the interviewer] asked me to hang out for an hour.

An hour?

Yeah and I had been tattooing all day for eight hours. So he says, “Lemme get this quick snap of you and we’ll superimpose it into the shot.” So I’m leaning up against the wall and he takes the shot. [When the magazine comes out, the shot] is in the centerfold, in this insert and they airbrushed me with all these other tattooers. We’re sitting around, airbrushed. Not my face but like everything. I am an airbrushed image. Mike had it done, too, and it’s really funny at first but it left the worst taste in my mouth. And any photo of me that’s ever been in any magazine, I look like an ass. Of course, I got my balls busted for months about it. Eric’s like, “Uh, you gotta do an interview,” so I was like, “I’m not having my fucking photo taken!”

One of the last interviews I did, the person called here and they said, “I’ve got most of it written, I just need a couple of points.” I said, “I’ve never talked to you in my life.” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, I know but I got the gist of it.” And the first question they asked me was, “How long you been pumpin’ ink?” So that’s all I gotta say.


Well, I think that goes with the feeling of protection, that you want to preserve tattooing, too. Do you think tattooing needs a certain level of protection?

I do. When you bring up the issue of protection it immediately makes me think of TV. There’s a lot of good and bad with that. I guess it all boils down to the person, do you stress on the bad or the good? I feel like I stress on the bad a little bit more because people’s attitudes when they come into the shop. People roll in here with their four kids and start telling me how to do things and assume you’re going get a sleeve in one sitting because someone on TV does it one sitting. It’s crazy. It’s so crazy.

One of my coworkers in Boston, he was tattooing some guy and the guy looked over and looked at his power supply and told him it was on too high. He was like, “What’re you talking about?” and the guy said, “Well, so-and-so on TV runs it like this.” They see some number on the screen and they don’t know what it means. Shit like that makes me want to freak out.

I used to go into tattoo shops when I was 16 and I was scared. I was scared of these biker dudes and they made sure I was scared. They’d talk shit to you and really get in your head. I feel like intimidation, it may not be healthy but it’s part of the mystique of tattooing. I feel like it was my initial attraction to tattooing. It was underground and it was scary. I felt like it was such a great aspect of tattooing. But now with TV It’s polished and everyone thinks they know everything about tattooing.

There’s a fine line, too, with me saying, “I like this and I don’t like this.” I’ve been tattooing ten years now but I still feel that that’s not a lot of time. I mean, I’m seeing guys that have been tattooing thirty years and I still feel like a rookie. But I feel like a lot of the guys that started far after I did feel like they’ve been in it forever. I just don’t think it’s the right approach. We all still have so much to learn.

A client said to me the other day, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen more than you talk.” And I feel like that’s true. I do feel like protection is important. There are a lot of secrets and mystique with tattooing that should be preserved.

What’s your role in that?

It’s tough to say that I have a role. I feel my role as a tattooer is just to build on history and try to bring it the next step further. I feel like that’s everyone’s responsibility. To not just keep doing the same thing, but building off of tradition and taking it to new levels. And new work always comes by taking risks.

A lot of people in the early 90’s, when I was buying magazines in high school, everything was crazy and twisted and chrome. When you look at the work there’s nothing about it that screams any bit of tradition at all. It was completely new and exciting for everyone so everybody was getting work like that because there was so much frosting on it. But now nobody gets that stuff because nobody likes it. And it didn’t last because it didn’t have that foundation that traditional American and traditional Japanese have.

I think that’s the duty of every tattooer, to understand what came before and know that you need to step forward and build upon that. It’s such an important recipe to know you have to study your past masters, know the contemporary artists and then you have to look at nature. It’s like the perfect recipe to understand nature, and understand history, and contemporary tattooing.

I think it’s working for you. Your name always seems to pop up when other tattooers get asked whose work they admire.

That’s nice to hear!

Well, there’s a short interview with Valerie Vargas I was thinking of.

Oh she’s awesome, that’s so nice. Her work is so nice. It makes me feel like, “Oh, how has she heard of me?” Maybe ‘cause I work with Mike? (Laughs.) I’ve seen her work around and she’s really awesome. Since I don’t travel that much, I mean, I’ve been here and there, I went to Japan, I went to Italy. But overall I just stay here and when I travel, I don’t travel for tattooing.

Does it feel like you’re doing something right?

It does. Because when you get respect from your peers it’s the ultimate compliment. I think it’s really important that your peers respect what you’re doing. I’ve seen her work and I guess she’s seen mine and it’s important. I remember some of her specific tattoos and it obviously had an affect on me. It’s like a little dialogue going on there, and I’ve never met her and she’s never met me but it’s almost like you know someone a little bit when you look at their work. Your work’s out there and it speaks for itself. I look at her work and I know she’s creative and her work has an excitement to it and it has the history. It has that foundation that’s so important. It’s really flattering to hear someone like that say something.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve been able to take away from tattooing?

Wow. That’s a good one. I feel like I learn off of other people. I sit back and watch and listen a lot. I don’t try to give my opinion, necessarily. Knowing your place and sitting back. When I was learning how to tattoo and getting tattooed by guys, I wasn’t sitting there and asking a lot of questions like, “What kind of ink are you using, what kind of needle do you use?” I would sit back and watch them work and I feel like I came leaps and bounds by getting tattooed. And I still do. Seeing the way another person works. I wasn’t necessarily given that advice because I’ve always been that guy. I’ve always kind of been in the back of class, listening.

I remember when I was younger and we’d be snowboarding and I’d want to go last because I’d want to see what everyone was doing and then I could hit the jump and try whichever one I liked the best. I feel like I’m a super observer.

So basically back to that phrase, “Two ears, one mouth.”

Two ears, one mouth. That’s important.


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