Tattoo Zeke Owen’s Column
ASK ZEKE WITH ZEKE OWEN
This one’s from the legendary tattoo artist dates back to May 1998.
I want to pursue a career as a tattoo artist very seriously. I am currently an aspiring artist with no tattoo training. How do I go about it?
—Chris Sisler, Vacaville, CA
I’d like you to know, Chris, that my editor goes through all this mail out in California, picks out the things he wants and sends them to me. So I don’t have a lot of choice with really picking out my mail and the questions that I’d like to talk about. In other words, it’s just random and I don’t say, “I don’t want to answer this, I don’t want to answer that.” I say, “Oh there’s a juicy one,” and go on. I just have to take the ones that he sends.
First of all, I’d like to tell you a little story about something that happened to me up in Seattle, Washington, one time. And I might start this little story out with a caption that went, “So you want to be a tattoo artist?” By the way, did you see in local business magazine that tattooing is now the sixth largest growing business in the United States?! Well anyway, next to my shop—my shop was on Skid Road. Skid Road was named originally as the logging road way back in the 1800s when they used to skid the logs down the road to Peugeot Sound to put on the ships. Well, anyway, I was out on First Avenue in Seattle for a little while and it was really neat. One of the coolest things that I used to see up there was that the people from Alaska and all over up north used to come down and put their money in the bank and go to the poker rooms and live in the old, beat up, stinky, I mean really stinky hotels right down there on First near the Pike Place Market and Skid Road. And this one guy used to bring down, every year, a couple of typical sled dog looking dogs and they were probably three years old or right around there. And he’d stay in one of those Skid Road hotel rooms where they let you have anything—I mean anything. And in the morning, you’d see the dogs and this guy from the Arctic Circle or someplace, down on the sidewalk and the dogs would both have collars on and each collar would be attached to the other one, kind of like Siamese-twin collars. So, consequently, he’d have one dog on the port side and one dog on the starboard side and they’d both be leaning in about ten degrees against each other and that’s they way he’d walk. Man, it’d be funny right there at the beginning of winter. They’d be falling, a struggling and a pulling. But, after a while, after a few months, winter would start winding down and they’d go down the steps and outside on the sidewalk just in unison—just as happy as they could be, with their tongues hanging out. And they’d run down the street when he’d call them. It looked like he was training them for sled dog work, but I’d never seen that before. It was really strange to watch them.
Next door to my tattoo shop in Seattle was this old bar called the Forty Niner Tavern. And that’s exactly what it was. It was full of all them off the ships and miners. Honest to God they still have mines up there, of course they’d be there for the winter. And Seattle was kind of growing in those days, they were building all over the place, so we had a lot of steelworkers. And the tavern used to open up at six in the morning, and I know that because one of the opening bartenders used to be my girlfriend, Carol. And I’d be over at the arcade—it was open 24 hours a day with a pool hall, and the little guy who ran the grill—and I’d get her home fries and scrambled eggs and coffee and go over to the bar at six in the morning. And the place would be so smoky from cigarettes, it’d be the middle of winter and there was no movement of air in there, and the fire would be going and it was just thick with smoke. And the sun would make rays through the front door and the first few tables had a spotlight like one of the helicopters that flies over the lakefront when you’re out there barbecuing and partying.
Anyway, I was in there and it was packed with all the steelworkers in there partying and doing shooters before they went to work up 20, 30 stories. They’re as drunk as hell going off to hang steel up there. Somebody ought to write a book, if they haven’t already, about how these guys used to save each other’s lives from falling to their deaths by catching them on the floor underneath. Anyway, I was sitting there drinking my coffee and I’d just finished my scrambled eggs and home fries when all of the sudden the most horrible, putrefying smell came into the place. God it was horrible, you know? And I looked around. I once had tattooed a South Korean Sailor for two gallons of kimchee because he didn’t have any money—this was back in the 60s—and he brought me this two gallon can of kimchee and I tattooed him and he went back to the ship. I had zero communication with the guy. So I put the bucket of kimchee—after taking out about a quart size jar of it—and put it in the reefer box in the Forty Niner Tavern and we were looking in there. We thought that was it, because it can get pretty foul sometimes. But that wasn’t it. And I looked up toward the front of the bar, and in the middle of this blazing sunlight cutting through the cigarette smoke here sits this old wino. He has a Korean War era watchcap in a shade of green that was particular to that era with flaps hanging down over his ears. And he had two or three suits on underneath his big overcoat, because it was below zero degrees outside. And his hands were just—you couldn’t tell what they were because the guy was so grimy. He had on big, heavy army wool pants and I looked down and I could see steam coming off his right boot, this old army boot. And the guy’s face was leathered and beat up. And he had his hand wrapped around a double shot glass of some kind of wine or something. With the sunlight on him, he’s just sitting there with head down—he’s drunk about half of it. And the steam coming off his shoe was coming off a freshly laid turd. Somehow, before he had sat down, he had crapped in his pants and his turd about the size of a scoop of vanilla ice cream had slid down his pants and landed on the toe of his shoe. Just balanced there. And the stink was just ripe. It was horrible. And the funny part was I was only one who got nauseous—ready to get sick over it. The rest of the seamen that were in there—a couple of guys from the hotel, a couple of Indians, all these steelworkers, my girlfriend Carol behind the bar—when I pointed it out they said, “My God, there it is, it’s on his shoe!” They all turned and broke into a rolling laugh, but they weren’t sick. It didn’t bother them a bit. They thought it was funny as hell. Well, I didn’t think it was very damn funny. So I went over to the guy and I told him, I said, “You’re gonna have to get up and leave this place and take that fucking thing on your shoe with you! Get outa here!” Anyway, he drank his wine, got up and walked out the door real slow, with his head bent down. Poor guy, he looked like a refugee from WWII, with that shuffle, like those guys with the tattoos on their arms, given that number from Hitler. Out the door he went, and that stinking thing on the toe of his right boot.
But you know, that’s all part of life of being in a tattoo business. So I thought about that for many, many years. And there’s not a real point to all this that I’m telling you. But before you do anything—before you go about planning a big career move into the tattoo business—you really ought to find out more about what it’s all about. Where you want to go, what you really want to do with it. I mean, do you have any tattoos? In other words, before I give you directions to build a bomb you better know what the hell you want to do with the damn thing after you get it finished. Because most of the people who got into this business have a real kinship with their customers in that it really gets into their blood, so to speak, and you keep coming back for more. They stay in it. And I’ve seen real good tattooers just go nuts. Actually, one of Mike Malone’s that came in my shop, what was his name—from Germany—Freddy or something. Anyway, he went back to Germany and he was one of the very first ones on the crack of the wave of the tattoo scene and he took Germany by storm. It was 24 hours a day and it got to him so bad that he had a breakdown and went off to the hospital. And I haven’t heard anything from him since. Mike will know what I’m talking about.
But the point of it is I can tell you right now, don’t take it on your own to try and do this or experiment with anybody. And here I am telling you exactly what I did, and a lot of others did, experimenting on their own. I can’t say it’s a mistake but it’s just a better approach to go into a shop of maybe the guys who’ve been doing your tattoos. I’m sure you have a bunch, right? And talk to them. Bring your artwork in to show. I’ll tell you what, there’s been a phenomenon in this business that went right past me. I missed it. Only just now am I getting to find out about what’s going on. I call them entrepreneurs. They have a job with the transit system or maybe they’re in the bricklaying business in the daytime and they have ten or fifteen tattoos, so now they decide they’re going to have a tattoo shop. They go down to Ocean Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida, and they rent a little store. They put an ad in the paper and they hire six or seven guys and they give them 35% of the gross to sit in there and tattoo. But if they don’t have the equipment, by God, they send off to somebody up north and buy all the machines and the designs and the tools to do the work with. And that’s one way to do it. And they just get together like a big Chinese cluster-fuck and sit there and mark each other up and everybody else that comes in the place.
But that’s one approach, I suppose. I think it’d be better off though if you did find somebody who had a reputation and they would sit you down and let you watch and talk. That’s really the way to get started. Hand to hand—kind of like the old-fashioned apprenticeships used to be at the shoe repair shop. After about a year, they eventually let you put a heel on somebody’s boot, you know?
And also, this is another kind of business where you want to get next to the best person you can. If you have some serious art abilities or training and everybody goes “oooh” and “aaah” when they see your painting, then evidently you’ve got the kind of ability that you need today to succeed in the business. Most of the old time guys are what we call mechanics—take a pattern, slap it on your arm and follow it along. There were some guys that could make it look like Rembrandt. You could tell, it was sort of a mechanical follow-the-dots sort of a deal. But today, when you’ve got so many great people, it just blows me away. I never knew Brian Everett was an oil painter or a portrait artist before he got into this. I just didn’t stop to think like that. The scope of the way I thought was pretty much limited to the tattoo community that I developed myself in. And it didn’t include people like that. And today Mike Malone says I’m the last guy to find out anything. I don’t know—he’s probably right. But today I’m beginning to find out these people in fine arts are getting into tattooing. I’m beginning to think, is there more money working in tattooing than there is working in the art department at some big magazine? And evidently some of them actually like tattooing. So then again, you have to think very carefully about what you say or what you do around this or any other business. But especially in tattooing, because most of the people who are in tattooing are pretty down to earth. There’s not a lot of fiction in tattooing like a lot of people would think. When a guy comes in and you work on him two or three hours and he gets up and runs out the door with your money, that’s pretty real. It’s not a real good example either but—also I don’t just sit there when I’m tattooing somebody. I’ve got something to say. I ask them what’s going on and you get to hear a lot of what’s really happening in the rest of the world. The kind of people I work on are everything from deep sea divers to CEOs of major corporations.
But again, you need to learn or find out more about what tattooing’s all about before you decide I’m an artist and I want to be a tattoo artist. Find out something about it first. Go to a tattoo convention. There you go. Hang out with all those drunks after the tattoo room is closed and they’re all in the bar slinging shit at each other, wrestling around in the parking lot like Bob Shaw and I used to do, drunk as hell in the grease. Things like that. Then that’ll give you more of an insight and whether you really want to be a tattoo artist or not.