Interview with Dan Wysuph, Tattoo Artist
“I don’t mind using myself up… I would like to die tired if I could, having given it everything I have.”
- Dan Wysuph
Contemporary American culture has increasingly come to view the permanent marking of one’s body as both a legitimate means of self-expression and an art form in its own right. Tattooed models grace the pages of fashion magazines while hipster pubs like Juxtapoz extol the virtues of cross-over talents like Chris Conn Askew. Soccer moms and executives have joined the ranks of what was once the purview of sailors, convicts, and Hell’s Angels. It’s a good time to be a tattoo artist and a golden age for gettin’ tacked.
A strategically placed swastika or “FTW” can, of course, still be counted upon to put a ceiling on your paygrade, and well-crafted tattoos continue to speak volumes about the taste, verve, and commitment of those they adorn; they can still be one of the coolest accessories in the world. Yet an outsider might be forgiven for wondering if their proliferation has diluted their essence. Can tattoos retain their almost magical ability to instantly and powerfully demarcate, symbolize, alienate, and serve as a kind of cipher in plain sight while enjoying a greater level of acceptance in mainstream American culture than at any point in our national history? Are those mutually exclusive propositions?
These questions resonate most powerfully when asked in conversation with someone who makes tattoos for a living. The regeneration of the tattoo in the mind of the American public has opened doors for a crop of young artists, some of whom have viewed their craft’s inexorable march toward ubiquity as a threat to an outsider way of life. For others, though, it’s proved an opportunity, albeit one paradoxically ushered in by the dawn of a technological age that threatens to draw back the curtain of exclusivity, and reduce the gate-keeping power that many niche cultures work diligently to keep in place.
I recently sat down with celebrated Bay Area tattooer Dan Wysuph in hopes of getting a current insider’s perspective on an age old craft. Long-haired and lanky, he looks younger than his 31 years. Wysuph’s skin brims over with images of everything from a pugilist raising his dukes beneath a floating pint of Guinness, to a traditional Rock of Ages, to a neck piece featuring the lyrics of a Morrissey song. The sacred and the profane romp together in a living tapestry where familial heirlooms and collector’s pieces nestle against random knick-knacks. Dan spoke about the history of tattooing with a historian’s confident, voluminous knowledge and the humility, even reverence, of one concerned about understanding and honoring his place in a long tradition. Our conversation ranged from the principles passed down to him by his mentors, the toll his work has taken on his hands, the misappropriation of culturally sensitive images, and tattoo shops as “free zones.”
Ragged Band: Do you remember the interview we did six years ago on the benches in the front room of True Art? We met after the shop closed. It’s been a long time.
Dan Wysuph: Yeah, that’s definitely been a long time. Next spring will be seven years I’ve been tattooing. So that must have been right when I started.
RB: So you started spring of ’04.
DW: Spring of ’04.
RB: Give us a thirty second version of how you got into tattooing.
DW: The thirty second version. Oh man. I started getting tattooed the day I turned 18. I essentially stalked these guys that I felt were the best tattooers in town for two or three years and eventually got a job as their shop guy, which is where you run all the day to day of the shop. I did that for a few years and apprenticed during that time. I started working in tattoo shops in 2001, started tattooing in March of 2004. Two years later I switched over to O’Reilly’s which is where I’m at now.
RB: Okay so you’ve been there since…
DW: I’ve been at O’Reilly’s since January of 2006.
RB: I remember my brother quoting you from that time—“I was hanging out with Dan one time and he was talking about the early days, ‘What’s up bachelorette party, you all want dolphin ankle tattoos? You’re here from Modesto? I’ll be here ‘til 2 a.m.’ ”
Sounded like you were just taking everything that came down the pike.
DW: Yeah (Laughs).
RB: Do you feel like you’ve reached a point where you can discriminate and take more of the projects and clients you want? Or are you pretty much still taking whatever comes in the door? People in a lot of different careers talk about the dream of building a practice to the point where they can work with the clients they want to… the people it’s fun to work with.
DW: Yeah, I would say it’s kind of equivalent. There’s the custom tattoo shop world, which is what you’re talking about, where you get to be very selective of your clientele. People come to you and they either want what you make or they can go somewhere else. Or you have the street shop tattoo world, which is where you tattoo anything that anybody wants who comes through the door. If they have money you do the tattoo. That’s a very traditional approach. In the west, in America, that’s the traditional work ethic and the way you approach tattooing. In the old days when people came in you did the tattoo. There was none of this (laughs). There was none of this custom… whatever (laughs).
Now I’m at a point where I can be more discriminating. I still try to take any job that I feel I can do well. Mostly because I feel like even though I could cut more people off, and am fortunate to be busy enough that I could weed more people out, I still feel like I can’t help having been raised in that work ethic, you know what I mean? “You’re a tattooer and you’re providing a service.” So, if I can do the job well, generally I will do the job.
That’s a blue collar approach to tattooing. That’s very much where my family comes from. You could turn my whole family tree upside down and maybe shake out a degree or two. That’s definitely my dad’s mentality, my grandfather’s, my uncles’—they all have that very blue collar approach to whatever job they had, whatever profession they had. So I think coming from there coupled with the fact that I was essentially raised in a street shop where that was the mentality, that formed a lot of my thoughts on tattooing. That was where I had my first shop experience, which will be the most intense five years of my career. That being said, I definitely appreciate that I can say no to things nowadays. When it’s a job that I either don’t feel I can do well, or a job where I kind of get a read on the customer and don’t want to deal with that person, I’ll back out.
RB: It’s interesting to hear you talk about True Art like that. I think the conception a lot of us in Santa Cruz had, particularly people who weren’t really in the tattoo scene, was that True Art, especially when it opened, was this cool new shop and that you were doing a lot of custom stuff. I’d think, “Oh the places down by the Boardwalk, or places in Venice Beach, those are street shops.” True Art was the cool place. So compared to that O’Reilly’s is even more custom?
DW: Yeah, I should back up and explain. True Art was a meeting of custom tattooing and street shop tattooing. So, yes, people had appointments, the artists there were booked, they were phenomenal tattooers. But the prevailing mentality was still that of a street shop in the sense that you walked in, you picked whose book you wanted, you told ’em what you wanted, and they would do the tattoo. You might have to make an appointment, but…
RB: But it wasn’t connoisseurs coming from far away and being like, “I want to get tattooed by so and so.”
DW: There were. You did have a bit of that. During the time I worked there each artist had their clientele for sure. It wasn’t like they were sitting around waiting usually. But we still had a lot of walk-in clients. Whereas at O’Reilly’s I work at a shop that doesn’t have a sign. It has no advertising. So nobody accidentally happens upon O’Reilly’s. Nobody’s driving down Mission Street and seeing the tattoo shop sign and popping in. The people that do know about the shop know that it’s an appointment-only, completely custom shop. There are no racks of flash designs to guide people in their decision-making process. There’s nothing wrong with that. We just don’t have that element. Whereas True Art had a custom half to it and then the other half was a street shop where you had your racks of tribal anklets that you’d pick and we’d put that on you too.
RB: What we think of as modern tattooing has been around since, what, mid-nineteenth century? Late-nineteenth century? When did O’Reilly patent the electric gun?
DW: In terms of modern electric tattooing, O’Reilly patented the electric tattoo machine in 1891, which was essentially a slight modification on Edison’s engraving machine.
RB: So in terms of that 125-year arm of tattooing, are we in a transitional period in terms of an ethos that encompasses both that blue-collar ethic and the custom ethic? Is there a changing of the guard or did that happen a while ago? I would assume that even the guys that are a bit older than you like Klem, who owns O’Reilly’s, are fine with the custom element. I’d assume that most tattooers would appreciate a culture in which talented artists are in enough demand that they can afford to not do ankle dolphins if they don’t want to. But you talk about it as a departure from what’s been there before. Has the custom culture always been there? Have there always been sailors coming and saying, ‘I have this idea, can you make it for me?”
DW: You didn’t really have that at the beginning. As far as I understand, custom tattooing as we know it today started to happen in the late sixties and seventies when you started to get guys like Ed Hardy, who came from an art school background. When Hardy entered tattooing he brought an art school mentality. He was among the first of his generation to really ask, ‘What’s outside this canon of classic images which is what we’ve been operating with for generations?’ You had this canon of classic, western images and that’s what you had to pick off the wall. All the stencils were pre-cut so there was no customizing really, other than picking what name you wanted in the banner.
RB: So were those guys doing the drawing of those pre-cut images?
DW: No, a lot of times not. You had tattooers that couldn’t draw to save their life, but they were excellent craftsmen. That was more valuable back then. They had their designs to pick from, they had their acetate stencils, and they could apply a tattoo cleanly. And you had tattooers who were artists back then, absolutely, but a lot of your tattooers were tattooing other people’s designs. As for a transition, I think we’re definitely living past the time when the transition happened. The groundwork was really being laid during the seventies and then into the eighties it was building speed and momentum. Then in the early nineties you had this huge explosion. That would be Klem’s generation.
Ed Hardy put out a publication you hear about in the tattoo world all the time, called Tattoo Time. It was a five book series of paperbacks and it was really one of the first times the world was exposed to what was going on in San Francisco, L.A., and New York. They would feature a couple select artists and they really gave people their first glimpse at mind-blowing custom tattooing. It changed everything. So much so that the generation that came right after those books came out, the generation that got into tattooing in the late eighties/early nineties, are called the Tattoo Time generation because everybody saw that and collectively crapped their pants and wanted to do this and instantly started trying to imitate what they were seeing in these books.
It was completely custom. For a long time the nineties were characterized—and this is me speaking, I wasn’t involved in tattooing in the nineties so this is me looking back at it and talking with people that were there—but the nineties were characterized by people trying to get as far away as they could from what we think of today as classic, old-school western tattooing.
RB: So like the Paul Booths of the world.
DW: You had Paul Booth, he was going on, but you also had a lot of what people call New School. Bio-mechanical was really big. Before you had a classic anchor. Well, now the anchor’s gonna be twisting three different ways, it’s gonna be chrome, and it’s gonna have three different light sources.
RB: And it’s coming out of your side.
DW: Exactly, and it’s gonna be tearing out of your skin. That was the cutting edge back then. Now a lot of that stuff is really goofy and awkward looking. It’s like the beginning of any stage of artistic development, whether it’s a huge movement or even one in your own personal life. The first few songs you write are terrible and then you learn from that and refine. It was the same with New School. We all collectively got to refine what these guys did in the nineties and now we live in this time where the sky is really the limit.
So many people came before us and worked so many of the bugs out ahead of time. Like now, if you want to be in a rock and roll band you can be in any kind of band you want to be in and you’ve got limitless inspiration in terms of bands that went before you to pull from. Oh, you want to be in a stoner metal band? Well, all these guys worked out some of these bugs for stoner metal. Tattooing’s the same in a lot of ways. If you want to specialize in bio-mechanical tattooing now, well, now bio-mechanical’s not an awkward, emerging style. It’s a style that’s 20 years old. It’s a refined style of tattooing.
RB: We commonly think of the painting masters of having phases. Picasso had his blue period. Andy Warhol went through his Brillo box phase. My assumption has been that tattoo artists work towards achieving a personal style and then maintaining that style, being known for that style. That that’s how they get clients. Have you gone through phases, whether it’s the kinds of images you’re using, or a whip-shading phase? Do you feel like you’re in a phase now?
DW: I feel like only just now, in the last year or two, have I kind of reached a spot that I was trying to get to. I tried different things, different styles, different approaches. I was always kind of moving in one direction, but I feel like in the last year or so I’ve been getting to a point where I have a consistent body of work, if you will. If I look back at the tattoos I’ve been doing for the last little bit they feel consistent, like a cohesive body of work. I guess that’s what a style is or a period.
My style is hard to describe. It’s custom tattooing that’s based in some of the aesthetics of traditional tattooing and some of the compositional aesthetics of Japanese tattooing. Some of the guys I’ve always respected the most didn’t necessarily have a thing. All my tattoos don’t have art nouveau-style filigree, which some guys do. That’s their thing, they have this nouveau kind of style to their stuff.
I think that the guys I most respect could create a well-drawn, dynamically composed, solid tattoo, whatever the subject matter was. They’re versatile enough that whatever you threw at them they could create an interestingly composed, solid-looking tattoo. My style is definitely not overly complicated, but it’s not as simple as some overly simplified traditional tattooing. That’s not my style.
RB: It’s interesting that you mention your style as having elements of both traditional American tattooing and elements of the Japanese tradition. We’re living in a time when globalization is not just an economic thing, it’s a cultural phenomenon at this point. Cultures from different continents are bleeding together so much. Two separate thoughts; first, do you think that that has been good for tattooing? And does that dilute those different streams? Whether it’s Maori, Pacific Islander, tribal-style tattooing, Japanese style tattooing, traditional American tattooing…
DW: I’ll say both and I’ll try to be succinct. The sharing of styles, designs, and ideas has always helped tattooing. One of the biggest things that happened to Western tattooing was when Japanese tattooing was introduced to it. It changed everything forever. The way the Japanese would compose tattoos taking into account what the body was naturally doing, following musculature and things like that, that changed Western tattooing. You create a dynamic composition that’s specific to that person’s body, and that wasn’t really thought of or practiced before when you were just doing one point tattoos.
The thing that I see as a problem would be in the realm of cheap imitation. It’s easy to rip something off without really doing any of your homework. So you kind of bastardize a style in a way. If you have a traditional Polynesian tattooer who went through a grueling apprenticeship, knows what each of those lines and designs means, that each stands for something, and he’s dedicated his life to learning that craft and then I just grab it… people can find a beautiful picture on the internet, download it, trace it, and put it on someone next to something that may be totally inappropriate for it to go next to based on what that design stands for. I guess that’s only a problem if you’re trying to pass it off as authentic.
When there’s so much out there that’s available it’s easy to just borrow from other cultures or artistic styles without knowing what you’re borrowing. In any art, if you’re making artistic decisions to borrow something or appropriate an image from somewhere else, whether from a famous artist or whatever, you need to know what you’re borrowing. If you reference Picasso’s “Guernica,” you need to know the story behind it. Otherwise you’re like, “Oh, it’s just a cool picture so I did some figures that were kinda twisting around like this,” and it may be a completely inappropriate use of that image or just come across as totally stupid.
I see the same thing in tattooing where people cherry pick something that they like visually, whether from Japanese tattooing or traditional American tattooing or whatever, they’ll just kind of cherry pick stuff that looks neat and slap it together in a hodge-podge fashion, and it loses all the impact because there’s no real thought or intentionality behind it.
RB: I can tell that upsets you.
DW: I’ve been fortunate to work one day a week at a shop called State of Grace that’s a Japanese tattoo shop, and they really stress being intentional with your decisions. They don’t just draw something because it looks cool. They make well thought out decisions. A lot of Japanese tattoos come from specific stories and there are a lot of things that you could put together that would be inappropriate to put together. For me, that kind of idea translates into whatever kind of tattoo I’m doing, not just Japanese tattoos.
RB: So having Japanese friends who are direct heirs of that tradition, both culturally and ethnically, have you felt an anger about the white appropriation of their tattoo styling and imagery?
DW: I have definitely witnessed an anger, or at least an irritation that goes back to what I was saying before around people borrowing images in thoughtless ways.
RB: Is it more about tattooers doing that, or people who want stuff tattooed and are just clueless?
DW: Definitely tattooers. Because the flip side is, when Japanese-style tattoos became really popular, the cool thing for Japanese tattooers was that their art form was getting a lot of recognition. One, that’s gonna make you busier, and two, any artist appreciates the recognition that their art form is beautiful and desirable. The flip side is that when anything becomes profitable you’re gonna get a lot of people that just move in and try to make a quick buck. They’re rip-off artists. If nothing else they’re thoughtlessly borrowing from another culture.
It’s the same when I see a Japanese tattoo magazine, or a European tattoo magazine, using a classic, specifically American image incorrectly. It’s not like I get angry at that, but I’m like, “Oh, you just picked a cool image, and then put these two cool images together, but that’s totally inappropriate. They don’t go together. It just shows you don’t understand the image that you just tattooed on that person. You guys just picked it because it looks cool.” I think it’s very much the same for them when they look at a lot of the stuff going on over here.
RB: I remember you telling me during our first interview years ago about a sense of annoyance that an older generation of tattooers have had around the mainstreaming of tattoo culture. I was thinking about this recently while discussing the concept of coolness with another friend… what it is that makes something cool or hip. There are these economic principles of diminishing returns or scarcity at work.
What’s the sense amongst the older guard of the tattoo community around that mainstreaming? What’s the balance between the excitement around having more business and the spread of the art form versus the dilution of some of the things that seem almost philosophical in terms of what tattooing represents, whether that’s the avant garde or the concept of rebellion or whatever? Can guys like Miki and Flip be seen as outsiders when there are girls going to UC Santa Barbara who have just as many tattoos as them? There are now 18 year old kids getting jobs at design firms and making a hundred grand a year who are sleeved.
DW: Yeah. (Long pause). How do you be punk rock in 2011?
RB: How do you feel about it?
DW: Those of us in tattooing have all reaped the benefits of tattooing’s popularity in some way. When more people feel that they can get tattooed, or want to get tattooed, and when it’s more socially acceptable to get tattooed, more people get tattooed. That obviously works out well for us. That’s how I make my living. I don’t pay my rent any other way. I think in some ways it just kind of is what it is now.
But I don’t exactly know how to feel about it, to be totally honest. Because there’s always gonna be that feeling like when you see some kid walking down the street wearing the t-shirt of the band that was your favorite band. You instantly assess them and judge them.
“First, you’re too young to be into that band. Second, you’re not cool enough to be into that band. That was my little thing, and now the lid’s blown off the top of it and it’s not my precious anymore.”
There will always be pangs of that and I don’t know exactly what that is. But in a very real way as I get older that happens less and less. Tattooing was around for so long before me and tattooing will be around after me. I’m very fortunate. I really love tattoos and I really love tattooing, and I got into it with the mentality that if I couldn’t bring something to the table then I didn’t want to do it. I love tattooing enough that I didn’t want to hurt it. I didn’t want to just be another turd on the pile, if you will. In any kind of artistic realm.
I guess for now, more than I even necessarily worry about whether it’s cool or anything like that, now I just care about the tattoos and I don’t really worry about it. That’s kind of it; I just worry about the tattoos. I just worry about doing good tattoos. Because there are always hip new fads in tattooing. There always have been, there always will be. And there’s always gonna be a little bit of a temptation to jump on that, because you’re like, “Oh man, the kid’s are doing this. The kids seem to want to do this. And if I don’t do that I’ll end up tattooing the uncool! Or I’ll be somehow not cool anymore, because I’m not doing the cool-looking stuff.”
But like I said, I started off trying to create a specific aesthetic to my tattoos, one that I think is the strongest; my personal favorite style. And that’s what I care about now. I just want to make better tattoos on whoever wants to come in and get them. I don’t think about whether the person’s worthy anymore. You think about it more when you’re a kid. I think that’s kind of like a punk rock mentality. But you’re figuring yourself out. When you’re a 19 year-old punk rocker you don’t know anything. You don’t even know who you are. I’m thirty years old now and I’ve been married for a few. I have a kid. Cool is something that’s fast flying away from me anyways. It’s much more important to me to be good at what I do and getting better at what I do.
RB: How is being a dad changing you?
DW: I think in a real way the coolest thing that’s happened, as far as it relates to work, is that since my son was born I waste a lot less time. If I have a free minute now there’s something waiting for me at home, so when things are not important they’re cut out. For example, an art commission in a style I’m not interested in, that I don’t want to do, and that would essentially be a waste of time—I don’t do it anymore. Whereas before I would bend over backwards to do whatever, accommodate anything that popped up. Now I’m becoming more discriminating with how I spend my time because I don’t have an excess of time to spend on anything.
I’m excited. Outside of tattooing there’s a series of paintings and art that I want to do that’s been building for a while and I’m excited about really being focused enough to get down to it. Having a kid has brought everything into a lot sharper focus as far as how I’m going to spend the little bit of time that I have. Half the things I would have spent time on before I don’t want to spend time on anymore. I don’t want to go hang out on a weekday night getting coffee downtown, smoking cigarettes, and just killing time, because hanging out with my son is way more exciting. All of a sudden that stuff’s boring to me now.
RB: I wanted to ask you about the idea of career trajectory and where you see yourself going. It seems like some guys are on a journey to own their own shop. Then there are the freelance stars who suck out the marrow of being able to travel wherever they want and develop have a huge following. I forget that guy’s name in Maryland…
DW: Chap Koeplinger.
RB: Yes. And then there are guys like Chris Conn who’ve dropped out of tattooing and are doing fine art. Where are you? Do you see yourself tattooing for the long haul as a part of your income and/or part of your artistic life? Are you thinking; Man, I’ve done it for the better part of a decade and maybe I won’t do it for the rest of my life? Where are you headed, in terms of both your tattooing and your other work and how that all melds together with any broader artistic vision?
DW: I would say right now it’s hard for me to look past ten years. The quick answer is that I feel like I’ll always be tattooing. For one, I love tattoos. I hope I’ll always be tattooing. Going back to your very first question, as time goes on I will ideally become more discerning with the tattoos I take. I would like to focus in on painting a little bit more in the next ten years and see where I can go with that. I’ve even talked with my wife about setting a day aside where I’m working but not on tattoos. I have these ideas that I want to explore. At least for the next ten years I see myself tattooing full time. That’s absolutely my primary source of income. That’s my full time job.
But the other reality that is a little bit haunting is the way in which having a family brings things into a little bit more focus; the reality that you only have so much time in the day makes you want to waste less time. And the other thing too is my body’s not gonna hold out forever. So I do feel a little bit of urgency, more than I’ve ever felt, to make the things I want to make now. To not wait on starting this series of paintings. I need to get into them now.
My hands hurt everyday already. That worries me at thirty, if my hands and wrists and arms hurt as bad as they do. In the back of my mind that definitely makes me worry. Physically, this thing has a shelf life. You don’t see a lot of tattooers in their sixties still tattooing that aren’t completely hobbled with carpal tunnel and arthritis and everything else. I don’t mind using myself up. I don’t mind being old. I would like to die tired if I could, having given it everything I have. But I can’t get to forty and be too broken to tattoo, because I don’t know what else I would do. I’m not really suited to do anything else. My only other life experience is working construction for six years and graduating high school. It has not equipped me for life outside of a tattoo shop.
RB: Say more about that. Do you need to ration yourself in terms of tattooing less because of the toll it takes on you, or expand your repertoire so that you can do fine art stuff, or just pray?
DW: All of the above. One, I want to explore other artistic ventures because there’s just the draw to do them. Two, the idea that I could make money outside of tattooing is definitely interesting. If you can make a painting and then make prints of that painting, one body of work can sell a hundred times. Whereas with a tattoo you make one tattoo, you get paid for that one tattoo, and you move to the next one.
Any craftsman, whatever your field, that’s the rub of making something by hand. You can’t mass-produce tattoos. I wouldn’t want to mass-produce tattoos, but at the same time there’s no retirement plan in this business.
RB: Klem’s not paying into a 401k?
DW: (Laughs) Exactly. We’re self-employed. I’m an independent contractor, so I need to make intelligent decisions for the long term. I see a lot of tattooers that are in their sixties and seventies now, and they’ve lived a very wild lifestyle and they’ve definitely lived to their fullest. Now they’re seventy years old and they have a completely broken body and they’re penniless, and we’re at tattoo conventions and people are passing the hat so they can go to the doctor. I would rather not end up there. I would rather not leave my wife hanging there, if I even make it to that age. I guess some of that drives what I’m thinking about for the next phase. I feel like I can’t afford to get through the next ten years and then start thinking about what happens if and when my body really starts to break down and I can’t do stuff as fast as I used to be able to or with the intensity I used to be able to do it.
RB: I was recently talking to a friend of mine who’s a musician and he was telling me, “Sometimes I feel like all I ever talk about is music. My girlfriend’s getting frustrated with me and I have to stop.” Does being heavily tattooed and being the cool tattoo artist guy create relational problems for you, either in terms of the stigma that comes with tattoos, or even more so because of the chic and cachet that they now have? Is it weird to essentially be a minor celebrity in our small town? Does that color your relationships? I’m thinking particularly of relationships that you’ve made after becoming a successful tattoo artist.
DW: I definitely do not mean for whatever I’m about to say to come across as arrogant in any way. I hope it doesn’t.
There’s a showmanship aspect to tattooing. Almost to where I kind of have a character I play at work. One, I want people to feel comfortable. Two, I think a lot of it was born out of being so desperately shy and unsure of myself, and really spending the first years of tattooing feeling like I was fooling everyone and I was a fraud and any minute the tattoo police were gonna kick in the door and I would be find out for this phony—that I shouldn’t have been allowed to be in there. So what I did was look around at tattooers who seemed confident and quick with a joke and I would just mimic them. I mean like a parrot. I would go and get tattooed by guys around the Bay Area, they would have a great one-liner, I’d take that home and I’d be using it the next day. I’d use it all week. And it was a hit!
Taki, who owns State of Grace, taught me something great that I’ve given as advice to people in all different circumstances. I was gonna do a tattoo. It was really early on and I was really nervous about it. He just said, “Listen man, your customer needs you to be confident even if you don’t feel confident. You need to just think of somebody you really like, somebody who’s a really confident tattooer, and you need to just walk out there and act as if you’re that person. Act how they would act and tell yourself in your head that you’re so-and-so.”
And it worked really good. It helped with the nerves. At the beginning I used that as a tool to help get me through situations where I was nervous. After a while of doing that you’ve built up this kind of a shtick, if you will. With the guys that I work with and share a room with, usually Jason or Adam, we kind of almost have these comedy routines that we’ll slip into, and we’ll repeat ‘em twice a day.
RB: With different customers?
DW: Yeah, for different customers. We’ll tell the same jokes, the same set-up. We’ll tell ‘em at noon, and we’ll tell ’em again at four.
RB: (Laughs) That’s so funny.
DW: (Laughs) If they only knew that this big long set-up and phony conversation we had was just leading up to a joke, and that we’d had the identical one three hours before. We’d done the same thing yesterday and the day before.
RB: It’s kind of like you’re on a stationary comedy tour.
DW: It kind of is. It’s for them though. So hopefully if they found out they would know that it’s all to put them at ease. It’s part of the experience.
RB: It’s like entertainment almost.
DW: When I was first getting tattooed it was a little bit of a magic show and I liked that about it. I hope that whatever tattoo shop I work in doesn’t lose that. I hope I don’t lose that. I hope I can continue to create that for the customers. That’s something that’s separate from the artistic side, separate from the craft side. It’s something that’s more on the experience side of things.
Mike Malone, who’s a really famous tattooer in the United States, said, “We all come from the carnival.” I like that. I want it to feel kind of fun, like the tattoo shop is outside of any other place you’re going to go to. You’re not gonna go to any other store and hear the people talk like that. It’s still kind of a free zone hopefully, still kind of a magic place for people. I know it’s hard, like we talked about before, how the cat’s out of the bag; anyone can go on the internet and find out anything they want to know about tattooing. All the explanations for all the magic are out there. But hopefully for some people it’ll still have a little of that magical, cool experience.