It was at Saturday night LSD parties in East Vancouver where I got my start tattooing. This was back in the mid-eighties when punk rock wasn't stale yet and having a tattoo meant you were a fucking scumbag. To speak to that point, we had invited a tattooist to come to our house party and give us cheap tattoos.
The tattooist, a burly dude in a leather jacket who parked his motorcycle on our front lawn, quickly passed out drunk on our living room floor. The party collectively decided that I was nominated to do the tattoos in his place. After all, I had been to art school and I had been previously tattooed which made me expert enough. With the assurances from the toughest dudes in the room that they would protect me if the biker woke up and demanded his tattoo guns back under threat of violence, I then began my twenty plus year career making tattoos.
My first victim was a skinhead named Filthy Phil. I later witnessed Phil attempt to murder one of our party guests by jumping up and down on his unconscious head and then try to throw the body over a balcony. Plunging the electric needle in to his arm he snarled and demanded that I "push harder you fucking pussy!" (still sage advice). If there's one thing I've learned over time is that every tattooist I meet, no matter how greatly or poorly I judge their work against my own, I can still learn from that person. Phil was my first teacher.
When the biker regained consciousness, instead of getting sore that I appropriated his tattoo gear he instead asked to see what I tattooed. He offered me his tattoo equipment in exchange for me tattooing a big demon on his back. I accepted.
Eventually those tattoo guns I inherited began to disintegrate and became unusable, especially considering my negligence and complete lack of understanding of what I was doing. Undaunted to keep me retained as the Saturday night tattoo party artist, my friends reached out to another tattooist who decided he didn't want to tattoo any longer. He had stabbed a client in the stomach with his tattoo gun over a money dispute. When I received the apple crate full of tattoo supplies the tattoo gun was still assembled with a needle in the tube, ready to tattoo. The tube was caked chuck deep in dried, oxidized blood.
The late eighties was a time so different for tattoo culture that I genuinely don't believe the vast majority of young tattooers working today would be interested in getting in to it or would be able to hack it for that matter. There's a nostalgia for a bygone era but the reality was an environment of stifled creativity and limited opportunity.
Tattoo shops were rough spots and most every shop were front room operations for organized crime. I can't diminish the handful of progressive artists who were bringing tattooing in to a new Renaissance that was just about to take place but being a tattooed person then was as much a middle finger to societal conventions as it was an artistic expression. People would lock their car doors or deliberately cross the street when they saw a heavily tattooed person coming.
The absolutely incredible quality of today's tattooing is the cumulative accomplishment of every tattooer who has come before. Becoming a good tattooer in the past meant years of refining your understanding of your craft by research, practice and observation. Secrets of how to tattoo effectively were very carefully guarded and the culture was profoundly non-inclusive. Tattoo supply catalogues were not openly published for mass availability. These were like the Dead Sea Scrolls to the tattooers of the day and only shared or Xeroxed amongst the inner circle of whomever worked in any city's few street shops.
It was a dangerous time to open shop when I started Sacred Heart Tattoo in Vancouver in 1993. My shop was burglarized twice and biker club strikers tried to break my arm right in my work station. I opened my shop with the furthest distance possible from the closest existing shop without falling in to the Pacific Ocean. This was my way of trying to show respect to the old guard - a group that otherwise wanted little to do with a young art school interloper.
Those beginning their careers now as tattooers are fast tracked over the decades of technical and artist experimentation that paved the way. We're now in an industry culture where ideas are shared and the tools we need are plentiful. Talented artists are able to reconcile their ability to tattoo very quickly because of this access and its not uncommon to see incredibly sophisticated tattooing being done by artists with only a few years of experience under their belt.
When tattooing pulled out of this stifled age, the fruit of it's flourish was beautiful tattooing that was accessible to a wider variety of customers. Better quality tattooing meant broader appeal.
The tattoo shop being a forbidden place has been replaced. What's really interesting is that there's no longer any excuse for the surly tattoo artist persona to exist any more. In the days of there being only a small number of shops and artists in any given city, tattooers could set the tone and sometimes be assholes to their customers because where else would people get tattooed? A lot of tattooers who came up in the business around the same time that I did idolized crotchety old assholery because this was how they thought customers should be treated and they relished the idea that one day it would be their turn to be surly and get away with it. Thankfully there are too many well mannered, kind, respectful and uber talented tattooers now to compete against and customers no longer have to put up with being abused.
Tattooing began to lose it's stigma and because of that it also lost some of its magic. Part of it for me is my own nostalgia for another era where the smell of stale cigarette smoke and green soap was the magical universal smell of tattoo shops and the tattooer was in my eyes some sort of biker wizard filled with magic secrets that I ached to possess.
As much as I deride some of the more annoying aspects of modern tattoo culture and although I lament for bygone days of how tattooing used to be, I'm mindful to appreciate how incredible tattooing is now and how far we've come as a whole.
Every moment that passes is the best moment there has ever been to get a tattoo. Take advantage of it.
Rose Gold's Tattoo,
San Francisco, Calfornia