The Old(er) School

Getting to Know Your Roots: A Brief History Lesson

Alright, kids. Take your seats and pay attention. Today, we’re going to learn a little history. Tell me, what names come to mind when you think of “old school” tattoo artists? Lyle Tuttle? Ed Hardy? Mike Malone? Sailor Jerry? Fair and respectable choices; by today’s standards, they are definitely old school. But what about the older school? Everyone we’ve mentioned worked mostly in the second half of the 20th century, but anyone with a rudimentary understanding of American tattoo history knows that the traditional style really came into vogue at the end of the 19th century. Who preceded our great predecessors? Who influenced our influencers? Obviously, there were hundreds who contributed to the iconic style we now call American Traditional, but we don’t have room to cover more than a few. Thus, we’ve curated a small list of three tattoo legends we think you should know about. Enjoy, but please understand that the histories we are providing here are painfully brief. Consider it a move to save paper. We love trees, etc.

Oh, and one other thing. While we’re on the subject of history, you should know Sailor Jerry spent most of his life sober—and he definitely never came up with a spiced rum recipe. That’s all. Carry on.

Cap Coleman

As far as American artists, it really doesn’t get much more O.G. than Agustus “Cap” Coleman. Hailed as one of America’s best tattoo artists throughout the ‘20s, ‘30s and 40s, Coleman was known for his distinctive style, bold lines and impressive use of shading. Legend has it that he was obsessed with perfection and exhibited a confidence in his own work that bordered on narcissism. Born in Ohio in 1885(?), Coleman is believed to have lived more or less as a carny in his early years, working in a variety of sideshows and traveling festivals, wherein he began actively collecting tattoos. Back in those days, the traveling shows were the primary outlets in which the public sought out tattoo artists. In fact, the term, “flash,” originated in the carnival circuit, initially referring to the artwork that carnie tattooers would post up in hopes of luring festival goers into their booths. Coleman acquired so many tattoos that he would eventually exhibit himself as the “Human Picture Gallery” in a travelling carnival called the Sheesly Shows before opening his own tattoo parlor in Norfolk, VA around 1920. He passed away amid mysterious circumstances in 1973, when he allegedly fell into the Elizabeth River behind his house and drowned, just a few days after his 89th birthday. To this day, Coleman is remembered as one of the most important and influential tattoo artists of the early American tradition.

Paul Rogers

Paul Rogers isn’t far behind Cap Coleman on the O.G. scale, having begun his tattoo career in 1928, just two years after receiving his first ink from a travelling circus artist. Rogers spent his early years in the trade working and travelling in sideshows and carnivals, during which time he

also trained as an acrobat. In 1945, he ended up in Norfolk, VA working under Cap Coleman, who by then had already achieved legendary status. The two parted ways five years later after the Norfolk City Council banned tattoo parlors and Rogers moved to Jacksonville, NC, where he teamed up with Huck Spaulding to form the world-renowned tattoo supply company, Spaulding & Rogers. He moved to Jacksonville, FL in 1963, and in 1970, began building his now-famous tattoo machines out of a small tin shack, which he dubbed the “Iron Factory.” It is for this reason that tattoo machines are referred to as “irons” to this very day. Rogers had a stroke in 1988, allegedly 60 years to the day that he began his career. He passed away in a nursing home two years later, at age 84.

Bert Grimm

Bert Grimm is an icon of America tattooing, revered as a pioneer who made countless contributions to the trade and arguably set the standard of professionality that is still followed today. Born in Greene, MO in 1900, Grimm ran away from home at the age of 15 and made his living in the carnival/sideshow circuit. It was during this time that he first learned to tattoo and began to do it professionally, but he eventually abandoned the carny lifestyle to seek out mentors who could help him hone his craft. This personal pilgrimage took him from the Midwest to Portland, OR and then down to Los Angeles, CA, before he returned to Missouri to open a shop of his own in St. Louis. Over his 70-year career, Grimm became a legend, having developed his own niche within the American traditional style; a less-is-more approach that combined simplified, open designs, a limited color palette and flawless outlines and shading to achieve unforgettable results.

Article written as a collaboration between staff writer, David Pogge and 30-year veteran tattoo artist, Kevin Hinton.

Make It Personal

How to win over clients with confidence, concern and consideration

Can you imagine losing one-fifth to one-third of your clients in a single day? Gone. For good. That’s exactly what could happen after just one bad experience with your business. Even if people love your studio and your work 59% will walk the other way after several bad experiences, and 32% of all customers say they’d stop supporting a business they loved after one negative experience.

So why are so many people — whether potential clients looking to get inked or just those who wandered in wondering what the tattoo scene is all about — disappointed? Call it an experience disconnect: studios tout custom designs or the latest technologies, but they haven’t focused on—or invested in—the aspects of customer experience that are the most meaningful.

What truly makes for a good experience? Attentiveness. Education. Consistency. Friendliness. And one big connector: human touch—that is, creating real personal connections.

There is a formula for getting it right. The right culture, new ways of working and empowered talent are key to unlocking revenue opportunities through better experience.

Price and quality remain top of mind for customers — in all industries, as they make purchasing choices. And it’s not just about finding the artist with the least expensive rate. A study done by the White House Office of Consumer Affairs discovered 80% of consumers are willing to pay more for a better customer experience. A majority consider friendly, welcoming service as uniquely defining a success business they would proudly support.

Confidence is okay, even expected of tattoo artists. Clients want to know that the artist they are working with knows their stuff and will be able to serve them in a professional manner. But there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness. Lets face it — those that come off as “rock stars” are usually more concerned about themselves than others. When your job is related to delivering exceptional customer service, you cannot be thinking of yourself first. You need to demonstrate a genuine concern for your client and his or her needs.

One of the best ways to show your clients that you care is to available and allow them to interact with you. Those who are new to tattoos often have questions, and if there’s nowhere for them to go to get answered, or you don’t respond in a timely manner, you could begin to lose credibility. A knowledgable manager or front desk person can take some of the basic queries, but they’re not the one putting ink to skin — ultimately, your client is YOUR responsibility.

These are some practical ways you can use to make yourself available to your clients. Consider providing a point of contact for all inquiries, starting with your social media channels and online community; maybe livestream a question and answer session or even host an open house night at your studio where you give personal tours and explain the tattooing process from design conception to safety practices and aftercare procedures.

You’re going to get a lot of the same questions. But rest assured that people can tell when you just going through the motions. If you’re not excited to interact with them, they will go elsewhere and take their money with them. The best approach is to treat each interaction as a way to meet new people or learn more about your loyal clients. Let them know and feel that you appreciate them on a personal

level — as they say, good friends are good for business.

It’s More Than Bitches That Get Stitches

The Rise of Embroidery Tattoos

On March 28th, 2019, tattoo artist, Rogelio Vasquez of Cowboy’s Tattoo in McKinney, Texas posted his day’s work on his Instagram account. There was nothing odd or out of the ordinary about this. It was his nightly ritual; make a client happy by day, post on the ‘Gram by night. It’s more or less what you do if you’re a tattoo artist in the digital era. The ‘out of the ordinary’ aspect of the story began when he awoke the next morning.

“It was crazy,” he recalls. “Hundreds of people were tagging me on Facebook and Instagram. Websites were embedding my post. There were some Mexican celebrities that were sharing it. Just on one page alone, my picture got 50,000 likes.”

The whole thing took him completely by surprise. “For me, it was just another tattoo,” he laughs. “If I had known that this was going to happen, I would have added a watermark or my Instagram account on the picture.”

Nonetheless, the comments and messages poured in, “from all over the world.” He was flooded with appointment requests, most of them not even asking about price or location. “They just kept saying they’d never seen anything like it,” he says.

The piece in discussion was created for a client who had requested an Otomi design. For reference, The Otomi are an indigenous people group inhabiting the Altiplano region of Mexico, who most historians believe were the country’s first inhabitants. Outside the region, they are primarily known for their tenangos—handmade textiles, beautifully embroidered with elaborate designs inspired by nearby cliff paintings, likely created by their ancestors. It is said that a traditional tenango can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to complete. Naturally, since he was asked for an Otomi design, Rogelio drew the tattoo to mimic the embroidery pattern of an Otomi textile. In doing this, he unwittingly tapped into a tattoo style that was quickly becoming the latest trend to emerge on social media.

This publication is a trade magazine for the tattoo industry, so if you’re reading this, the concept of embroidery tattoos likely isn’t news to you. But for the sake of the uninitiated who might pick up a copy of this in the foyer of their local parlor, we should elaborate on the concept.

The style is what the name implies: tattoos that are rendered to mimic a work of art created with needle and thread. Sometimes, it’s portrayed as a patch, and sometimes the stitching appears to thread straight into the skin, as is the case with Rogelio’s piece. Several artists have carved impressive niches for themselves with the style and have created some stunning work in the process. Bau Oliver, Russell Van Schaick and Ksu Arrow, are just a few that come to mind. Look them up; they deserve the attention.

What’s particularly striking about the embroidery tattoos, at least from an artist’s point of view, is levels of detail required. You’re not only creating an image; you’re drawing the individual composite threads that make up the image, which requires an entirely new level of shading and texture. According to Rogelio, though, there’s no magic trick. It’s just a matter of wrestling the devil out of the details.

“For me,” he says, “it was like any other tattoo. I started with all solid colors. Then, for the 3D embroidery look, I just did super tiny black lines on the bottom and white lines on the top. That’s the secret.”

We’d be remiss if we didn’t take a moment to mention cross-stitch tattoos as well, as they are often lumped in with the embroideries. It stands to reason; both styles are imitations of textiles and threadwork. However, as far as technique goes, the cross-stitch tattoos are an entirely different animal, made up of a series of tiny “x’s” that come together to form a sort of mosaic image, not unlike a dot matrix printer.

Whether Rogelio’s post triggered the abrupt surge in the style’s popularity, or it just caught the tailwinds of an already emerging trend is the “chicken or the egg” question of the year. What is known, however, is that a mere three weeks after his work went viral, the digital world was suddenly overrun with articles on the topic.

“Embroidery tattoos are now a thing!” proclaimed one website after another, nearly verbatim, and Rogelio’s piece was included in every one of them, often at the top. To be fair, he deserves the accolades. It’s an incredible work of art that stands on its own merit outside of any incoming or outgoing trend. Even more impressive is while, as we’ve already mentioned, there are several artists who have made embroidery tats a specialty, he’s not one of them.

“This is the first embroidery piece that I’ve done,” he reveals. “At the moment, I don’t think I want to do more. I think this was something special for me—and my client. As a tattoo artist you always want to do something unique. But really, I’m a black and gray artist. I love doing portraits and photorealism.”

Tattoo or Not Tattoo

People get tattoos for many different reasons and they’re more than skin deep 


Tattoos are your business. As a professional artist, tattoos are your not only your expression in a piece of art, they are a product through which you make a living. The more people that visit your studio  and leave with fresh ink, the better. But have you really sat back and wondered about why people do and do not get tattooed? 

The reasons, according to psychologist Luzelle Naudé, are more than skin deep. 

Naude and her colleges interviewed college students to better understand their relationship with tattoos. The results were striking. Most of the participants (78%) did not have tattoos, and most of their parents (92%) did not have tattoos. However, most of the participants’ friends (74%) had tattoos — and almost half (47%) were considering getting a tattoo or another tattoo. 

For the participants who decided not to get a tattoo, the main reasons revolved around social and cultural factors, primarily religion (11%). Other reasons for forgoing a tattoo included disapproval from family and friends and invoking negative views at work. Some participants (10%) shared concerns about the permanency of tattoos and their sense that it looks unattractive on older people.  

One of the most popular reasons people get a tattoo is to symbolize love or affection for somebody. This can be either somebody the person is in a relationship with, somebody they admire, someone they are related to, or some person they wish to pay tribute towards. 

It’s therefore no surprise that someone’s name is the design most men and women regret having as a tattoo. 31.34% of males regretted getting a person’s name inked on them. 24.33% of females was a lower percentage, but still the most common tattoo type they regret. 

Participants also referred to medical reasons or fear of needles and pain (10%). Moreover, some participants viewed tattoos as simply unappealing. One participant remarked: “I wouldn’t get one. Would you put a bumper sticker on a Ferrari?” 

The primary motivation for those who got a tattoo (25%) had to do with its personal meaning (such as to mark a significant experience or struggle). Participants reported reasons such as “to keep my mother’s memory,” “a way of honoring my first child,” and “presented what I was going through at a certain time of my life.” Some participants (12%) also felt that their tattoos were an extension or expression of who they were. Comments included, “My body is a book, my tattoos are my story.” and “Tattoos are an extension of your personality, everyone is given a blank canvas to paint on – if you wish.” 

Another study showed that people typically take between two and seven years before getting their second tattoo. If anything, people tend to consider their choices more carefully after their first because they better understand what it entails and less likely to make a rash decision — pain was quite a big barrier. So was permanence and affordability. 

Among those with positive views about those with ink, they saw tattoos as attractive and those who sport them as cool, trendy, fashionable, interesting, spontaneous, creative, artistic, free-spirited, more open/accepting, liberal, adventurous, brave, strong, courageous, and unafraid of commitment and pain. As one participant put things, “People with tattoos are the realest people you ever will meet.” 

Impermanent Ink

A Lasting Reason Why Temporary Tattoos are Good for Business

Blasphemy. Sacrilege. Insulting. Those are just few of the tamer responses to question we posed in a social media group for tattoo artists asking for opinions on temporary tattoos.

It’s not surprising, honestly, that professional tattoo artists would take offense to “stupid stickers” as somebody referred to temporary tattoos when their craft is creating permanent works of art. But there are two sides to every story. And this is a business magazine, with the overall goal of helping you and your studio to be more successful. So – if you’ll oblige for a moment, lets take a look at temporary tattoos from that angle.

Among all the naysayers, one voice spoke up and made a pretty good argument for the validity of temporary tattoos in a professional tattoo studio.

“For anybody who’s freaking out, saying that because a shop offers temporary tattoos, they’re disrespecting the industry, they need to see it as marketing strategy,” says Kirstin Rudolph, tattooer and owner of R2TAT2 (Art to Tattoo), in Vanderhoof, British Columbia.

At Rudolph’s studio, she offers a variety of temporary tattoos —- henna, decal press-on types, and original and custom designs that are printed on the special transfer paper with an inkjet or laser printer.

Not henna! Those are toxic, you say. Well, yes and no.

“Real henna is an organic compound, and if it is prepared in the traditional way, which is typically mixed with coffee grounds or tea leaves, some sugar and lemon juice, then it’s not toxic at all,” Rudolph states.

Black henna, as its evil step-child is often called, is not henna at all. The risks of black henna lie in the paste’s ingredients — specifically, a chemical called paraphenylenediamine (PPD) that can cause severe allergic reactions.

While Rudolph is trained in traditional henna designs, many of her clients request something more new school, such as geometric and art deco designs, feathers, fancy vines and leaves and flowers. “It’s usually women who get henna art, typically on their arms or legs. Once in a while, we’ll get a bride, who will be wearing a backless dress, that wants a design across her shoulders,” she says. “We usually make henna tattoos available on a Wednesday, so by the weekend they darken up and looks really gorgeous.”

People are most familiar with decal-type temporary tattoos as prizes gumball machines and cereal boxes. However, temporary tattoo designs have become very sophisticated in the past 25 years. In fact, most tattooed actors in movies have not committed to permanent ink — they’re wearing temporary tattoos created for their characters that can be removed when they not on set and then reapplied when shooting starts.

These are the kind of temporary tattoos that Rudolph sells at comic-cons with artwork related to the event wether it be Star Wars, Star Trek, manga or super hero themed. She also offers them at her studio,

adding to the family-friendly atmosphere.

While the parents are getting real ink, the kids can get a pseudo tattoo of their own — that will come off when they take a bath.

“Kids love getting put in the chair and getting the whole experience. They think that’s the best thing ever,” Rudolph says. “It really resonates with the parents when their kids can get a tattoo too. If they’re getting a tattoo that day, we just tattoo the kids up for free — it’s just a bonus.”

For adults wanting a custom design, Rudolph uses a product called “Tattoo Tryout,” similar to a stencil, but that can be printed in color or black & white, has photo-realistic quality, and can last up to a few weeks. The biggest advantage to a tattoo artist is utilizing them to help a potential client make sure they have no regrets about something permanent.

“To ignore that tool is just ridiculous. You’re potentially losing a client if you’re not willing to run out a temporary test,” Rudolph suggests. “The only other way to do a ‘test’ is to draw it right on the skin — that’s a really poor use of resources in terms of time and materials. A temporary tattoo, which can be resized or adjusted as needed, is faster, it’s more effective.”

If you’re still berating the merits of temporary tattoos, Rudolph says rest assured they’ll never replace the real thing.

“The people who get them aren’t going around saying, ‘I got a real tattoo from so and so.’ They know damn well it’s temporary. It’s for fun. That’s why they’re doing it,” she says. “It gets people in the door, looking at the portfolios, and who knows, maybe they get a temporary tattoo and then they decided they really love it and they want to do it for real — that’s a win in my book.”

Stop Playing the Guessing Game

Take the Lead to Find Out What’s On Your Client’s Mind

Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an adage that rings true in the tattoo world. Don’t prejudge customers who walk into your store just because they don’t fit your image of somebody who gets tattooed.

There was a time when the stereotype of only bikers, sailors and jailbirds getting inked was pretty true. But those days are well in the past. One recent survey found that contrary to popular belief, more women (40%) than men (36%) have tattoos; 32% of young people age 14 to 29 have a tattoo compared to 45% of people age 30 to 49 and 28% of people over 50.

Prejuding your potential clients is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. A good rule of thumb is to treat a customer as if they are your grandparent, a dear friend or family member — basically just like anyone else, according to Chris Coltran, sales expert and author of the book, “Selling to your Grandmother.”

“Do not hinder your sales by thinking someone either has or does not have money based on their appearance,” Coltran writes in his book. “This is the best way to lose a ton of business, so don’t fall into this trap. People do not wear a sign around their neck that says they are wealthy.”

People with real money are usually the last to flash it. As Dr. Thomas Stanley pointed out in the Millionaire Next Door, people with real wealth are more likely to drive pickup trucks than BMW’s.

So don’t judge. Start your relationship with a conversation. The more questions you ask, the more useful information you’ll get. If you don’t know what’s needed (or if it’s really needed), how can you help the person get a tattoo or piercing they’ll be proud to show off for a lifetime? It’s a technique called, “Qualifying” and it’s what the best sales people do in any business.

Qualifying is determining whether or not that person who called to find out about your services is worthy of the time and effort it will take for you to convert him into a customer. That’s right — “worthy” of your time and effort. Your time is valuable, and once gone, you can’t get it back. So it makes sense to use it as wisely as possible.

Here are three questions that will help you qualify your client:

For what reasons are you looking to get a tattoo or piercing? What triggered your decision to come into our studio? What’s made this so important or urgent?

How can I best help you make this decision? Every prospective customer has something holding them back. Whether it’s budget or not being entirely sure what they want, you want to find the hurdle that’s preventing them from taking a seat in your chair. Ask your what you can tell them about or offer them that will help them say, “Lets get started.” Remember to listen to their unique challenges and fears.

What is your budget? The budget is arguably the most important part of a new artist-client relationship. That’s why almost 60% of shoppers (of any product or service) want to discuss pricing before anything else. Talking about budget expectations up front can help you understand where customer falls in being serious about getting that tattoo, and you can also get an idea of where they can

fit within your pricing strategy and if they’ll be able to afford your services. For both you and your client, you need to find a way to create a deal everyone is happy with — but don’t devalue your work simply to put some coin in your pocket.

Quit playing the guessing game when it comes to connecting with clients. If you want to stop missing out on quality clients who are your best chance for repeat business, stop assuming that you know what’s on their mind. Instead, let them tell you — even if they don’t realize they’re doing it.

I Will Not Be Categorized (But My Tattoos Will)!

A Novice’s Guide to Tattoo Categories

Categories are artificial constructs. They’re parameters we’ve created to assist our tiny brains in making sense of an infinite universe. Be that as it may, they serve a purpose, and while artists may resent the restrictive box in which categories put them, they also rely on them to communicate their strengths and proclivities. Art defies classification but its commodification demands it. To meet that demand, we’ve summarized the most commonly agreed-upon tattoo categories for your convenience. We recommend you open the magazine to this page and leave it on the counter for your clients. Then, be sure to tell them that the information is incomplete. Of course, it is. Art is far too nuanced and steeped in historical context to cram into a single paragraph, but we did our best. Enjoy.

Old School Traditional

If your gramps has any tattoos from his Navy days, it’s almost definitely in the Old School Traditional vein. This is the style that started it all, at least on the American front. The origins can be traced back over centuries, but the style underwent a sort of renaissance in the 60s and 70s with the rise of artists like Norman Collins (AKA, Sailor Jerry), Bert Grimm, Lyle Tuttle and Don Ed Hardy. It’s defined by bold, black lines, bright colors and iconic imagery such as swallows, anchors, pin-up girls, hearts and roses.

Thanks in no small part to its role as the foundational style of Western tattoo culture, it will never go out of fashion, even if Ed Hardy apparel has, which was unfortunately hijacked by a subset of dudes who overspend on spray tans, hair gel, and Axe Body Spray.

Neo Traditional

Exactly what the name implies, Neo Traditional is an extension of the category that first made tattoos famous and is sometimes difficult to distinguish from its predecessor. The primary elements that delineate Neo Traditional from Traditional are a broader color palette, wider range in imagery and increased intricacy in designs. The style is heavy on the decorative and pulls elements from both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco traditions.


Though Realism has existed as a category in visual art for centuries, it’s only become prominent in the tattoo world in the last two decades, and its rise can arguably be connected to the simultaneous surge in popularity of the rotary machine. The easiest way to describe this category is as a photograph slapped on skin. It manifests most often in the form of celebrities, iconic characters, loved ones, or animals, but the style revolves more around form than subject, so pretty much anything that can be photographed is fair game.


Take a guess at what this category imitates. Did you guess “that paint medium I tampered with in kindergarten?” If so, you are correct, but don’t be so diminishing. Watercolor may be a beginner format on the canvas, but not on the skin. Techniques in this category break with a great many traditions and therefore require a degree of risk, as well as nuance and acute attention to detail. The “bold will hold”

crowd is quick to denounce the style, but it’s in high demand nonetheless and boasting some impressive output.

New School

New School is basically neo-folk art. Pulling heavily from the Traditional and Neo Traditional categories, the style employs bold lines and vivid colors, but diverges with a focus on cartoonish, pop culture icons delivered with a significant amount of shading for depth and dimension. Since its origin in the 70s, the category has been on a roller coaster of popularity, rising and falling nearly as quickly as the subjects it most often depicts. It has recently enjoyed yet another rise in prominence, most likely as a result of the video game generation joining the ranks of both tattoo artists and collectors.


Originally, the word, “Chicano,” was a derogatory term ascribed to American-born Latinos of Mexican descent. The slur, however, was eventually embraced as a badge of honor by a portion of the community, and came to represent a specific movement of style and art that uniquely married a heavily Catholic sentimentalism with the gang culture of the emerging barrios of the 50s and 60s. Typically executed in fine line, black and gray work, Chicano tattoos are unmistakable with imagery rich in Mexican history, Catholic icons and various elements of cultural identity within the Mexican-American experience.

Traditional Japanese

Also known as Irezumi, the Traditional Japanese style dates back to the 17th century. Lush with the imagery of Japanese mythology, tattoos in this vein are lavish and elaborate, often requiring a sizable portion of the body for execution. The power of the category lies in the fact that every piece tells a story that is steeped in Japan’s vibrant and colorful history. Traditionally a marking for the warrior class, the style was adopted by the nation’s legendary crime syndicates, which is the primary cause of the cultural stigmas on tattoos in Japan today.


How do you explain a realm that defies categorization? Such is the dilemma when discussing Illustrative tattoos. Ultimately, “Illustrative” is the catch-all term for tattoo art that doesn’t fit within any single category, either because the artist has pulled inspiration and techniques from several categories, or because they’ve ventured outside those realms altogether to create something entirely new. Most commonly, the category combines techniques of Traditional and Realism, but elements of all sorts of artistic disciplines can come into play, including but not limited to calligraphy, etching and engraving, charcoal, or even abstract expressionism.


Still think Traditional is the original tattoo style? Don’t be so ethnocentric. Tribal is the true OG, with a history stretching back over millennia. Though easily recognizable, the category is really a blanket term for any variety of tattoo art practiced by indigenous people groups over the centuries. Tribal tattoos are nearly always all black and usually consist of elaborate patterns that rely heavily on symbols and geometric shapes. Though it enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 90s, the style fell out of general favor in the 2000s and unfortunately became a punchline for hipsters who thought their Super Mario tattoos

were somehow more legitimate. It is beginning to make a comeback, and it’s one that’s well-deserved. The mother of all tattoo categories shouldn’t be relegated to the arms of white guys who wear iridescent Oakleys and worship Sublime.


The Blackwork category can encompass almost any tattoo that solely employs the color that is technically not a color (black). However, it is most commonly either an extension or merging of the Tribal and Illustrative categories, with most compositions consisting of geometric shapes, abstract patterns and/or elaborately detailed illustrations. Though limited on the color palette, the possibilities here are nearly limitless with plenty of room for experimentation, making the category one of the most diverse and awe-inspiring on the list.

More Than an Expo

The BTAME Founders are Using Art as a Medium for Change in Their Community

It was never just about tattoos. Yes, since the event’s inception five years ago, the primary thrust of the Black Tattoo, Art and Music Expo in Detroit has been the celebration of the subdermal art within communities of color. That much is true. But take notice of the comma placed within the name. It’s not “Black Tattoo Art . . .” It’s “Black Tattoo, Art . . .” The comma denotes a series, and that series includes three distinct categories: Tattoos, art and music. It’s about creative expression in all its various forms.

So, if you thought it was just a tattoo convention, widen the scope. And then widen it some more, because there’s a much bigger picture here.

Their website explains it best, stating that their driving purpose is to use “art as the building blocks for change in urban communities.” The Expo itself was only ever intended to be their initial splash point, with the real effect being the ripples that result.


“We want to really be a spark for art education, whether it’s visual arts or dance, or music—whatever” explains Jason Phillips, event co-founder and owner of the Ink Spot, one of the Motor City’s top tattoo parlors. “That’s the overall goal; to get art in front of those who aren’t being exposed to it otherwise. We have people who are missing their calling, especially with the arts being pulled from public school systems. You’re missing the artists who could be that next great architect or planner because they’re not getting the exposure to it.”

To this end, Jason and his partner, Mike Burnett have formed a 501(c)3 parent organization that will now house the expo, as well widen the scope to include a variety of projects focused on empowering their community through art engagement. Though they’ve maintained the BTAME acronym, it now represents something bigger than one event. Instead of just an expo, it’sthe Black Tattoo, Art and Music EXPERIENCE.

“In a nutshell, we’re a non-profit to promote the arts and make that positive change,” Jason continues. “We kept the umbrella of the corporation broad, so we’d be able to work throughout the various disciplines of art to create different programs and work with different institutions. We’ll still be putting on the Expo, but that’s now just one facet of our efforts.”

“The first organization we’re working with is called Wellspring,” Mike chimes in. “They work out of our Brightmoor community. They’d received a grant to continue a summer program to fight illiteracy between kindergarten and eight grade . . . and they incorporated us into their program.”

For their part of the program, Jason created two images for the kids to work with, one for the older kids and the other for the younger, both conveying one simple message:Knowledge is power. The image for the elder of the age groups was of a boy and a girl, each of them wearing a crown, sitting in the grass and reading a book. For the younger group, the image was of two children, again one boy and one girl, reading together.

“Jason sketched out the concept and came up with the color scheme,” Mike continues, “but it was the kids who pretty much did all the painting. We donated our time to work with them every Tuesday and they just went at it.”

The summer program was capped off by a picnic attended by the kids, as well as their parents.

“The parents got to see what their kids had been working on,” Mike recounts, beaming through the phone. “They were just so proud. They couldn’t believe that the kids were doing what they were doing. They were amazed.”


The Expo is all well and good, but interactions like this are what truly lie at the heart of Mike and Jason’s vision: To empower and build up their community by igniting that artistic passion within the youth and letting that passion be the catalyst to trigger inspiration in their parents; to remind their community that art is more than just a hobby. It’s life—and it can be a living.

“When the adults see that their children have interest in the arts, they see that there’s something they can do to cultivate it,” Jason says,“and that there are professionals out here using this talent to be entrepreneurs and make a living for themselves. That’s important because adults often feel that art isn’t necessary and think their kids will just become starving artists if they pursue it.”

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Mike adds, “to show kids and their parents how you can make a sustainable living through art. You can be alright out here through art. You don’t have to shoot a basketball or hit a baseball. You can do more.”

If they have their way, this is only the beginning. Mike sees a world of possibilities and hopes these initial outreaches will inspire others to join in and support the cause.

“We’re building our portfolio to make it attractive to potential sponsors. Maybe we can get someone willing to invest. Through that, we can create scholarships; maybe even have a community center so kids can come and create—in all facets of art. A practice space and recording studio for music, a dance studio, an art studio where kids can come and work at an easel.”

As far as the Expo that started it all, you can expect another installment in 2020. Meanwhile, Mike is doubling down on his call to the industry for sponsors. “As I said last time, if you’re willing to take the black community’s money, you should be willing to reinvest some. Come work with us.”

Don’t Blame the Artist, Vol 2

Preparing Yourself for When Problems Arise

Last month, we were presented with a stark reminder of the risks involved with tattooing, when one of our own suffered severe from a severe infection after a routine session. We learned that even in the best of scenarios, problems can still arise. However, the final lesson was ultimately for the client, and that was that in these situations, one should never be so quick to blame his or her artist when infections arise. As tattooing has continually expanded from the margins of society into the overly populated realm of the “middle,” this industry has been all but forced to step up its game and (literally) clean up its act. As a result, infections through the negligence or error of the artist, while not impossible, are increasingly unlikely.

But that’s not total vindication. You still must exercise due diligence, every moment, every hour you’re on the job. And even if you could prove your innocence in a court of law, that’s barely half the battle. There’s still the court of public opinion, which can level a business far more quickly than any legal proceedings. Reputation is everything—and when it comes to the health and safety of your clientele, the old adage of “all press is good press” goes straight out the window. In this realm, any press that’s less than glowing can be a death sentence. Therefore, when a client you’ve recently tattooed walks through to door complaining of an infection, you can’t just brush it off and you sure as hell can’t wing it. A plan must already be in place.

There are two basic portions of a good plan: the ‘pre’ and the ‘post.’ That is, there’s the portion of the plan that prevents issues in the first place, i.e., the preparatory portion, and there is the portion dedicated to how to act when issues do arise, i.e., the initiation portion.

The ‘Pre’: How to Prepare

Be obsessively clean. This part is a no-brainer, but we can’t exactly discuss the topic at hand without addressing it. The short of it is you can’t cut any corners on cleanliness and sanitation. For the long of it, refer to our piece on clean room safety in Issue #[insert number], published October of 2018. The major takeaway from that article is that you can’t just abide by the minimum safety standards of your locality. You need to go over and above to the point where your workspace is cleaner than a hospital. Why? Simply put, because hospitals have the luxury of gargantuan insurance policies that will more than cover them in case of a disaster. They can arguably afford the mistakes; you can’t.

Know your sources. Considering the risks involved, you would think the FDA was closely monitoring the industry’s suppliers, especially the inks being injected into skin, but you’d be wrong. By their own admission, the agency is far too overstretched to do more than address problems as they come up. That means, as an artist, it’s incumbent upon you to do the research and properly vet your sources, insuring they’ve employed the proper sanitization protocols and are utilizing only the safest ingredients. And while the FDA might not be closely monitoring the industry, any supplier you deal with should still be operating in an FDA-compliant manner. That means producing out of a CGMP facility and employing lot and batch numbers for the purpose of traceability. That brings us to our next point . . .

Keep a log of everything. All of the previously mentioned actions we’ve touched on are essential, but they ultimately don’t mean shit if you don’t meticulously document their implementation. Think of it as high school algebra; you only get credit for a correct answer if you’ve shown you work. If you haven’t, there’s no way to go back and prove your method, or more importantly, no way to go back and find the mistake in the event of a problem. This also applies to your material. Every item you use, especially the ink, should have batch and lot numbers just like anything else within the FDA’s purview. In the event that a problem occurs, you need to be able to trace the materials all the way back to the location and date of production. Doing this not only covers your ass, but also instills confidence in your clients that you are employing the safety protocols necessary to keep them safe. Finally, always make sure they are there to witness when you open any of the prepackaged disposable items you might employ.

The ‘Post’: How to Act

Notice we didn’t say, “how to react.” That’s an important distinction. Reactions are just defensive jabs thrown blindly by the unprepared. Actions are the pre-conceived protocols ready to initiate when an anomaly arises in the system. You want to aim for the latter.

Don’t be defensive. Defensiveness is the reactive approach, which as we’ve already noted, is what you want to avoid. The more defensive you are, the more guilty you’ll appear. Start rattling off all the reasons it’s not your fault and your client will automatically assume it is. “The [artist] doth protest too much, methinks,” etc . Don’t tell them it’s not your fault. Show them. If you’ve maintained the proper documentation of your protocol and materials, that should be easy.

Listen. Keep an open ear. Let your client vent and don’t start playing the blame game when they point the finger at you. Chances are, they will, but that’s only natural. You’re the professional in the situation, so keep a cool head and hear them out. Maintain a humble attitude and make them understand that you are just as keen on getting to the bottom of it as they are. Once they’re done venting, follow up with questions about their aftercare, keeping in mind they’re likely to stretch the truth to save face. If they swear they’ve followed all your recommendations . . .

Utilize your system (pull the paperwork). This goes back to the idea of showing rather than telling. Go to your filing system and pull every piece of documentation related to their visit. Show them how and when your station was cleaned before they sat down in your chair along with what products were used and then show them the tracing system you have in place for the needles and ink. Then, remind them that they watched you open the needle package. If necessary, call the manufacturers and verify no other problems have arisen from the products you used.

Show empathy. This will go a long way. Remember, your client is freaking out and arguably, rightfully so. At best, they’re dealing with a flawed tattoo; at worst, they’re looking at long-term health issues and a stack of medical bills. If you’ve done everything the right way, you don’t have to apologize for your actions, but you should still show them that you feel sorrow for what they’ve endured.

Learn from the experience. Trials and tribulations are opportunities for growth. When this situation arises at your shop, take advantage. Go back over your process in light of the revelation and see how you can tighten the system. There’s always room for improvement.

Written by David Pogge – Expert advice provided by Jose Pena of Xtreme Tattoo in Sheffield, OH

CLICK HERE to read volume 1

Don’t Blame the Artist, Vol 1

CLICK HERE to read volume 2

What Firsthand Experience Has Taught us About Tattoo Infections

“I’m 41 years old and I’ve been getting tattooed since I was 17. I have tattooed pretty much every area of my body. Uncomfortable places, sensitive places, places that people have weird reactions to; I’ve basically marked every part.”

Jenn’s not exaggerating. She collects tattoos like a kid in the late 80s would have collected baseball cards and she does it with uncanny tenacity.

“My average session is about six hours minimum,” she states as a matter of fact.

But no one is completely impervious to infection, a fact that she learned the hard way in recent weeks, for the first time in her near quarter century of putting needle to flesh. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the experience initially; just a routine visit to the parlor to get a new piece on her upper leg, just above the knee. But a week later, she found herself in the hospital with a severe staph infection.

“My immediate reaction was to blame the artist,” she admits, a touch of shame in her voice. “Just 100%.” There are layers to the shame. First, as PAIN Magazine’s primary representative, the last thing she wants to do is paint her colleagues in a negative light. Second, the artist in question was a long-time friend with whom she had undergone multiple sessions already. The assumption that he’d slacked on safety protocols felt like a betrayal.

Nonetheless, it was her natural inclination and not all that uncommon among those who’ve suffered the same fate.

For years, we’ve been warned by medical professionals and concerned parents of the dire potential consequences of joining the ranks of the marked. “It’s not worth the risk,” they would tell us. “You never know when the artist might cut corners and reuse needles to save a buck.”

While an open wound—and that’s basically what a fresh tattoo is, regardless of how beautiful—always poses the risk of complication, anyone working in or around this space knows the generalizations highlighted here are preposterous. An artist’s livelihood is at stake every time they press the needle up against skin. No true career artist is going to risk everything to shave a few points off their overhead.

This fact was reinforced for Jenn at the hospital. “’Slow your roll,’” they told her. “’There are several factors here. You can get a staph infection from cutting yourself on a tree branch if you’re susceptible to it, if your immune system is low. There are just so many things that go into it.’”

Jenn, being the fearless human canvas she is, decided to do an experiment, using herself as a guinea pig. Once recovered from the first disaster, she went to another artist and had her other leg tattooed, practically in the exact same place. It happened again.

“That’s when I knew it wasn’t the artist,” she recalls. “It was me. My body.” From the input she received at the hospital, she concluded with a degree of certainty that her situation arose from chronic circulation issues in her legs. It hasn’t swayed her passion for the art, though.

“I’m fixing the problem,” she says, “doing more squats, walking more—I now have a stand-up desk in my office. I love tattoos. They make me happy. I don’t want to lose my happy if I can just fix the problem on my end.”

“But,” she adds, “the lesson I think people should take from my experience is this: Don’t be so quick to blame your artist.”

Jose Pena, owner of Xtreme Tattoo and Piercing in Sheffield, Ohio, concurs—and not just because he’s a tattoo artist. He had an infection experience of his own at the age of 16 that nearly claimed his life.

“I didn’t want to wait to get tattooed,” he recalls. “So, I got this ‘stick and poke’ at a house.” It only took a day for him to regret the decision. After coming down with a fever of 105.6, he was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a rare strain of spinal meningitis and held for close to six months. “I don’t remember much of it,” he says.

What he does remember, however, is the surprise he felt at the doctors’ assessment.

“Even though I told them I got it from a house, they told me, ‘Well, you probably didn’t get it from the tattoo itself. It was the open wound.’” In retrospect, that conclusion makes sense to him. “The tattoo wasn’t wrapped, wasn’t cleaned,” he continues. “And the night I got the tattoo, I ended up passing out on the floor. What they believed was the infection was on the carpet and it transferred through that open wound.’”

Now a tattoo artist with his own thriving shop, that memory has served as a constant reminder of not only the dangers of cutting corners, but equally, the importance of proper aftercare and how the health of the client factors in. What it obviously didn’t do was deter him from pursuing his passion for the trade.

“I was just like, ‘Well, I learned my lesson. Not gonna get a fucking tattoo in a house anymore.’ but it never took me off the path of learning how to tattoo.”

However, while experience has taught both Jenn and Jose not to jump to conclusions about the artist or the process itself, it’s not a lesson the average client has learned. Complicating matters further is the tendency of many of clients to bend the truth about their aftercare regimen to save face with the artist. The result: Artists are left to defend themselves in the lopsided court of public opinion, where the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” rarely applies.

Hence why the concept of “CYA” (cover your ass) is so essential to the trade. In the next installment of our saga, we’ll drill down into the basics of how to minimize the risks of infection as well as how to manage these situations on the off chance they arise. Stay tuned, as they say.

CLICK HERE to read volume 2