The First Rule of the Okanagan

Urge 3 Tattoos and Why

We Can’t Talk About the Region


Located just a few hours east of Vancouver, the Okanagan is arguably Canada’s best kept secret; an epicurean dreamscape of endless wineries, orchards, breweries, and more cannabis dispensaries than Starbucks locations, all of which surround a lake so massive that it maintains its own unique microclimate for the region. As a result, the Valley, particularly, the southern end of it, is one of the only places in Canada where you can enjoy t-shirt weather in October. 


In review, that’s bearable weather, free healthcare and legal weed, all in one place. To play on the old cliché, that’s cake, both possessed and consumed simultaneously.


“Don’t fucking tell anyone. You’re gonna ruin it for us.” 


Jeff White gestures with an exaggerated mafioso backhand as the words sputter out of him. His tone is jovial and it’s clear that he’s mostly kidding. I suspect however, that the previous paragraph will still have his ass puckering at least a little. Overdevelopment is becoming a plague. Sorry Jeff. 


We’re sitting in his tattoo parlor in Penticton, BC. It’s a town that’s just big enough to be called a city, nestled between the mountain ranges at the southern tip of Okanagan Lake. The shop is called Urge 3 Tattoos and it’s the third of a loosely associated trilogy of parlors bearing a common namesake. The first of the three is located in Victoria, BC and has been in business since the mid-nineties. 


“A trilogy?” Jeff breaks in, laughing. “Well, it’s not like, Lord of the Rings or something.” He’s right, at least for his location. It’s more like the original Star Wars; timeless and forward-thinking, while its appeal is at least somewhat rooted in nostalgia. 


Aesthetically, there’s no mistaking the shop for anything but modern. It’s too clean, well-lit and inviting of a space to have been a tattoo shop in any era but the current one. Yet, the entire space is one big homage to the roots of modern tattoo culture. From nearly floor to ceiling, the walls are all but covered in flash from every era while the room hums with a chorus of buzzing coil machines, used exclusively at all four stations. There’s so much to unpack here. 


“I feel like a tattoo shop should look like a tattoo shop,” says Kirk Shepherd, Jeff’s co-conspirator. “This is just stuff we’ve collected over the years. Some of it’s mine, some of it’s Jeff’s, and a lot of it is stuff that we liked and traded for. We still have ton more in cabinets. We’re eventually going to try to frame and hang all of it.”


“Kirk enjoys Japanese style over anything else,” Jeff adds while pointing to the northwest corner of the room, “so all of the pieces over in that area . . . those are all his handiwork.” 


With 45 years of tattoo experience between them, Jeff and Kirk both represent the last wave of artists to take up the machine before the industry’s shift from the margins of culture to prime-time TV. As such, they now serve as torchbearers in a sense for the long-held traditions of the trade that are too often overlooked by the younger generation. They learned the true rudiments; how to make their own needles, build their own machines, mix their own inks, create acetates—all of it. 


They didn’t sit still after their apprenticeship, either. Both of them have travelled extensively, having worked internationally and learned from experts of a variety of traditions from around the world, and both have made a hell of a name for themselves here in the Northwest. 


When they discuss the industry they’ve called home for two decades or more, they speak with the authority of veterans, but with the passion and openness of initiates. They have nothing but love and appreciation for the huge strides the trade has made over the last two decades, but they simultaneously lament the inflation of their artistic currency. They welcome the new influx of suburbanites into the ranks of the marked with open arms, but openly fret over the one-and-done, microwave attitude encouraged by Instagram and Pinterest. In short, while they’re not the least bit stodgy, they maintain an admirable sense of history and tradition. 


They also aren’t the biggest fans of rotaries. “People are now tattooing with electric toothbrushes, dildoes and whatever else you want to call them,” Jeff laughs. “We still all tattoo with doorbells.” He smiles and holds up his coil machine. This, of course, triggers a lengthy discussion. 


“But aren’t you able to get better detail with a rotary?” I ask. Keep in mind that I’m just writer—not an artist. I only know what the artists tell me. 


“It’s not really because of the rotary,” Kirk explains. “You can actually do finer detail on a coil. It’s just that most people, their apprenticeships sucked. They don’t know how to tune in a coil machine. The rotary really just does one thing. It’s the same every time.”


“Like the old infomercial,” Jeff adds. “’Set it and forget it.’”


“Exactly,” Kirk responds. “You can actually get a lot more techniques out of a coil machine, but if you don’t know how to tune it, it’ll run like shit.”


“Huh,” I nod thoughtfully. “So, really, it’s a lot like the ‘Mac versus PC’ debate, huh?” 


Kirk smiles. “You could say that, I guess, but I prefer carburetor versus fuel injection.” In my five years of writing for the tattoo industry, they are the first artists to ever give anywhere close to this level of insight.  


Thankfully, they are passing their wealth of knowledge along. Right now, it’s going to their apprentice, Mercedes, a friendly and incredibly promising artist who’s been sitting in with us and regularly contributing to the conversation. 


“They’ve taught me how to build my own machine,” she confirms as the coil discussion meanders along. “They even taught me how to build needles.” 


 “Next, we’ll be going over acetates,” Kirk says, nodding.


Rounding them out is their latest addition to the staff, Dani Doll, a ten-year veteran of the trade who specializes in illustrative traditional. She just joined the team this past July after a six-year stint with Art Therapy in nearby Osooyos, BC. 


Among the four of them, there’s not a weak link in the group. It’s an impressive roster they’ve cultivated with an even more impressive portfolio, all of which is rooted in traditional, but rich in a formidable diversity. 


But don’t tell anyone. The secret of the Okanagan must be kept. 


You’re welcome, Jeff. 


Home, Home on the Range

Saskatchewan’s Nomadic Tattoo Co. Thrives Against all Odds 


“Maple Creek is very old school, very traditional, very . . . conservativeMany here have never left to experience big city living. The town motto is ‘Where past is present.’”  


Nothing in his description of the town in which he works and lives suggests there would be fertile ground for a tattoo business to take root. And the more he talks, the less likely the situation becomes. A town of just over 2,000, heavily controlled by a traditionalist, faith based communityisn’t exactly an optimal place for an atheist covered in ink and piercings to stake his fortune. Yet, this is where Sean Barnard and his wife, Kalee have decided to open Nomadic Tattoo Co. and raise their four children.  


It’s a matter of roots. Sean spent his life in a state of perpetual motion, having lived in 17 multiple cities in three different provinces and one territory (hence the name, Nomadic). Kalee, on the other hand, grew up here in Saskatchewan just forty minutes from Maple Creek. It made sense—and they make it work.  


But as small a town as it is and as much as it is like every other rural prairie neighborhoodMaple Creek is practically a metropolis by comparison to the surrounding region.  


Saskatchewan is unfathomably sparse. Most of the dots on the map are little more than villages; sleepy clusters of aging homes and anachronistically quaint businesses that serve as a rusty hub for the farmers spread across the sprawling countryside. The numbers in these villages rarely break triple digits and paved roads are a luxury. The lines on the map that connect the dots are more often than not comprised of gravel and are tread upon by hoof and paw as often as tire.  


In between, there are the prairies; a dusty spattering of rolling hills, hidden valleys, and gaping canyons straight out of a cowboy fantasy, far more populated by coyotes, antelopes, deer, buffalo and prairie dogs than humankind. The vastness of this land is only dwarfed by the infinity of the night sky.  


Sean may have technically undergone his apprenticeship in Vancouver, but this is the backdrop that has molded him as an artist. Operating within a town largely disinterested and occasionally hostile to his trade, he doesn’t have the luxury of developing a specialty or turning down work he feels is beneath him. As a result, versatility has become his specialty.  


“I have to be a jack of all trades and master of none,” he offers humbly. “I have to be able to take anything that comes in the door and adapt just to pay my bills, feed my family and occasionally do the pieces that I want to do . . . If all I did was what I absolutely loved to do, I would be unable to operate a viable tattoo shop. I wouldn’t have any clients. That’s the reality.” 


It’s a mixed bag, according to Sean. He admits to an occasional surge of jealousy over artists in population centers who are able to develop an artistic niche for themselves, but he also acknowledges the value of the education life has gifted him.  


“I think it’s cool to be able to jump around from style to style . . . be able to take on some more interesting projects and tackle some things that I honestly have no business doing. The challenge is fun in itself.” 


Even with his willingness to tackle anything that comes his way, the survival of the business demands they reach far beyond the confines of their old school town. Luckily, they are able to do just that.  


“I would say that 96% (if not more) of my clients are driving an hour or more to come see me,” he says. “I’m overwhelmingly humbled by their loyalty. I know there are better artists out there, but they insist on coming to me. Meanwhile, I’ve been in Maple Creek for five years now and I’ve tattooed maybe 17 people who actually live here.” 


As far as the trade we traditionally think of as tattooing, Sean’s a one-man operation. However, rounding out the business is wife, Kalee, who has recently begun offering permanent make up services. Between the two of them, they make ends meet and provide a comfortable life for their four children, but it’s not always easy, especially in the post-Covid world.  


“Covid-19 has thrown a really big curve ball into everything,” Sean laments. “The cost of everything has gone up. I wish someone would step in and talk about price gouging because it’s getting ridiculous. A nine-dollar box of gloves is now 25-30 bucks. A box of masks that were 12 bucks are now 60 bucks.” 


It’s even more strenuous on their family life. Pandemic protocols require that they work separate shifts, taking one client at a time by appointment only. As a result, one of them is almost always working while the other is playing full time parent to the kids. They’re taking it in stride, though, and continually making all the pieces work. And while Sean and Kalee take an enormous amount of pride in how they treat their clients, Sean makes it clear what the real priorities are.  


“We’re a family business,” he states unapologetically. “I make it a point to take as much contact info as possible when a client books with me because if one of my kids gets sick, I’m going to cancel on you and reschedule. You can bet on that.”  


“At the end of the day,” he caps of with a chuckle, “to be honest with you, I just do me and if you don’t like it . . . well . . . fuck, that’s just me! 


Bad Apple Tattoo: Bad to the Core, But Not Rotten

  How One Bad Apple Can Spoil the Whole Crew    Edd Word1 didn’t plan on becoming a tattoo artist. The owner of Bad Apple Tattoo in Las Vegas, Nevada did love to draw and by all accounts, was pretty damn good at it, but he was initially more interested in just hanging out at a tattoo shop than actually learning the trade.     “I was always nervous about tattooing,” he readily admits. “I mean, I didn’t want to fuck up someone’s skin. It’s permanent, you know?” Life, however, has a peculiar habit of being unpredictable.     Let’s bring it back to the beginning, circa 1998. Edd was just another SoCal kid stumbling his way into a semblance of adulthood.     “I just started hanging out a tattoo shops because I thought they were cool,” he offers with a shrug. “I was going to this old biker shop in Mission Beach, getting tattooed, getting pierced, whatever. And then one day, the owner’s wife had to step out. She was like, ‘You want to watch the front desk for me?’ and I was like, ‘Sure, I’m down.’ So I worked the front for a few hours and she came back and asked me if I wanted to start doing it more often. That’s how I got my foot in the door. I worked the front, I managed the shop, I even started piercing just to keep my foothold.”    Still, the actual tattoo portion of his career wouldn’t come into play for another six years, and when it did, it kind of happened by accident. Well, not accident exactly. Happenstance, maybe. Basically, it happened because Edd was running his mouth off.     “I was just talking shit to one of the guys cause he had just done a tattoo that wasn’t so great,” Edd recalls. “And he was like, ‘So you think you could do better? Let’s see it.’ So, I set up my station and tattooed myself. It was a purple, Sailor Jerry style rose. The color is actually still holding up.” The boss was impressed. Within a couple weeks, he was on the scheduletaking clients.     Don’t call him a scratcher, though. He had an apprenticeship. He just didn’t realize it was an apprenticeship at the time he was going through it.     “I was scrubbing brushes and making needles for the guys for years just as part of my job running the front. I just didn’t have to wear a fucking dress or wash people’s cars or any of that shit.”     It was only four years later that he found himself at the helm of Bad Apple Tattoo in Las Vegas. The shop was first opened by the original owner in 2002, but by 2008, he was ready for a break from Sin City and thus, sold the business to Edd.      “I only have two rules for my artists,” he says. “Do rad tattoos and treat your customers with respect. That’s it.” He pauses and takes a breath. “Actually, I have three rules. Number three: you have to be a better tattooer than me.”    If there’s any aspect of him that oozes through the entire conversation, it’s his humility. It’s clear that he actively shirks the typical ego that often comes with owning a shop. He doesn’t want to be top dog. Hell, he doesn’t even like telling people he owns the place.    “When people ask me what I do, I always just tell them I work at Bad Apple,” he says with a shrug“And then someone always has to be like, ‘No, he OWNS it!’” You can hear his eyes roll as the words come out. The position doesn’t matter to him. What does matter is building his shop’s clientele and taking care of his artists, whom he swears by.     “We’ve got some killer artists here,” he says proudly. “Like, everyone that works here. They’re all at the top of their game—just amazing.”     For the 12 years, the hybrid custom/street shop has run under Ed’s guidance, they’ve consistently remained a formidable force in the Las Vegas tattoo scene. That’s saying a lot, considering the city has somewhere in the ballpark of 150 shops and he’s never advertised. In fact, they’ve done so well, that not even the pandemic could keep them down. After two months of being shut down completely, they’re back with barely a hiccup, books as full as they’ve ever been. For some reason, though, he doesn’t take the credit.     I don’t consider myself a good businessman at all,” he says candidly. Like, I could honestly make way more money on the shop if I just made better decisions. I just focus on spoiling my guys. They’re all at 70% at least and I still supply a lot of the stuff, which is unheard of . . . I’ve got a great crew. My guys really don’t leave. DJ’s been here 12 years, Willy’s been here 10 and I have another guy who’s been here eight. My guy’s stick around, probably because I treat them well . . . I’m a big believer in karma and I’ve always tried to be a good person. I think it just worked out for me.”    Maybe, though, that’s really all you need.     702-259-5580 IG @bad_apple_tattoo FB @badappletattoolv            1We can neither confirm, nor deny that “Edd Word” is truly his given name. We can only tell you that this is how he prefers to be identified and we respected his wishes.  
Brody Figueras
Brody Figueras
DJ Tambe
DJ Tambe
Edd Word
Edd Word
Edd Word
Edd Word
James Ferreira
James Ferreira
Jason Paxman
Nico Roussin
Nico Roussin
Stevie Randallyn
Tom Vincent
Tom Vincent
Willy Cutlip
Willy Cutlip

Talisman SOM

A spoon, a guitar string, a Sony Walkman, and 20 bucks collected from a day’s worth of panhandling. In the beginning, this was Kevin Hinton’s admission price into the tattoo world.

Well, it wasn’t exactly the beginning, but it was close. We could go back few years more and discuss the half-finished chain tattoo he’d poked into his wrist with a sewing needle he’d stolen from his mom, but there’s only so much space. Let’s start with his first machine.

“I was 16 when I found out that guys in jail gave each other tattoos,” he recalls with a laugh. “Of course, I had no idea how they did it, but I knew this dude who had gone to jail. Later I found out it was a drunk in public and he only went to county for three hours, but whatever . . . he didn’t know how to make a tattoo machine, but he knew a guy who did—a scary fucking dude who just got out of San Quentin.” The guy agreed to help our protagonist, telling him to bring the aforementioned items. The first three were to build the machine. The $20? For his time.

Don’t worry. He was admittedly young and dumb, and it was the ‘80’s. That’s practically how everyone started back then. Besides, he’s all grown up now, with more than thirty years of legitimate tattoo experience under his belt.

But this story isn’t really about Kevin. Not exactly, anyway. Technically speaking, it’s about Talisman Body Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the shop in which Kevin works, alongside fellow tattoo veteran, Ed Tafoya, recent apprentice-turned-full-fledged-artist, Jordan Duran, and front of house ninja, Britney Dale. Typically, when we profile a tattoo parlor, we focus on the owner. But Talisman’s owner, Phil Montoya has a more hands-off approach to the shop than what is typical. Not that he’s neglectful of his investment; he just has three other businesses to look after in Austin, Texas, and therefore, leaves the day to day operation of Talisman largely to Ed and Kevin. Smart move, considering they both have a solid three decades of experience to their names. The shop is in good hands.

Sadly, prior obligations precluded Ed from joining the interview. In his absence, he submitted a five-minute pre-recorded monologue in which he gave a brief summary of his personal history. Spoiler alert: At the four-and-a-half-minute mark, he admits that everything he’s said prior to that point was “all bullshit.” It’s a shame, really. When someone talks about living under a bridge with a runaway Egyptian princess, you just want it to be true. Bonus points for creativity, in any case. He spun a helluva yarn.

“The truth is,” he concluded, capping off the first four and a half minutes of bullshit, “I learned how to tattoo in San Francisco from Erno Szabady. I stayed there for a long time, moved back to Albuquerque and now I’m in Santa Fe.”

Let’s be real, though. As badass as the whole bridge/runaway princess story sounds, it’s not as badass as having Erno Szabady as a mentor. Truth beats fiction here, at least for our purposes.

This sort of brings us to the magic that makes Talisman what it is; the fact that it’s staffed and managed by two multidecade veterans of the trade who learned from and interacted with the

legends and have the chops to prove it. The corresponding pictorial really says it all. They may shine most in the traditional varieties, but there really isn’t a category they can’t tackle. Well, except Kevin insists you shouldn’t ask him for photorealism.

“I don’t need some turd that needs to be polished down the street that was done by me,” he blurts out, laughing. Alright, so maybe not photorealism, but you’d be hard pressed to find another category they haven’t nailed. The best part, though, at least for the client, is that they’re sticking with their roots and staying all walk-in. Yes, that even includes those traditional Japanese pieces.

“The books are open for all three of us—walk-ins every day,” Kevin says. “No one’s walking out without getting tattooed . . . I’ll do tribal arm bands with a smile on my face. I’ll do whatever. I come from the old school. I loved it when you could walk in, point at the wall and get the tattoo. Those days are gone. Now, somebody walks in and shows me something from Pinterest on their phone, I don’t give a shit. Sit down. You’re getting it. I love tattooing!”

That doesn’t mean he won’t give you his honest advice, though. It’s still a two-way street and he’s still the expert. But in the end, the client gets what they want (within reason.)

“I did a big watercolor piece on this girl’s ribs,” he offers as an example. “To me, it looked like a funky outline of a rose with a rash, but she LOVED it and that’s all that matters. She was like, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I love that YOU love it.’ I’m not tattooing for likes on Instagram. I’m tattooing for the client. You catch more bees with honey, man.”

The Tao of Wayne

True North Tattoo is a Sterile Environment—But Also, it Isn’t.

“I don’t know man,” he concedes with a shrug. “I’ll say this . . . the Tragically Hip are no Melvins.”

Were we having this conversation in Wayne Murrill’s home state of Missouri, his words here likely wouldn’t have been given a second thought. But we’re in Kingston, Ontario—and that changes everything.

The Tragically Hip may have been little more than a footnote in the U.S., but in Canada, they’re only slightly less popular than Tim Horton’s Coffee. He may as well have yelled “Roll tide,” at an LSU home game. But our American expat friend is perhaps saved by the fact that we’re inside True North Tattoo, the critically acclaimed Kingston ink destination he’s owned and operated now for a full decade. Think of it as his personal embassy. He’s not in the clear entirely, though. He may have started solo ten years ago, but he has five employees now, three of whom are on the clock as we speak.

“You’re playing with fire, Wayne!” a voice breaks in from across the parlor. Everyone laughs. On the whole, our conversation is of the “A, B” variety, but with a client in Wayne’s chair and only pony walls subdividing the space, we frequently drift into an alphabet soup scenario. The hum of one lone coil serves as the base.

Fortunately, Wayne is using a rotary today, which means that tomorrow when I go back and listen to the interview recording, I’ll actually be able to make out what he’s saying. That’s a relief, since he has no shortage of thoughts on any subject we broach. One day, someone should publish a coffee table book of ‘Wayne-isms,’ and place them in the foyers of tattoo parlors like Gideon Bibles. I think we’d all benefit.

“I like to try and keep the tattoo shop feel,” he says when I point out the atmosphere he’s created. “I don’t want to run a salon. I really don’t. If you’re easily offended,” he exaggerates a shrug, “I mean—you’re in a tattoo shop. We’re nice people, but we’re not going to sterilize the environment.”

He frowns thoughtfully. “Well, we will sterilize it, but . . . you get my point.”

Back to his choice of machines, though. Admittedly, seeing him with a rotary is more than a little surprising. After all, we’re talking about a 26-year veteran of the trade whose first several tattoos were punk band logos and anarchy symbols of the scratch and poke variety. There are just certain expectations of such an individual. He’s not oblivious to this.

“I was nervous about you taking photographs today,” he tells me with a wry half-smile. “I didn’t want evidence of me not using a coil getting out and ruining my reputation.”

There’s a refreshing self-awareness about him, as illustrated by the above comment. That punk ethos of his youth is still there, but now, with more salt than pepper in his hair, it manifests as a sort of DIY wisdom. Neither a curmudgeon, nor flotsam governed by the current, he crafts his opinions through the careful analysis of his observations, which are shaded ever so slightly by a playful contrarianism. And though he is undoubtedly opinionated, those opinions are flexible and not without a measure of humility.

“In my mind, I’m kind of a newcomer to tattooing,” he says. “There was a big influx of new tattooers in the early nineties and I feel like an interloper in that regard. Back then, it was a very small community. Now, it’s a completely different animal. I don’t even recognize it.” A touch of regret tinges his words, but he’s quick to acknowledge the positive developments.

“There’s a fresh batch of talent coming in,” he offers. “Just by the sheer volume, you’re going to get innovation. You’re going to get people pushing the envelope . . . people developing new directions.” There are drawbacks, though.

“The real negatives I see have more to do with the homogenization of tattooing. Thanks to platforms like Instagram and Google . . . more and more tattooers’ work is starting to look like other tattooers’ work.”

“For instance,” he says, pointing to his client’s arm. “What I’m doing here, a koi; if you have ten people all looking at the same koi image, they’re all going to have similar results. But if one of those ten is looking at photographs of koi fish, he’s bound to bring a more personal flair to the drawing because he’s interpreting the actual thing as opposed to interpreting an interpretation of the thing. When I started, we actually went to the library to find references for tattoo drawings.”

“Also, when I started,” he adds, “people came in knowing what they wanted. Or they’d pick something off the wall, which is another thing that’s going away. It’s unfortunate.”

Unfortunate? I didn’t see that one coming. Alright, I’ll bite. I ask him to elaborate.

“It’s just a different experience,” he explains, “a different process. It’s kind of like Google on the walls of a tattoo shop in a way, but it was drawn or painted by the guy who works there . . . by a tattooer, with the intention of it being tattooed. So they’re premade, prepackaged tattoos, ready to go. You get people who come in and they want some idea that’s difficult to grapple with . . . you work with it as best you can to realize their vision, but at the end of the day, a panther head is fucking awesome.” There’s just no way to replicate his delivery of this line in print—and that’s a shame, really, because everyone here is laughing.

“That being said,” he goes on, still chuckling, “I draw all the tattoos I do . . . And I don’t repeat anything I’ve drawn. They’re all custom. I’m just bitching.”

Our time together is winding down. As a tradition, I make it a point to close out each interview I conduct by giving my subject the floor to say whatever happens to be on their mind, whether it’s a word of advice, a thank you, or maybe the answer to a question I should have asked, but didn’t. Sometimes the result is just a bunch of stutters and stumbles. Sometimes it’s a work of brilliance. This time, it’s . . . well . . . Wayne.

“To all those people out there who are thinking about tattooing for a living, I actually have not had sex once since I started tattooing, I make three hundred dollars a week, all my friends hate me, and my penis fell off.”

A Wicked Undertaking

Wicked Tattoo and Piercing

Peanut butter and jelly. Wine and cheese. Abbot and Costello. Whiskey and a pickle juice back.

The connection between these fragmented, grammatical abominations should be obvious. But in case you don’t follow, each consists of two things that when combined, become exponentially better than when they’re apart. What’s jelly without peanut butter? Nobody wants a jelly sandwich—and you can go straight to hell with that peanut butter and banana bullshit. That’s just Bush League.

Now, add to the list: Clay and Vanessa Welti, owners of Wicked Tattoo and Piercing in Maple Ridge, British Columbia.

For the record, their relationship wasn’t the theme of our conversation. We talked business; tattoos, piercings, industry trends, etc. The usual. Nonetheless, their connection was evident throughout by the way they fielded my questions. It was obvious they don’t just work together—they work together. But don’t expect a story of matching t-shirts and romcom-worthy shenanigans. For our purposes, it’s just a fluid business partnership that proves that two heads are in fact, better than one.

“It’s not for everybody,” Vanessa cautions when I bring it up. “I don’t think everybody could do it, no matter how much you like your spouse. There are sometimes when I turn to Clay and I’m like, ‘Wow, you never leave. Could you like, go guest spot somewhere?’”

“But,” she qualifies with a chuckle, “it is pretty awesome having your best friend beside you through everything.”

At the beginning, Wicked Tattoo and Piercing wasn’t so much the culmination of a lifelong dream as it was a necessary step for survival. Clay and Vanessa were both working at a local studio—Clay as a tattoo artist and Vanessa, a piercer—when they were notified the business would be closing within 10 days.

“So, we bought out the contents of the shop and opened our own,” Vanessa recounts. “It was just like, ‘Ok, I guess I’m opening a shop now.’”

The narrative might seem unique to the uninitiated, but it’s surprisingly common. I would estimate that at least half the shops I’ve interviewed began as a result of their previous employers going belly-up unexpectedly. I bring this up to Clay and Vanessa and they don’t seem surprised.

“I think those shops are usually owned by people who have no business in the tattoo industry,” Clay offers. “They all want to jump on the gold rush, but don’t understand how to mine it.” Fortunately, that’s not an issue for them. This may be their first shop they’ve owned, but it’s sure as hell not their first rodeo.

“Clay and I have 30 years’ worth of industry experience between us,” Vanessa offers. “We’ve worked in amazing shops and we’ve worked in shitty shops . . . the good, the bad and the ugly, basically.” From the outset, this patchwork of experiences helped them know exactly what they wanted, as well as what they didn’t want.

“We never wanted to be known as that hole in the wall tattoo shop that blares heavy metal music and makes you terrified to bring in your daughter for belly button piercing,” Vanessa begins.

“We try to make this place feel like a home,” Clay adds, “not just for us, but for our clients.”

“We want the space to be happy and cheerful,” Vanessa elaborates. “We want you to walk in and feel like you’re part of the family . . . like you’ll come back just to say hi because it was such a great experience.”

To this end, they’ve focused heavily on client interaction, being sure to always communicate in a manner that is both respectful and informative.

“We listen to what the clients want,” Clay explains. “We don’t just brush off ideas and say, ‘Oh, that’s shitty. I don’t want to do it.’ But, if there are aspects of their tattoo idea that won’t work, we’ll take the time to explain why and give them solutions that might make their vision more feasible.”

Further enhancing the client experience for which they are aiming is the open floor plan, which naturally encourages comradery.

“Everyone’s interacting with each other all the time, cracking jokes and having fun,” says Clay.

“We all start to play off each other and it just goes and goes,” Vanessa interjects.

“We’ll have clients come in who don’t know each other from a hole in the ground who end up chatting with each other to the point that they’ll get coffee together afterward,” Clay continues. “It really brings people together.”

If their Google reviews are any indication, their approach seems to be working. They boast an impressive 4.8 out of 5 stars—and that’s from over 200 individual reviews.

If you happen to pass through the greater Vancouver area of BC, consider stopping by and getting some work done. Whether it’s a piercing from Vanessa, or some ink from Clay, “Handsome Jack” McGinley, or Jacqueline Lee, AKA “Jaylee,” you’re sure to get the quality service you seek.

“Get more piercings! Get more tattoos!” Clay responds when asked for closing thoughts.

“And don’t be a dick!” Vanessa chimes in, before Clay comes back for the last word.

“Oh, and don’t forget to spay and neuter your pets.”

“We take pride in being a street shop.”

Wait . . . really?

Simmer down. It’s not what you think. Not quite, anyway.

Within the tattoo industry, the term “street shop,” has come to be a term of disparagement, bordering on anathema. For many, it represents everything they’re trying not to be; an anachronism from a bygone era when tattoos were more of a sign you could endure pain than they were a work of art.

But that’s not the kind of street shop Jose Ramos is talking about. When the managing partner of Denton Tattoo Company talks of street shops, he’s speaking of a level of accommodation, too often lost in the increasingly exclusive custom studios.

“It’s based on how we treat our customers,” he explains. “We want our customers to feel like they’re family, not like they’re being rushed out or they’re unwanted—or that their business is unappreciated.”

“Nowadays,” he continues, “you go into certain shops, and they’re too specialized in whatever niche to give you what you’re looking for—and they’re booked out a year in advance anyway. We want to be able to help those people who just want to come in and get tattooed.”

“And introduce them to tattoo culture so they’ll keep coming back,” adds Lara Wilmeth, AKA, Midgar Zolom, the newest of the shop’s six artists. “Cause when they go to a bourgie shop and get thrown out because their idea was too simple, if that was going to be their first tattoo, they’ll probably never end up trying again. We don’t want to do that to them.”

“Besides,” Jose adds, “someone’s first simple tattoo can often lead to an awesome sleeve.”

Lara’s involvement in the conversation reveals a lot about the vibe of the operation. She only recently completed her apprenticeship. Were she working at any other shop, she’d likely be relegated to a back corner to take her lumps and pay her dues for years to come before being allowed so much prominence as to participate in an interview. But that’s not how they operate. That notion of family Jose mentioned applies just as much to the staff as it does to their customers.

It’s about working together,” Jose says. “It’s not cutthroat here. We try to eliminate that as much as possible. You’ll get your occasional hothead, but we weed them out quickly.”

It’s important, however, not to confuse their propensity for accommodation and acceptance with a tolerance for mediocrity. Regardless of how they prefer to self-identify, they’re not a turn and burn flash shop, nor are they price-haggling bottom feeders.

“We pride ourselves in putting out quality work,” Jose affirms. “You get what you pay for with us. The prices are reasonable, but not cheap . . . That can be a challenge because we’re in a college town. A lot of the kids are looking for the best deal, rather than looking at the work quality of work that you’re paying for. But we never want to send someone away. Instead, we find out how to accommodate them on what they want while working in our recommendations. That way, they’re happy in the moment, but even happier in the long run.”

This ability to accommodate is enhanced by their diverse roster of artists, which ranges widely in both style and experience. Starting with original owner and founder, Rob St. Pierre, a 30-year veteran tattoo

of the industry, going to Jose, a specialist in realism and detailed line work with nearly two decades under his belt, all the way to Lara, their initiate who’s already showing an incredible amount of promise, they have someone for everyone who comes in. And for those who prefer holes to ink, they have an accomplished piercing artist as well.

A quick perusal of their work on social media will attest to the fact that they’re churning out quality. They suffer no shortage of reasons to brag. But Jose isn’t given to bluster. He’ll let the work speak for itself. Everything he says steers the focus back to the atmosphere of acceptance and humility he and Robert have worked tirelessly to foster.

“We’ve been here 13 years,” he says. “We’re one of the longest-running shops in Denton. And that success goes back to how we treat the customers. You can be a phenomenal artist, but if you’re disrespecting customers, we don’t need you here. Hollywood’s got plenty of space for you. Go there.”

Flesh to Fantasy Tattoo Emporium


Flesh to Fantasy Tattoo Emporium

Everybody started somewhere. When Big Mike Hill began tattooing he was working out of his kitchen and trading services for eight-tracks and cassettes. That was back in the early nineties when tattooing was still relatively underground, and you couldn’t just log onto the internet and watch a few how-to videos to sort of figure things out. Mike actually got his first lessons from his “roommate.”

“I’d done a couple of tattoos with the old ‘pick and poke’ way,” Mike says, “and then I got into some trouble and ended up serving a three and a half years sentence. I spent a lot of time covering for my roommate while he was tattooing, you know, watching for the guards and so forth. One day, he showed me how to build a machine and tattoo with it. I’d always been into drawing and painting, and I feel in love with tattooing.”

The first thing Mike did upon being released was to seek out a real apprenticeship — and was told straight up: “Go fuck yourself.”

“I was literally trying to learn my craft. I went to one of the local shops here and was told that I would never amount to anything,” Mike says. “Funny thing is, two months later I opened my own shop and that guy has hated me ever since.”

One reason could be because Mike turned out to be a darn good professional tattoo artist. He opened Flesh to Fantasy Tattoo Emporium in 1996 — the Bellefontaine, Ohio studio was originally known as The Dragon Cafe, and was a place where you could get a tattoo and also play a few campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons. Mike was on his own for a while, improving his skills and gaining a following.

It was his wife Kaytonya, now a permanent makeup artist there, who suggested Mike get more training. Mike took her advice and spent two weeks at an intensive seminar in Florida, and wound up mentoring under the instructor for another eight months.

The turning point came when Mike felt he was good enough to guarantee his work — a promise that has carried over with his entire staff. “If a tattoo is faded or a line comes out, we go back over it without any questions asked,” he says.

“In the beginning, I was fixing a lot of my old work,” Mike admits. “I was the one who fucked them up, and I needed to make it right.”

Flesh to Fantasy has now earned its place as one of the top tattoo studios in the Midwest. It has a remarkable 4.9 Birdeye rating with over 400 positive reviews. Mike and his artists, who include Austin Arrington, Kellie Kremitzki, Brian Hughes, Marah Taylor and Heather Cottingim (Taylor and Cottingim are also professional piercers) are also fixtures at conventions around the country and have brought home 28 awards.

Bellefontaine is also home to Honda’s 40,000 square-foot manufacturing training center, so there’s no shortage of customers. There’s not much call for Honda logos though. The most common requests are lettering and flowers, which makes sense being that more than half of the clientele is female. The shop even has a kid-friendly waiting area that lends to its family friendly vibe.

Flesh to Fantasy recently opened a second location in Monroe, Ohio. It’s inside a flea market — yet completely adhering to all the health standards, and the arts take turns manning the booths there on weekends. Most of those tattoos, Mike says, are small walk-in stuff. But that’s okay because the real goal is to promote the art form and hopefully make some new clients who want bigger pieces done.

“One thing that makes us unique is that while we all have our favorite styles, we can also tattoo pretty much anything,” Mike says. “We do about 25 tattoo shows a year, and I think it really helps us to expand our passion to get around other artists and see what’s capable of being done.”

“We’re here to help people achieve something they never thought possible,” Mike says. “We do thousands of tattoos a year, and the biggest reward is seeing the people’s faces when their expectations have been met and exceeded.”

Drugs Are Bad, Mmkay? Jose Pena and His Unlikely Acquisition of Xtreme Tattoo & Piercing


Xtreme Tattoo & Piercing

“Drugs are bad. Punk rock is fucking tight. Don’t get your face tattooed.”

Yes, the accompanying photo indicates that Jose Pena, owner of Xtreme Tattoo in Sheffield, Ohio, has plenty of face tattoos. No, he’s not expressing regret. He just doesn’t think they’re for everyone.

He recalls one instance of an 18-year-old girl who wanted the word, “numb” under her eye. He tried to talk her out of it, but when she wouldn’t change her mind, he refused. When she asked why, he responded with a question of his own.

”Do you even have a job?”

“Not yet,” she replied.


Snarky though his response may have been, there’s an air of humility about him that belies his brief stint of only 23 on this earth that’s driven him to adopt an attitude of tolerance and acceptance. He wants his shop to be known as a place where anyone can be comfortable, where the artists treat the clients with respect. To that end, he’s put out coloring books for clients with children and has gone so far as to set the radio in the foyer to the Top 40 station.

“I now know all the top hits,” he chuckles, “and it drives me fucking insane.”

Admittedly, his good-natured demeanor wasn’t always what guided his actions. Part cautionary tale and part wunderkind to raise our hackles of inspiration, Jose has packed enough mayhem in his short life to make an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music look like a PBS kids special by comparison. Name it, he lived it; drugs, booze, gangs, homelessness—all played out to a gutter punk soundtrack. It took hitting the proverbial wall to pull him from his path of self-destruction.

“One day I was stumbling down 150th in Cleveland,” he recalls, “and I was just like, ‘Dude, what the fuck happened? How did that slip by me so fast? I don’t know who I am anymore’ . . . the whole gang thing ruined my relationship with my son’s mother, and we split up. Well, I called her when I was walking down 150th. She picked me up and got me the help I needed . . . and I got my life back together. Got my life back, really.”

At that point, he had already been working as an artist at Xtreme Tattoo for two years. It wasn’t long after this that the shop’s original owner, Hector Vasquez, took him aside and offered to sell him the business.

“Me and Hector, we got really close,” Jose explains. “Any time he needed help, I was there. He was getting older. But he was like, ‘Out of everybody, I see a lot of myself in you. I think you’d be the one to do it. You have that ambition I used to have.’”
By his own account, the idea scared the hell out of him. But as a young father who wanted to build a life for his son and fiancé, he couldn’t say no, especially after receiving assurances of help from the local artists who had mentored him. He took the plunge.

Now, barely a year later, Xtreme Tattoo is thriving on the new life breathed into it, so much so, that by this article’s publication, Jose will have already paid off the loan required to buy the business.

He gives most of the credit for his initial success to the staff he inherited, who have worked tirelessly to help him push the business to the next level. The artist roster includes Jessica Turner, who he swears can tattoo anything, but specializes primarily in brightly colored, feminine work, as well as full color portraits, and Ray Fluker, who aside from being described as “the most personable dude in the world,” is a perfectionist with a penchant for black and grey work. He is also the only African American tattoo artist in the county, which gives him a rare edge for working with the highly pigmented skin too-often avoided by artists afraid of failure. Jose rounds them out with his rugged, traditional style, all-but synonymous with is punk roots. Finally, his fiancé, Cortney Kuzak, handles the piercings.

It’s not often that someone with Jose’s past gets a second chance at life, a fact of which he is fully aware and deadest against squandering.

“I’ve done some shitty things in my life that I’m not happy about . . . I don’t want to be that guy anymore. It does nothing but bring bad to you. You get what you give in life. I want to be someone that you can respect because I’m doing good, not because you don’t want me coming after you.

“Everything is possible,” he goes on. “It’s just how much you want it. Even when you only have five dollars in you bank account, it’s still possible . . . I want to go down in the history books. When you look up those well-known tattooers, I want my ugly ass face to be in there somewhere.”

Wolf Pack


Wolfpack Tattoo

It might be coincidence that the new address for Wolfpack Tattoo is 666. Then again, when you hear the stories of some of the strange things going on inside this Las Vegas studio, you might wonder if there isn’t something — or some “thing” else responsible for putting customers and staff on pins and needles.

Wolfpack owner Bobby Ponte may be a horror movie fan, and his favorite style of tattoos lean to the macabre, but he never really believed in ghosts — but now he says his eyes are open to the possibility.

It all started towards the end of 2014 at a different location where a shooting occurred and one of three armed assailants was killed by Ponte’s own gun. Ponte was cleared of charges due to video surveillance and Nevada’s Stand Your Ground law, but the incident left neighboring businesses shaken, and so Ponte took the opportunity to relocate to The Strip.


Ponte spent a lot of time alone there, remodeling the space into a tattoo shop. When he was done for the day, he’d turn out the lights, and when he returned the next morning, they’d be back on. Nothing too unusual about that; maybe a faulty switch or something, Ponte thought, but he got a little more concerned when it kept happening over a couple of months.

“Granted there was a lot of a lot of crazy energy because of what had just happened at the other shop and my mind was pretty out there,” Ponte says.

One of the last updates to the shop before opening was installing security cameras, and that’s when things started getting a lot weirder. First a nail gun moved by itself across the room, but the only thing the camera showed was static. Shortly after, Blood got his first power bill and discovered it was twenty times higher than normal, and neither the utility or electrician could come up with an explanation.


The first day the shop was open for business, one of the artists was setting up their station and the tool tray rolled across the room and the sink turned on all by itself. Ponte switched out the automatic faucets, but not long after, a client was in the bathroom and scalding hot steam shot out of the tap.

Customers would come in and see paper towels zip off the roll and pictures and mirrors fly off the walls — not just falling, but literally sailing across the room. A guest artist was so freaked out by the spooky vibe that he refused to be alone in the shop.

If there’s somethin’ strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Or the nearest available spook hunting team — Sin City Paranormal Investigators. SCPI confirmed that the building was once used as a “disciplinary area” by the mob. That might account for the dusty ammunition, liquor bottles and old suit of clothes discovered hidden in the ceiling.


“It was like somebody just like disappeared,” Ponte says.

“Vegas is an old town that was built by the mob. There’s a lot of death, murder and betrayal in this city, and I believe a lot of those energies are still here,” Ponte adds, “we just happen to be in a location where some very bad things may have happened.”

The investigators concluded that whatever or whoever is on the other side is trying to communicate. Ponte doesn’t feel as though the energy is negative or asking him to leave, so he and his staff — Ace Fury, Viktoria Vitez, Richie Gore and Psoe, will keep right on turning out quality tattoos and offering a unique experience — whatever that exactly may be.

“We love our location and we love our city. Most people love the vibe — it’s not always gloom and doom,” Ponte says.

“I’m not someone who believes in things without seeing it. I don’t want to call it a ghost, but there’s definitely an energy in our shop,” Ponte adds. “If you look individually at the things that have happened, you might be able to come up with some explanations, but when you put everything together, it’s just too much to be coincidence — something strange is happening.”