Our first local shop feature showcases a custom tattoo studio and art gallery, Black Lotus Tattoo; view the feature post here. The following supplement is a transcript of the interview with Halo, tattoo artist and owner of Black Lotus Tattoo.
Meeseun: How long have you been in the tattoo industry and how did you get your start?
Halo: I’ve been tattooing now for about 13 years. I was never an artist before I started tattooing, actually. I was a musician and we used to play shows right next to a tattoo studio, and I used to go there to get tattooed. Eventually once I stopped playing music, I ignorantly thought, How hard could it be? Let me just go tattoo. I didn’t know much about tattooing outside of flash. You go into a studio, you pick something off the wall, and they put it on you. I used to think, how hard could it be to trace it and color it in?
What instrument did you used to play?
Guitar. We played all over DC, Virginia, Pennsylvania.
Oh, are you local to this area?
And is that why you decided to have Black Lotus here?
Yeah actually I grew up in Fort Meade right down the street from here, so this is like my old stomping grounds.
Get out of here! I went to MacArthur—
Stop it. How old are you?
Yeah, no kidding! I’m uh… oh I have to think about it [laughs] – I’m 29.
[laughs] 29? Yeah so we might’ve been near each other. I went to Manor View Elementary, then Macarthur Middle, and then I went to Meade High. I played lacrosse for Meade High.
Nice! Wow, yeah so my sisters and I grew up right around this area.
Severn and Hanover. I used to pass by where your shop [Black Lotus] used to be, and that’s something I wanted to ask you since I grew up around here – I was wondering, Severn? Why here? What’s in Severn?
—But that makes a lot of sense now.
And honestly I wanted to be near an airport because I wanted it to be accessible for — I wanted this place, eventually, hopefully to be a hub for travelling artists to come. I wanted to house that and wanted it to be a place of learning so people could come and paint. So keeping it near the airport was a big deal for me, being in between Baltimore and Washington DC was a big deal.
Yeah this is a great location for that.
Yeah, thank you!
So, what are some of the obstacles you had to overcome in becoming a tattoo artist? You were saying you weren’t an artist before tattooing.
Oh, in the very beginning? [sighs]
[laughs] In the beginning, throughout, anything from these past 13 years.
You know, the hardest thing I think was learning the equipment. Once you get the equipment down, everything gets much easier. But without an art background, I think it was helpful because I didn’t have to worry about two things at once. I wasn't worrying about creating art, I was worried about replicating it so most of the artwork was done for me. So when I started, it was just the machine that I was focused on. Now that I’m getting into creating my own art, that’s an obstacle that doesn’t end. I mean you could name every obstacle ever.
Can you talk to us a little bit about that? And maybe your process?
Recently I’ve been taking illustration classes. You really want to focus on storytelling, kind of like what Jesse [Smith] does. You know you’re telling a story so you’re using values, you’re using different types of contrast, whether it’s smooth and long, or small and hard, or cold and warm, light and dark. I mean there are all these things that you’re trying to tell a story with people using your art, and it’s a difficult process because it’s basically a long balancing act you’re trying to play. On top of that, you have to be able to tattoo it well, which is difficult. I think everything we do is difficult if you really want to do it well. You’re constantly draining your mind trying to think about how to do better.
Yeah, creative work is tough work. I think there are a lot of people who don’t think about it that way, but when you’re constantly drawing ideas, when you work with your mind, it definitely becomes tough at some point and you feel drained or exhausted.
Yeah, and I don’t think it’s any different from cooks or hair stylists, or anything that you have to be able to come up with something off the spot, looking at nothing and create something. I think, in the same realm, they’re all difficult in their own rights. But, it’s fun. I love doing what I do. Love it.
That’s good, I mean you wouldn’t be good at it if you didn’t love it, right? Or I guess there are people who are good at what they do, but they—
—hate it. Yeah. I think there’s a difference. I think you can physically see the difference between somebody who loves something that they do, because there’s passion behind it; there’s care behind it. It’s like that with cooking, too. Somebody slaps a steak on your plate or someone really puts efforts into it. Steak. [sighs]
I love steak.
Me too. [laughs]
How would you describe your typical process when a client approaches you for work they want to get done? When you work with them and give input, how does that all work together for you? Do you find that to be difficult, too? Or is it usually seamless? Do people generally have an idea or do you have to work with them a lot?
It really does depend. I’m not at a point where people — I actually have to backtrack. Luckily, recently, I’ve been at a point where a lot of people have been like, Do you. I like your work. Do whatever you want. I even have some people that come in and say, 'I don’t know what I want. I don’t care about the subject matter,' and those are really fun to work with. Usually what I’ll do is map out where on their body we’re putting it and I’ve equipped the shop with digital tablets, so a lot of times what I’ll do is take a picture of their arm [for example] and sketch it digitally. I took concept art school about three years ago and you’re trained to work very quickly. Some of these guys were doing ten paintings in 30 minutes, so three minutes on each painting. Those dudes are insane. I couldn’t hold a candle to anyone in my class. I actually almost cried in class, because they were so good. They were so fast. These guys are supposed to come up with ten character designs in less than an hour that are all different. In training in that, you learn how to get the basics down very quickly, so recently what I’ve been doing is speed sketches, just very, very fast, and if it hits me in a silhouette, then I know it’s good. I’ll silhouette out the space, figure out where I want to stage things, and then from there make an outline and pretty much get started. A lot of times, what I’ll do too is, say we get your outline done in one day. I’ll take a picture of the outline and color it in in Photoshop, so I’ll figure out what all my colors are going to be first. That’s really helpful because I think it’s easy to overlook things when you haven’t dipped your foot in first.
Cool. If it’s one thing you’d tell future clients interested in getting work done by you, what would it be?
Wooo… [sighs] Hold on. [laughs] No, I think it would be to look at portfolios… I mean, well, that’s different. I’m sorry, I think that’s a whole different thing. If it’s for any client, I would tell people to look at portfolios. I think what happens a lot, and I’m sure happens to you[gestures towards Jesse Smith], is that people will ask for things that you’re not very good at or you have no experience in. So even when people walk into this studio, I tell them to look at portfolios because it doesn’t matter if they were referred to me personally. If you don’t see that I do it, then you shouldn’t get it done by me. I’m real open with people about that, because what I’m trying to train people to do is to look at the work. If you like the work, it doesn’t matter how much people are an hour, it doesn’t matter what they charge, it just matters that they fit. The end result is really the biggest thing. I just tell people, always make sure you look at portfolios and try to find multiple artists that do what you want.
I think, probably not so much now, but there are still some people out there who expect tattoo artists to do whatever they ask, which is not true. Tattoo artists should be able to say no when what’s asked is not in their repertoire, so it’s good when artists can also recognize that, say no when they need to, and refer them to another artist.
Halo: Yeah. There was some post I was looking at the other day and I commented on it because somebody was like, 'A real master should be well rounded,' and because I like fine art, I looked back and go, I don’t know one master that was well rounded. Caravaggio, William-Adolphe, Rembrandt, all of those people had their niche, they had that one thing that they mastered. But to master everything? It’s not easy. I mean, you couldn’t! The Japanese go through 20 year apprenticeships. You get apprenticed when you’re still in grade school. You know Horiyoshi’s son [Souryou Kazuyoshi]? We saw him at a seminar and he was 20 at the time. He went through a list of all the things he had to learn during his apprenticeship, and he was like, 'I’ve got about another 10 years to go before I’m a master,' and he’s focusing on one thing! Just one. He’s not focusing on portraits, on flash, on color or new school. I think that as I’ve been going through tattooing over the years, I tried to be well-rounded and I noticed that my focus was never anywhere. Now that I’ve really tried to hone in on what I’m contributing, all my work has gotten much better. I’ve been more confident.
Jesse: It’s kind of like saying in order to be a master athlete, you have to be pro at every sport. In order to be a pro in any sport, it takes a lot of dedication with one sport. And there’s some people, like Bo Jackson... I don’t know if Michael Jordan playing golf is considered [Halo laughs] — but some of them out there have been able to do it, but none of them have done it well.
Yeah, and you have to think about the artists that are of different cultures, too. Like the hand poke tattoos with tribes and in Asian countries, and even with Japanese tattooing that’s this rigorous training you go through to achieve that [expert] level of ability.
Halo: I think the problem with art in general and the way that people who are not artists look at art can be broken down easily with sports or even music. So if you’re good at playing guitar, it must mean you can sing, you know what I mean? If you’re good at playing the oboe, that must mean you can play the cello. Because it’s all music. I think art gets the same criticism, where it’s like if you’re good at drawing a rose, why can’t you do a traditional skull? It’s a different mindset. Or sports — if you’re good at football, you must be good at golf, you know? Because it’s just sports. You’re good at sports. I don’t think it’s the same thing. When you say you’re an artist, I think that tattooing — because it’s a service and because anybody can come in from anywhere and accept that service — I think people get in their heads that because you’re an artist, you can do anything. Like I can tattoo a color portrait, I can freehand a color portrait, but if you ask me to tattoo a star, I guarantee that I’ll mess it up. I just cannot, for some reason. Fine lines are not my thing, so that’s why I tell people to look at portfolios. Make sure that I’m the guy you want for the job. The whole studio — we pass our clients around, all of us do. I tell guys when I hire them that you cannot be pissed off if someone else is tattooing your client. If that’s your mindset, you cannot work here, because we give our clients away. Sometimes a client will say, 'Hey I want to get a pin up, but realistic.' And I’ll say, 'Well, I’m not good at drawing pin ups, Merv [Heiner] is. Why don’t we let Merv do your outline and I’ll color it in.' We do that all the time. This studio is basically set up for people’s strengths.
Right, collaborative work. That’s awesome. A team environment.
Yes, it’s my favorite. I like it and I’m a team player, so I need people here like that.
So to wrap this up, it’s the same question I asked Jesse: You were on Ink Master, and there’s a lot of criticism in the community about being a reality TV star—
—Oh yeah [laughs]
How do you deal with that? Do you feel any type of way about it?
Halo: Yeah, absolutely. Here’s the thing. If tattooing is something I’ve dedicated my entire life to, whether I am where I want to be or not, it doesn’t matter. This is what I know I want to do and this is what I’ve focused my entire life on, so you’ve got a community now that you are a part of and everyone helped to build. And now outside influences are coming into it — tattoo magazines are coming into it, Facebook groups, and now television. It’s an inevitable thing, but you can either – I’m trying to think of the word for it, where you’re expressing it. You can be a part of it and if everyone’s like, Oh that’s the guy on Ink Master? This guy can’t even blah blah blah. Well, that’s because that’s all they had to pick from. Why don’t you get off your ass and represent your community? Instead of letting them pick who is representing your community, we need to do that and that’s why I like the fact that there are people on there, like Jesse Smith who’s been tattooing for 20 years and Jime Litwalk, that’s a guy I looked up to when I started tattooing.
Jesse Smith: ...Cleen
Halo: Cleen, yeah. There are people that have history in tattooing that are now – and even Kelly Doty – that are going in and representing their community. I say if you aren’t willing to represent your community, shut the f--- up. You don’t have any say-so. If you would rather let them represent, you know like bottom of the barrel tattooers, then you don’t have any say so. I wanted to represent my community well and I know you don’t have to be a dickhead to do well in tattooing. You don’t have to be an asshole to win and I was okay with the things I wasn’t good at doing. I think the show is incredible, because I think it does support what I said — it doesn’t matter how many trophies you’ve won or how many years you’ve been tattooing, you’re not going to ace every tattoo, so it’s important to find an artist that does what you want. [The show] displays your weaknesses as an artist and it goes to show you could be tattooing forever, but you’ve got your niche and that’s what you’re good at. I’ve noticed that after the show, I think that people look at portfolios more now.
Jesse: It’s helped a lot of things and it has also messed some stuff up…
Halo: Oh yeah, it definitely hinders some things for sure, but I think that’s with anything. The popularity of tattooing is allowing more people to get tattooed, which means that there’s more money involved, so there’s more research that goes into the equipment. So better equipment is allowed to go out because there is a demand for it. And at the same time there are more crappy tattooers tattooing, so there’s going to be more out of the house tattooers, more Chinese knock-offs… Everything that has a positive reaction, you’re going to get negativity, but I think it’s important to look at the good stuff that happens from it. I wouldn’t be able to tattoo all the stuff I wanted to tattoo if I wasn’t able to practice it. I think these tv shows are good as long as there are artists out there willing to contribute. Good artists, so they can show people this is what it is.