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 their guest artist, Jesse Smith.
Meeseun: I wanted to talk a little bit about how you got your start in the tattoo industry and when that was moment when you realized that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life…. or is it? [laughs]
Jesse Smith: Well, let’s see. I’ve done art my whole life, just like every other artist, so I always ran in the artistic circles wherever I was. I joined the military when I graduated high school and they sent me to Newport News, Virginia. In Newport News, I was running around with artists and I stumbled across this guy named Carlos, and he was tattooing out of his house with a little ghetto gun — a Walkman motor, sewing needle, all that stuff. I would just hang out and draw with him, and one day he goes, ‘Hey man, do you want to do a tattoo?’ I was like, ‘Sure!’ and I never really thought I was going to be a tattoo artist. I just kind of wanted to do a tattoo just to say I did one, so I basically did my first tattoo, and people started lining up at the door, not because they were good, but because they were cheap. I think I charged… I think I was doing the first tattoos for free…
Oh wow, when was that?
I think it was around ’98? Early ’98? So I’m going on almost 20 years in about a year... so I’m at 19 years now.
That’s a long time!
Yeah, long time. [both laugh] To the second part of your question, you know, I’m not even sure if I want to be a tattoo artist for the rest of my life. I just want to be an artist for the rest of my life, whether that’s doing an oil painting, or murals, or digital art. Whatever type of art I can do is what I want to do, and tattooing is just an outlet for my artistic energy.
That’s awesome. So you were saying 19 years you’ve been tattooing. What are some of the differences — the good changes, the bad changes — that you’ve noticed in the industry throughout these 19 years?
I guess I can’t think of any bad changes… I’m sure a lot of old timers will say, ‘Oh you know, it’s so mainstream now’ and all that, but the mainstream has worked to the advantage of a lot of people. I would say that when I first started tattooing, it wasn’t really an “art”— it was more of a trade and there were a lot of people tattooing that really had no interest in art at all; they just enjoyed the aesthetic of tattoos. They enjoyed tattooing people. They enjoyed the lifestyle. Now we’re getting a lot of artists that are coming in and people who are more interested in creating art on people’s skin instead of just creating a tattoo, so I think most of the changes I’ve seen have been for the better.
That’s good to hear, because I wasn’t sure how artists who have been in the industry for that long would respond. With technology advancing, with all the different types of tools that are out there – like machines even, from where we started with handmade machines with sewing needles as you were saying, to all of these fancy rotary machines that have these “state-of-the-art” parts and—
—$600 tattoo machines…
When I started, tattoo machines were $75 to $125. $150 was really expensive, so now it’s like, $600 tattoo machines? Holy crap, it’s like an iPhone, you know?
Yeah, for sure. Do you have a preferred machine, like a go-to or a stand-by machine?
Yeah, I use primarily FK Irons. The one I enjoy the most is Edge.
Nice! So, what were some of the obstacles you had to overcome in becoming a tattoo artist? Or being an artist, in general?
I would say that the beginning of my career was definitely the most difficult. You know it’s — like I said, I was one of the earlier artists to come into the tattoo world, so I got a lot of friction from a lot of the tattoo artists that I worked with – the tattooists that I worked with back then. I’m not a heavily tattooed artist. Obviously don’t dress like a tattoo artist…
And do you receive criticism for that? For not being heavily tattooed?
Definitely. I mean it’s getting better as time goes on and I think people respect that decision. And you know, it’s not that I don’t want to get tattooed — I’ve tried to get tattooed a bunch of times. It just never really worked out. I don’t know why they don’t work out. I always want to get massive projects and a lot of artists, at least when I was trying to get tattooed, didn’t want to do massive projects. I was trying to get tattooed by Jime Litwalk and Gunnar, and a lot of the tattoos they do are kind of one shotters. They do bigger tattoos, but not like massive ones. I tried to get tattooed by Tim Biedron, and it just didn’t work out. I tried to get tattooed by him three times and I absolutely love, love, love his work.
Are you going to try to set that up again? Or are you going to move forward, maybe find a different artist?
It just isn’t as big of a priority now as it used to be. I’ve got other things I’d like to spend my money on. It’s not that I don’t want to get tattooed, it’s just time, mostly. I own a house, a business, and stuff like that so if I have a choice between putting money into anything or putting it into my business, I’m going to put it into my business first.
Makes sense. Could you talk to us a little bit about your style and what you like to primarily do?
Yeah I guess most people call what I do new school. I like to think of it more as an illustrative style. People out there are drawing all their own tattoos and drawing them out of their head. That’s pretty much my style. There’s a lot of focus on creating things from nothing. I use reference, like if I’m going to do a character that has a pattern or something on it, then I might look at frog patterns and mushroom patterns and try to figure out how to put stuff together. But for the most part, most of the things I do come out of my head.
Was this a style — so like with new school, is that something you initially started out doing? Or is it something you developed along the way?
Nah I’ve been doing new school my whole life, even before I was a tattoo artist. I would copy skateboard designs, I copied a lot of Garbage Pail Kids, I don’t know if you remember those... I used to copy MAD magazine, and that was when I was 12, 13, 14 [years old]. Right around 15-16, I got into graffiti. I moved to Heidelberg, Germany and there were lots of graffiti out there. I just started doing graffiti and there are a lot of graffiti characters. At the time, I didn’t really think about it, but looking back at it now, basically taking Disney cartoons or Saturday morning cartoons or whatever and just tweaking the heck out of them... that was the core of what I do now. Then I got into the tattoo world and I was doing what I consider what I like to draw, and all of a sudden, I was labeled a new school artist. I’ve been a new school artist for 19 years, but it’s kind of weird. It’s kind of like New Kids on the Block still being New Kids on the Block 20 years later. Like Lil Wayne, Lil Bow Wow, you’re not so “little” anymore, so I kind of think it’s an outdated way of describing the style.
[laughs] Yeah… There are a lot of new school artists though that are still hanging on to that term to describe that style—
—It’s just one of those things where it’s the easiest way. When somebody asks me, ‘Hey what style do you do?’ If I say “new school,” they automatically know what you’re talking about. Same thing with music. If you sit there and ask, 'What type of music do you do?' If someone says “rap” you automatically think of this thing. But it can break down into old school hip hop, screw, and different genres of rap that splits out as time goes on. New school is still a relatively small genre. You’re looking at, I would say there might be 30 or 40 new school artists in the entire world that are doing new school at a level that I would say is—
Yeah, expert. There’s a lot of people out there that do it, but when I first started doing new school, there might’ve been 10 in the entire world that I would’ve gotten tattooed by. Now there’s, like I said, probably about 30 or 40 people in the world that I would get tattooed by and I’m sure there will be more and more as time goes on.
Right. I imagine you spend a lot of time consulting with your potential clients — talking ideas back and forth. Do a lot of your clients come with ideas in their mind and you help them develop it? Or are you also doing more custom tattoos, giving them the ideas and suggestions. How much are you working with your clients for the work they want done?
Nowadays I work on primarily — at the shop — I work on large projects. Usually neck-to-knee back pieces. That’s pretty much all I’m working on now – neck-to-knee back pieces and I have a leg sleeve that I’m working on. They’re really massive projects so we usually just sit down, and — the problem with what I do is that it’s hard to ask for something you don’t know exists — so I always ask people, 'What in my portfolio have you seen that you like?' so I can get an idea. And they’ll say, you know, 'I like the concept of the butterfly bat and I like acorn angler,' and stuff like that. I've started over time creating these different characters that are starting to take the foreground of my work and people start asking for little pieces of that. I had an Elephunktafish and the girl was like, 'Oh I love elephunktafish! Can you do a baby one for me?' so then I did a baby elephunktafish. I much more enjoy creating characters that don’t exist, than do. Back in the day, people will come up and be like, 'I want a rabbit!' so you do a rabbit and it’s like, Cool. I did a rabbit. Then the next person says they want a monkey, and all these things so I just kind of got tired of doing that. I started creating my own characters and people started asking me for them. Now, people will come in and say, 'Do whatever you want. Anything you want. I like this character that you did and this character that you did,' which is cool.
Just to wrap it up, I’m sure you get a lot of questions from being on Ink Master — how do you respond to, or have you received a lot of criticism from being on the show? It seems like there are tattoo artists who are against reality TV so what do you think of that?
I think it all depends. Before I got on the show, I had somewhat of a reputation so a lot of the people who do talk smack, they wouldn’t talk smack to me because we were already friends or colleagues or something. Everybody has been really respectful to me about it. There’s got to be people out there that don’t like that. They just don’t talk to me, and I prefer it that way. I actually had a girl one time say, 'No offense, but reality TV ruined the tattoo industry,' so I asked, 'Well, how long have you been tattooing?' She said like six years, so I was like, 'No offense, but you wouldn’t be tattooing if it wasn’t for tattoo TV.' [laughs]
[laughs] That’s very true! With social media, TV, the presence that [the tattoo industry] has now, it’s like what we were saying earlier — that is why there are so many talented people out there, but at the same time there’s probably going to be more people you have to filter through too.
Yeah it’s definitely a catch-22. I think in the end, everybody, even the people who hate the TV, have benefitted from this.