November’s “In the Limelight” featured guest is Stevie Monie, one of Painful Pleasures’ resident tattoo artists. Stevie is completely self-taught and has been in the tattoo industry for some time now – going from first tattooing at a ripe age of 19, to owning and managing his own shop from 2005 to 2013, to finally becoming a part of our family. His passion and authenticity for tattooing became very apparent during our time spent together and our interview ran more like a chill hang-out session between friends instead of two near strangers. We talked about his process and what being a tattoo artist means, some tricks he’s picked up along the way and the tools of the trade.
Meeseun: How long have you been in the industry and how did you get your start?
Stevie: When I was 19, I was about to be a dad. I thought I had to do something to be successful and start a career because I quit school when I was 16. I pretty much just jumped on tattooing because I thought I could pick it up quickly. I always felt that I should pursue something with art because I thought I could draw and people told me that I was good at it. I was so far off it’s not even funny. I guess tattooing came to me because I had the opportunity. My ex’s neighbor was a tattoo artist and he was willing to trade me his equipment for like… a stereo. A house stereo. I got all of my stuff and set up all of the equipment in my bedroom – I was still at home with my mom at the time. I set it all up and started tattooing my leg… And proceeded to destroy my leg. It was horrible. It took a while. I started the wrong way and looking back at it now, I would change a lot. In some ways it was the worst thing I could do, but in other ways, learning backwards really taught me. I learned how to fix mistakes as I went. I learned how to hide problems that I caused for myself and really just learned how to use a tattoo machine like a tool.
Meeseun: It was totally a trial-and-error process for you then.
Stevie: [laughs] Calling it “trial-and-error” is being nice. There were so many errors. Trial and errors! Everything was wrong. I had my needle hanging out too far. I was probably using a shader to do line work. I didn’t know anything. But I mean, that was what 12 years? 13 years? I’m 32 now so it has been 13 years.
Meeseun: And now you’re amazing! People seek you out for your work.
Stevie: It’s funny you say that because I think I’m doing pretty well. I’m not going to knock my work – I think I’m keeping up with the standards that are being set by the tattoo industry today. You look around and it’s pretty easy to see that if you’re not doing amazing tattoos, then you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re not going to have respect amongst other artists. You’re not going to make any money. It’s sad to say but if you can’t bring it, then you shouldn’t be in this industry.
Meeseun: I can only imagine. It’s a tough market to break.
Stevie: It’s a new age for artists and I think it’s beautiful. It’s awesome because I think it’s pushing everyone to get better. For me that’s an exciting thing because I’ve always wanted to get better. I can remember the exact time I was truly inspired. I was in a basement tattooing at a party about six months after I started. This guy comes in and he goes, “Oh man you’re doing tattoos? I’ve got some tattoos,” and he started showing them to me. He had so much work done by all the old heads and all of the Baltimore names you can imagine. The back piece he had? It was a rendition of the Mona Lisa, and it was perfect. I sat there and told myself, I want to be that good I want to be able to do something like that. When I first got into this, that’s what I always had in my heart – that desire to get better. The desire to step up to that next level. It comes down to bringing something to the table, something that other people can look to and be inspired. Giving back. For me, that moment was priceless. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t have those types of inspirational things happen. It’s people like that and other artists that push you to get better. It is incredible being in an environment where you’re working alongside artists that are better than you or the artists that can do something you can’t do. Those are the artists you’re going to learn from. I don’t want to be known for just a portrait artist. Don’t get me wrong – I love portraits. I respect every portrait I do and I value it on an emotional level. I can help someone through the grieving process by giving them a piece of the person they lost or a way to commemorate someone. I feel blessed to be able to do portraits, but with that being said, it’s only one aspect of my abilities. I don’t want to be put in a box when it comes to being an artist.
Meeseun: It’s funny that you went into that because I came into this interview with the knowledge that you’re the go-to portrait guy. Could you talk to us then about your skills? What style do you enjoy?
Stevie: Photorealism has shown me the value of a photo reference – a good image to start with. That’s the basis for any custom design that I do. I like to build off of photorealistic ideas. Surrealist work, creepy designs, psychedelic trippy designs... weird stuff is awesome. Even playing around with fantasy ideas, fables, and folklore – I like things that invoke emotion, even without it being a picture of a person. I’m not scared to step out of the “realistic” element. A tattoo has strength as a tattoo. I’ve taken strengths I’ve learned from other styles and apply them to every tattoo I do. All of those different elements and textures are what I try to use as ways to contrast between pieces.
Meeseun: That’s really awesome because the way I understand it, there can be a split between the different styles.
Stevie: Yeah, some of those traditional guys will bash realistic tattoos. Cliques exist in the tattoo industry. I get it, but I don’t discriminate. I have friends who are traditional tattooers… I call them my friends, maybe they won’t say the same about me. I don’t know [laughs]. I personally have gained something from every different kind of tattooer. There’s something to learn from everybody, even from somebody who doesn’t necessarily have the abilities that you have as an artist. I’ve had people tattooing under me that were newbies, and they have taught me something. That’s the best part of this job. You keep learning. You keep progressing. No matter how much tattooing I do and how many projects I take on, I still learn something new every time.
Meeseun: Can you talk to us a little bit about your process then? A lot of people seek you out specifically for portrait tattoos. That has to be a lot of pressure, right? People want their tattoo to look exactly like whatever photo they bring in?
Stevie: Sometimes it’s tricky and sometimes it’s not. You’re trying to meet that standard, but you actually want to exceed that. I’m always trying to improve on a photo. A photo can have graininess. It can have focus issues. You might only have a single reference to work with and it might be someone’s grandmother that passed away and all their pictures burned in a fire or something. You have to deal with it, you have to work with what you’ve got. In my experience, my goal is to improve on that photo and make it more high resolution, increase the detail level, maybe even put more in there than what’s actually there in the picture. It has gotten easier to do that because I’ve had so many opportunities to do portraits. I’ve found that there are rules to everyone’s face. There are rules to everyone’s portrait. There’s always going to be a highlight on someone’s upper lip. There’s always going to be a shadow from the eyelid to the cheekbone. It’s the little stuff that you start to pick up on, things that are always there. It’s second nature to me now and maybe that’s why I’m pegged as the portrait guy. It doesn’t stress me out. Having to do portraits is a gravy day. I’m always ready for it and I do it with ease.
Meeseun: I imagine they all have to be mid to large sized, correct? With the level of detail that goes into making a design photo-realistic...
Stevie: I’ve done portraits where the whole face is two inches, and it’s super difficult. Every tiny speck of ink has to be to a tee. I try to persuade people to go bigger – at least four or five inches – for a portrait. It will hold up and look better over time because I’ll be able to put those details in that will stand years down the road. I’ve seen tattoos I’ve done ten years ago; I’ve seen a portrait hold up and it makes me proud. That’s what I said earlier about knowing the tricks. Knowing where to be bold, where to push black even if it’s not in the picture. A lot of people are too scared to push it.
Meeseun: Definitely. What you see on paper doesn’t always transfer onto skin. You have to know those tricks.
Stevie: Yeah, it doesn’t come naturally. You look at it first and you think, oh I wouldn’t want to do that, but you do it and you realize it actually looks better. It can be scary. If you don’t have someone that is experienced helping you, you can easily go the wrong way and make mistakes that are f----ed up. That’s the beauty of doing it for a while and knowing from making mistakes what not to do.
Meeseun: Would you say that there is an average size then that most people go for?
Stevie: Usually, people will go anywhere from four to seven inches for the face. Maybe a little bigger than the size of a baseball? Softball size. That’s just the face, though. Placing a portrait is also tricky because it can be affected by the curvature of the body. That size usually works with almost any spot without too much distortion.
Meeseun: How long does it usually take?
Stevie: I’d say around four or five hours for a typical portrait that size. 90% of the time, I like to go back into a portrait and do one pass over to touch it up and make sure all colors and lines are there.
Meeseun: Oh that’s not too bad. I thought it’d be much longer because of the details.
Stevie: Yeah. People say that I’m quicker than most. I don’t know if I’m fast or not if you take the touch-up into consideration. It’s probably going to average out to be around six and a half, seven hours. You just have to get in there and get it done. You come to appreciate being tattooed as a tattoo artist because you know how bad it hurts. You know how much it sucks. It’s so weird. You hate it, but you always want more.
Meeseun: Right? We put ourselves through such pain to have this permanent art and we love it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t torture ourselves for it.
Stevie: Yeah, people are sick [laughs].
Meeseun: So how did you hear about Painful Pleasures? Were you a customer?
Stevie: I found out about Painful Pleasures from other artists and the piercer that worked at my shop at the time.
Meeseun: How did you make that jump then? From being one of our clients to becoming part of the team?
Stevie: Well that story is a little bit of a tricky one. To make a long story short, everything in my life did a full 360. I went from being a shop owner to being an independent artist again. I went from having a studio that made money and sustained itself to having to make ends meet by myself. It was a scary situation to go from eight and a half, nine years of being at the top of my totem pole, I guess you could say, to being back down to just an artist, just a guy who does tattoos. It feels good to be here. That may sound funny, but this is by far the happiest I’ve been in my life. I feel like it all happened for a reason. I think what Marc is doing here is amazing. What Painful Pleasures offers to tattoo artists is really awesome. It’s amazing to be a part of something so big and when I say big, I mean forward-thinking and inspirational. I feel like instead of walking up steps, I’m on an escalator. You can feel the momentum here, and that’s exactly what I needed to get the full potential out of myself. People could say that I had everything, I don’t know, but I didn’t feel that that was me getting the full potential like I can here. It gives me the ability to be an artist and live a lifestyle that allows me to be just that. I don’t feel the pressures of owning a studio anymore and the weight that comes from maintaining those responsibilities. I’m just happy to be here.
Meeseun: And the rest is history they say. Let’s talk about what you like to use for your tattoos. Do you have a specific color palette you prefer? Are there certain colors that you like using more than others?
Stevie: It’s probably not just me, but a lot of people that use Eternal Inks are probably bragging about Liz Cook’s set. I think they did an amazing job with those colors and they work really well with my style. There are some really nice earthy and muted tones. These are colors that you find in nature and they’re really true. They’re not so bright that they look fake or cartoony, which I think can be a struggle if you want to put a realistic feel to your work. I think too many people are not using enough colors. In one tattoo, I’ll pour out maybe like 15-20 colors even if it’s a small sized tattoo. I like to mix my colors while I’m working. My tattoo machine is my paintbrush and I’ll mix it in the skin. Sometimes that’s the only way to do it to get that perfect color. I love color – I say the more the merrier. I actually hated color when I first started. Life is colorful and the power that tattoos have is transformation. You’re transforming yourself and what better way to do that than with color? Maybe it’s a deep-seated thing that we haven’t fully figured out yet, but it’s a carnal, a primal human element – to transform. And it’s weird that we‘re all emulating each other and at the same time trying to be individuals… It’s wacky, man.
Meeseun: [laughs] I definitely get that. We’re going to have to have some life talks after this interview.
Stevie: [laughs] Life is crazy. I am with you.
Meeseun: And it’s because of life that these people want to get portraits, right? Portraits of loved ones, or of other subjects who mean something to them. Are there people who will get random portraits, too?
Stevie: It sometimes happens, but it’s not as common as people getting a portrait of their mom or their kid. You do occasionally get someone who is a huge fan of an actor or a band and they’ll go crazy getting tattoos of all the movies someone played a role in or something like that.
Meeseun: Could you describe a typical procedure from consultation to execution? People reach out to you, you guys talk it out, and then you go at it?
Stevie: Yeah, so I have four hour minimum sessions just because most of the work I do is larger scale, like whole sleeves or a full upper body tattoo. I’ve found that a four hour session is good for getting most of it done, without having to go back and put a stencil on it for the next session. Typically I have about a month scheduled out in advance. I’ve gone through phases in my career where I’d start a tattoo and years would go by before I get it finished. It works best for me to keep myself no busier than a month out so that I can stay on top of my projects. This way I don’t evolve as an artist too much from the start to the finish of a tattoo.
Meeseun: How many projects do you work on in a month on average?
Stevie: I have a lot of clients, so it’s hard to say. If I really wanted to, I could book out for six months. But at this point, I just take it as it comes because life is hectic and you never know what’s going to happen. This way if something does come up, it’s more flexible to reschedule and there won’t be a crazy wait to get back on. I try my best to accommodate my clients and make sure they’re getting an experience worth it.
Meeseun: That’s really considerate. I think you’d have to be in this industry.
Stevie: Oh it’s definitely important. Look at it like this, someone wants their whole upper body tattooed? You’re looking at hours on hours with this person. Forty, fifty hours. After you’ve been sitting with someone for that long, and when they’ve spent that much money, you start to feel a bit guilty. It’s a weird situation being a tattoo artist. There are definitely tattoo artists out there with no conscience and they’re all about the money. Let’s face it - it is a business, but I don’t value money. I value people more than I value money. Money takes too many people off the right path. My job should not be driven by my motivation to make money; it’s driven by my motivation to do a good tattoo. I think that’s the thing to my process. If you come to me for a tattoo, I’d say have your idea figured out and don’t get mad if it’s an idea that I don’t think I’d be good at. I will tell you if it’s something I’m not really feeling or I don’t think I can take on. It’s permanent and me saying no is a perfectly acceptable answer to somebody’s request.
Meeseun: You have respect for the art.
Stevie: Right. I know what my limitations are. I’m not saying, "F--- you, I don’t want to tattoo you!" I just know that if I can’t execute it the way you see fit, you’re better off going to another artist who can. What drives me as an artist and what pushes me in my progression as an artist is all the art that’s out there. Some of these greats out there paved a way for themselves without even really knowing it. They had a signature to their work and they might not have even known it. That’s what it seems like every artist is struggling to find – that signature.
Meeseun: It’s being too aware, right? The past greats, they just did what they enjoyed doing and it came naturally. Now everyone is actively trying to find it and it doesn’t happen organically.
Stevie: That’s exactly right. I never said, Man, I want to be a portrait artist. Never said it. Too many people try to run from their natural ability and talent. I think once I realized that and started embracing it, that’s when I really started to flourish and get more out of what I do. Enjoy it more. Before that, it was a struggle. The struggle is real [laughs].
Meeseun: The struggle is definitely real [laughs]. It really is.
Stevie: So real.
Meeseun: [laughs] Let's continue our interview. All masters of their craft have their preferred tools. Do you have a favorite go-to machine? Are you picky about needles and grips?
Stevie: I wish I could say that I did, and I wish I could have a real technical conversation about this machine over that machine. Most of the machines I have, I’ve been using on a daily basis for five to seven years – old school coil machines, same springs on them and everything. With that said, I’m not opposed to trying new things. I just recently tried one of those Spektra rotaries and I really liked it. It was great for packing color. I think I’m a dinosaur, but I am willing to try new tools. Who knows? It might make my job easier. I might be even faster. Precision tattoo supplies are great, though. As far as quality goes, I think the Precision needles and Vision tubes are just as good as any top brand that’s out there. I’ve used them all. I’ve tried all the different types, ordered from every company because somebody said they were the best, but that’s all I use now.
Meeseun: I think that goes to show how talented you are then. You’re using the same old machines and you’re a self-proclaimed dinosaur, you use what you know, but you’re still putting out amazing work.
Stevie: Thank you. Yeah, I don’t think it’s about the machine, you know?
Meeseun: I definitely agree. A lot of people will make it about the machine though. As a product specialist and looking up these new machines for what I have to do for work, it makes my head spin sometimes. I have to really educate myself on all the differences, if there are any.
Stevie: Yeah that’s what they want you to think and that’s the industry. There are going to be a lot of gimmicks and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work. It might work for you, but not for someone else. You just won’t know until you try it. I think that’s the lesson I’ve learned and maybe that’ll help me continue to get better. Don’t be scared to try new things. New brand of ink. New tattoo machine. New needle. If we didn’t try half of the stuff we tried – if somebody didn’t take a doorbell and turned it into a tattoo machine, we wouldn’t be doing tattoos with the machines I’m using. It’s about innovation. Pushing to the next level. What can we do to make this better? How can we make these ideas that people want on their skin more possible?
Meeseun: Those are all valid points and it’s really admirable. I think it’s hard to find artists like yourself, or anybody in their respective professions for that matter, who are good at what they do and continue to push themselves. There are so many people who will stop once they reach a certain point. There’s so much respect for those who want to better themselves.
Stevie: I agree and it’s really important. I’ve had some plateaus in my career, some points when I’ve even resented the fact that I was busy. I didn’t see the gifts in front of me. Too many people are taking s--- for granted. If you’re lucky enough to be doing tattoos, you should be trying to be the best artist you could be. You owe it, not just to yourself, but to every single person you tattoo. They’re going to have it forever and you shouldn’t take that lightly. If anything, you should take it heavier than they do because you’re given the power to change someone’s body forever and give them a completely different image. It’s all about evaluating the subject matter, your client… it comes down to whether you give a f---- or not. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about saying no. Sometimes that’s the responsibility of a good tattoo artist – being able to say no when the customer says they want it. Now that’s a hard conversation to have [laughs].
It’s refreshing to know that genuine tattoo artists, like Stevie Monie, are still out there. As he said during the interview, it’s no easy task being given the responsibility to be able to completely alter someone’s look, to create and permanently mark someone’s skin. But when you have an artist who looks out for your best interests and knows when to say no, who knows how to push boundaries when it comes to creating the best-looking tattoo, you find yourself suddenly at ease about taking this journey with them. This may have just been an interview, but I feel like I walked away with so much more insight on tattoo artists. Check out some of the work Stevie Monie has done on our Featured Artists page and his Facebook Stevie Monie Tattoo. He can be reached for bookings at www.steviemonie.com and you can get tattooed at The Studio at Painful Pleasures or at his private studio. Shop for the tattoo supplies he prefers, like our Precision Needles and Vision Tubes, right here at Painful Pleasures.