Our March local shop feature showcases Tattoo Heart Studios, a custom tattoo shop devoted to providing exceptional customer service and nurturing passion for art; view the feature post here. The following supplement is a transcript of the interview with John F. Garancheski III, tattoo artist and owner of Tattoo Heart Studios.
Meeseun (PP): Thank you for having us, first of all. And thank you for agreeing to do the interview and letting us do a feature on your shop.
John Garancheski: Yeah, no doubt.
Danny (PP): This is my first time up here, actually.
Wait, you’ve never been up here before?
D: Nope, I haven’t been up here yet.
Like, the whole time?
D: The whole time. I’ve only met you guys at Milkcrate events and stuff.
Okay. Yeah, I’ll have to take you through [the shop]. I guess I just assumed that everybody [at PainfulPleasures] has seen it, because Marc has put so much time and love into building this space out.
D: Yeah, it’s really, really nice.
Yeah, it’s super awesome.
D: But this interview is actually going to be about Overstock furniture.
Okay. I can’t really tell you too much. Um, these couches are pretty awesome, and they’ve performed pretty well. Delivery was quick and easy. [laughs]
D: This is great advertising. But our first question is not about Overstock.
D: How did you get your start as a tattoo artist, and as an artist in general?
Oh man, that’s such a long story. It’s so good, though. How much time you got?
D: We’ve got time!
No, I’m just kidding. I mean, I have an interview with MTV in like twenty minutes. [laughs] So we’ve really gotta run through this.
D: [laughs] Quintin [PP Photographer] is shooting that, too.
Quintin: [laughs] Yeah, I work for MTV now.
Yeah, and then [I have an interview with] Pop Sugar. Okay, so, how did I get into tattooing or art or both? Or wherever it goes from there?
D: Both, yeah!
Growing up, I always leaned towards creative pursuits; I really loved making things with my hands. I always liked drawing, and sometimes painting, and crafty stuff when I was a kid.
And then going through school, you know, everybody is on this path of trying to figure out who they are and what they’re gonna do, and I just always gravitated towards the artsy stuff.
My parents advocated a lot for me, too. I don’t know if “advocated” is the right word, but my parents helped push that interest a lot. If there were art summer camps or after school art-related stuff, they would sign me up for that. I remember in middle school and high school, I did a lot of that stuff.
So, getting into high school and trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life when I graduated, I didn’t really see myself fitting in anywhere that was the usual [career path], like, oh, I’m gonna grow up and be a doctor or I’m gonna grow up and be a lawyer! Everybody has all these admirable things that they wanna be and I just wanna make shit. You know? Like, I just wanna do something cool.
I didn’t wanna be a rock star or anything like that — I knew I wasn’t, like, musically talented. My dad really wanted me to go to college whenever I got out of high school, and so that’s where I was thinking, I don’t know what I would even go to college for.
Of course, education in the arts was helpful to figure out process-related stuff and to learn about different ways to do things. But [at the time], I thought I didn’t need to go to college to be an artist. I can just be poor and make art in my basement without racking up a bunch of student debt.
My dad was a veteran – a military veteran – so we had military benefits and he was like, dude, you should go to college. He didn’t get the opportunity, so it was one of those things where he wanted me to take advantage of the opportunities that he didn’t have.
I half-heartedly applied to some art schools. I didn’t get accepted. I put my portfolio in and it just wasn’t really that strong. I guess I just wasn’t that great of an artist. I ended up going to community college, thinking, well, I can do a couple years there, figure out maybe what my focus is gonna be, and then figure out if I’m gonna transfer or, you know, figure out where I’m gonna go on this art path. And, actually, it worked out pretty well, because my first semester, I just… loaded it up. I thought, I’m just gonna try to do as much as I can and then see where it goes!
So, I took photography classes and design classes, and then the minimum amount of required things. I had a creative writing class and I had an algebra class. Just the most basic math class you could possibly take in college ’cause I was horrible at anything other than basic math.
M: [laughs] That was me.
In my photography class, one of the first assignments that we had was to go out into “the world” and take photos of a process being done. I wasn’t really getting tattooed at that point, but my friends were, and I was getting a lot of piercings, and I’d grown up around my dad always getting tattooed, so it was something I was very familiar with.
I lived in a small town, so there was one tattoo shop in the whole town. And I was like man, it would be really cool to go take photos of the tattoo shop.
These photos that are up here on the wall are the photos that came from that assignment. I took photos of the guys tattooing, I took photos of them drawing and preparing things; and actually, those photos and that assignment was what led me to establish a deeper relationship with the artist that worked at the studio.
Come to find out, they were short-handed in the studio; they didn’t have anybody helping out up front. They were also doing a remodel to make the shop larger and eventually bring on more artists. I’d never considered tattooing as an art career path up until that moment when I did the photos. It was a culmination of moments.
I was like, Oh man! I’m going to school for art. You know, I’d never really considered tattooing, but I think that would be so cool.
[The owner] was like, yeah, everybody thinks tattooing is cool. But, you know, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not all fun and games, and he basically shot me down.
I couldn’t sleep that night because I kind of fell in love with the idea of learning how to tattoo. It was kind of everything that I was looking for; it was a way to make art. I was not super social, but I was good at communicating and connecting with people in some of the jobs that I had, so I thought that it would be a good way to work with people, but also do my own thing.
So, I just showed up the next day. I think I had to go to school the next day. And then, after school, I just showed back up at the tattoo shop and [the owner] was like, you were just here last night — ‘cause I had been there with a friend of mine — and he was like, did you leave something, or…?
And I was like, no, you said you were short-handed here. I figured I could come by and help or something.
And he was like, nah, man, I don’t really have time to mess around with you. I’m trying to get this appointment started; I don’t know about all of that.
And I was like, yeah, well, your trash is overflowing, your floor is filthy, and the phone won’t stop ringing out front. Maybe I could help.
And he goes, yeah, whatever, man, so I just kept doing that. I kept showing up. And long story not to be made longer, I just kept showing up.
I got sick one week and didn’t show up for a week. I was kinda burnt out ‘cause I was workin’ a full-time job, I was going to school, and I was spending all my free time at the tattoo shop. I was just beat up and tired.
When I finally came back, they were like, what the f---, man? Where have you been? We could have used your help!
And I was like, man, I don’t even work here. I just, like, hang out here like I’m your groupie or whatever. [laughs] But, you know, if you guys really need me, maybe we could actually work out a more permanent arrangement. I don’t even want money. I just want an opportunity to learn how to tattoo. If you guys can give me something, then I’ll commit myself even more to this.
And so, we agreed.
I was in my second semester of school at that point. I quit going to school at the end of the semester, I quit my day job, and then I got a job working third shift at a distribution warehouse packing boxes and all that stuff.
So, I worked the midnight shift to make money, then I would leave there, go home and sleep for a few hours, and then go to the tattoo shop. I did that for a long time. It was probably for about, eh, I don’t know, eight to nine months, so not a terribly long time; but I was really just burning the candle at both ends.
It was about eight to nine months before I finally got tattoo equipment in my hand and did my first tattoo on one of my friends.
M: That’s exciting!
Hopefully you don’t have a ton of questions like that because this interview is gonna take freakin’ forever. [laughs]
But that’s my story and I’m really excited to talk about it, because I feel like I got lucky in a lot of ways, you know? Things just kind of clicked together and that was what led me to everything awesome in the tattoo and art-related sphere that I’m involved in now.
D: So, what was that first tattoo that you did?
It was a [small] solid black tribal dragon thing on one of my friends. I remember my first one. I don’t remember my second or third one, but I remember that one, you know?
[The shop] was like an old school-style tattoo shop. So when you walk in, there was this pit, like a half-wall. Or at least that’s how big it was at that point ’till they made their renovations.
My first tattoo was on a busy Friday night, and they put me by the door. So, I’m tattooing my friend – it’s my first tattoo, and I’m sweating ’cause it was hot and there’s people walking in, and they’re standing there along the half-wall, lookin’ through flash and watching me do this tattoo and I’m like, please don’t look at me. I’m f---in’ dying right now. [laughs]
And after that, there was no shortage of people to practice tattooing on — friends, and friends of friends. My dad came in and got tattooed a bunch of times, my sister… so it was cool. I had a lot of people who were stoked about it and supported me; and I did a lot of bad tattoos on those people, which sucks because they’re all my friends and shit, so I have to see that stuff, but they all cherish [those tattoos].
M: Yeah, it’s meaningful.
Years after I did some of my first tattoos on my dad, we would be out in public and he would show people saying, my boy did this! And I’m like, stop showing people those tattoos, man! They’re so regrettable! [laughs]
He was just so proud about it, you know? But I was still like, dude, you gotta stop. Please stop showing them.
D: Yeah, like, thank you for supporting me, but no. [laughs]
Yeah, please don’t show anybody else.
M: Do you have any plans to cover them up?
No. Well, my dad’s passed away now, so I lost my chance to cover them up. But we did cooler tattoos on him. I got a little bit of redemption there, you know? I did some cool pieces on him that I was proud for him to show people.
The friends of mine who still have really early work, they’re just like, yeah, dude, there’s no way I’m covering this up, ‘cause they just see it as a part of my journey. And that’s kinda how I feel about some of the tattoos that I have that aren’t great, you know? I’ve thought about covering them up, but at the same time, they all have a story; they’re all like a reference to a point in time.
D: And if you went back in time, you’d get the same tattoos over again.
Mmmmmmm, maybe not. [laughs] But at this point, I don’t have anything I regret that much that I [feel like I] can’t have on my body anymore… nothing that’s fundamentally against what I stand for or anything like that. They’re just pieces that are “eh.” Not the best, you know?
D: So, now you specialize in mandala, floral, geometric, and ornamental kind of tattoos. Has that always been the case or is that something that’s been honed and more focused over time?
That’s definitely something that developed over time. When I first got into tattooing, I kinda did whatever came my way. So, there were many years up front where I was working in busy street shops and I was just taking anything that came in the door, and then trying to take whatever reference the client gave me and make it better in some way, whatever that meant for that piece.
Then magazines started featuring a lot of the photo-realism guys. A lot of people were doing photo-realism, whether it was realistic flowers or there were tons of portrait artists that were starting to become well-publicized. So, I kind of fell in love with the idea of rendering things as realistic as possible on skin; I started really pushing for that.
I remember I went to a convention and I got tattooed by Paul Acker who does stuff in that horror genre — still does, still killin’ it — and I came back from that convention like, I wanna do everything that Paul Acker’s doin’! I wanna do horror portraits! I printed out all these references and made a whole book of just stuff that I thought was really cool.
Girls would come in and be like, oh, I want this flower! And I’d be like, I’m tryin’ to do this f---in zombie, you want a zombie?! [laughs]
For some people, it actually worked. They’d be like, aw man, whatever you’re into! I’ll do that!
So, I started pushing in that direction and did the horror realism genre for a while and I really had a lot of fun with that; but then I got bored of the horror stuff, so it kinda morphed into regular portraits or other stuff that was realistically rendered.
Then I remember really wanting to get into more botanical stuff and wanting to get better at drawing flowers; so, I went to the craft store, I purchased fake flowers, I got books on how to draw flowers better, and started developing and playing with that. At the same time, I noticed that my realistic work wasn’t super photo realistic; I was kind of adding a little bit more. I was making the colors more vibrant, or I was pushing the contrast, or playing around with it a little bit.
I started to become influenced by the Art Nouveau style, which really incorporates a lot of swirly kind of elements that move through the piece, and bolder illustrational graphic lines. So, my work went from being more realistic and moved more into that graphic, illustrational look.
I went from no lines to adding more lines and more contrast and playing around with that. After doing that for a while, I started adding so many lines and simplifying things a bit to the point where these realistic flowers kind of started flattening out and looking a little bit more like mandalas. Then, I just remember one day someone was just like, oh man, I really like those mandala flowers you’ve been drawing, and I was like, what are you talking about?
They were like, yeah, they look like mandalas!
And I never really considered that.
It was just something that started manifesting in my work for one reason or another. It was the direction that was making me happy at that point, and I thought, well, f--- it, I’m gonna embrace that.
I started really pushing that further, studying mandala art and looking at that imagery; that’s when I started to pay a little more attention to the blackwork guys that were not doing color work at all. They were using a lot of different shading techniques, you know, specifically like dot work, instead of the smooth shading I was doing up until that point.
I started moving in that direction and that’s what got me into the style that I do now, where — I’ve still held onto the floral element — I’ll do the realistic flowers, the mandalas, and stuff like that.
Throughout all those transitions, I would notice me moving in one direction and then try to influence all my clients in that direction, like, hey, what do you think about doing it this way?
Usually people were pretty cool about it; when people bring you an idea, they want you to bring some of yourself as an artist into that idea. I just get really passionate about things; I just go really hard and I’m like, this is what I’m doing! So much to the point where, a few years ago, I deleted my website and 98 percent of the images off my Instagram. I got rid of everything and then just re-uploaded black & gray work. I was like, I’m not doing color anymore.
I had people who were really mad about that decision. They were like, what the f---, man? I’ve been waiting to get tattooed by you forever and now you’re not doing color.
I just feel like I have to do what makes me happy, what keeps me passionate and interested. Otherwise, I get bored and complacent, and I don’t feel good about producing work.
So, yeah, I mean, tattooing is a collaboration between the client and the artist, but for me to feel authentic as an artist, I have to follow whatever is making me happy at the moment.
D: I think that’s important for being an artist in general.
Even aside from being an artist, just as a human, you know? I feel like a lot of people don’t take the opportunity to just be selfish and “do them,” because they have this “story” about how life is supposed to be or what they need to sacrifice to be a good person and do this or that.
I feel like a lot of people don’t follow through on their passions, because they’re like, well, if I do that, then I’m not fulfilling this story that I’ve made in my head, you know? So, it’d be really easy for me to think that I can’t indulge that side of my art because, I have to do “this.” Like, this is my story. This is my dialogue, you know? I feel like if more people just said, f--- it, and got selfish, and really just followed their passions, we’d have a lot more—
D: —A lot more creativity, for sure.
A lot more creativity and, I think, just a healthier culture overall, you know?
You tattoo people for hours on end, you get in these conversations with people, and there are so many people who aren’t doing things that they’re passionate about. They hate their jobs, or they hate the path that they’re on, and I ask, if you didn’t have to worry about money, or you didn’t have to worry about your kids or your wife or what your parents thought about you, or what your grandparents think you should do, what would you do?
It’s weird because a lot of people haven’t really thought about it like that, so they have a hard time answering that question, or they just say some epic shit, like I would travel for a living, or I would just work out and f---in’ do that for a living. People are doing that. People make a living just doing that.
D: Well, you just answered two of my questions in one. I was actually going to ask if you think it’s important that an artist makes selfish moves. I noticed on your website [you said] you took a hiatus from new projects to create your own designs?
D: Yeah, I was gonna ask what your goals are for those designs.
I always feel like I’m trying to create this buffer between me and the world. That same line of thought, I have a hard time when I start to feel myself just doing things because I feel like I should. I hate that feeling, and we all kind of fall into that. We just show up and do it because we’re s’posed to. By no means is my job or my creativity oppressive to me, but when there’s something that’s just not clicking or something I’m bored with, I feel like have to switch it up and make some changes.
So, the “hiatus” from taking on a lot of new projects is me creating that buffer and being like, okay, I just need some time to work this out.
The problem that I find is I’m fortunate enough to be busy — I have a good demand for my work — but, if I’m too busy creating for clients all the time, I don’t have enough time to create for myself. I always feel an obligation to my clients to give them what they’re coming to me for; so, if you come to me and we make an agreement that I’m going to make a tattoo for you, I’m thinking, they’re coming to me based on what they’ve seen me put out, right? [But] what they’re expecting to get from me whenever they come, or my idea of what they’re expecting… who knows what the hell they’re expecting?
And me generating the artwork for their project, I’m managing this idea in my head about what they want, but also trying to push a little bit further to create something I haven’t created before. So, there’s a calculated risk there; I can push it a little bit, or I can take some risk. I can go out on a limb a little bit and say, I know you didn’t ask for this and I know I’ve never done this before in my portfolio, but I thought this would be a cool element to put in there.
I’m always trying to take a little bit of risk when I’m creating a new design, but there’s only so much risk. If I have a whole week of appointments that I have to design for, I can’t be like, f--- it, I’m just gonna design whatever I want for six people and then send [those designs] out for them to say, I hate it. That’s nothing like what I asked for, or, that’s not what your work looks like.
[There are] a good portion of people that I take those risks with and they’re really receptive to it, and they’re like, oh man, it’s awesome. I never considered doing it that way, or, I love that you put that in there.
But then there’s an equal amount of people, if not more, that will kick back and say, no, I just want it to be like this, or, I want it to be like that other piece that you posted.
So, for me, just stepping back every once in a while, slowing it down, putting the brakes on, and creating artwork without a client that I’m designing for allows me a little bit of that space to play, take risks, and just create. The biggest challenge in that is getting out of my own head enough to actually do that, because no matter what, I’m still generating art and hoping that people will like it somewhere down the road.
It’s like a game that I’m playing, trying to take my own advice and just “doing me.” I just always feel like I’m compromising somehow. No matter how much I talk myself into thinking, you don’t have anyone you’re designing for this week. Just design something cool, I’ll think, everybody’s gonna hate it, you know what I’m saying?
D: Yeah. Do you ever go back to your old ways and do horror tattoos?
Wait, have I?
YES! I DID!
A friend of mine from the gym approached me — he knew that I was a tattooer — and he was like, hey man, I know you have a lot of good artists in your studio, but I really like your work. I’m lookin’ to get this portrait of Jason Vorhees. Who would you recommend to do that?
I listed off a few artists in the area who might be able to do it. Then I was like, if you wanna travel, there’s so many people. But your idea sounds really cool. I haven’t done a horror portrait in forever and by no means do I want you to feel obligated to get it [done] by me, but I’d love to do that just to mix things up. Full disclosure, I probably won’t put it in my portfolio, so it probably won’t be published, but I’d love to do it.
And he was like, aw man, that’s so awesome. Let’s do it!
That was maybe like a month and a half ago. Yeah, so, I designed the piece and sent it over to him. He was like, that’s awesome, so he came in and got it. It’s super cool; it turned out rad.
D: Was it Jason Vorhees with the mask on or mask off?
It was with the mask on.
D: He has the grossest face.
Yeah, I feel like that would be super challenging to tattoo. You know, all the crazy—
D: —Yeah, there’s a lot going on.
There’s a whole lot. Yeah. [laughs] We did it with the mask on, and the machete, and there was a reflection of this girl gasping in the machete…
D: And blood on the machete?
Of course. [laughs]
Yeah, there was blood, and in the shine and reflection of the blood, there was this girl’s face, like, ahhhh!
D: [laughs] That’s amazing.
[So there was] that and then some other influences I’ve been taking in recently. Also, the few years that I’ve just done black & gray stuff, I’ve been feeling like I wanna bring some color back into my work, so that’s kind of what I’ve been playing around with recently. And who knows? Maybe that [Jason Vorhees tattoo] was a catalyst for some of the changes that I’m making now. It was fun to do something a little different that I haven’t done in a while and kinda play around with some new stuff.
M: It seems like everything so far in your journey comes about organically … so, for example when you first got into tattooing, you were volunteering your whole time to this one shop in hopes of getting a little bit back from them to learn and get the opportunity from them… and when you were talking about how you got into mandalas, you were just playing around, doing different things, and then somebody was like, hey, I love these mandala flowers… it all just happened organically. I think that’s really awesome and a recurring thing with your progress to where you are now. That’s really cool.
Yeah. I’ve just been kind of following it and seeing where it goes, you know?
D: So, as a risk-taker, what inspired you to open your own studio?
M: Yeah, what made you transition from just being an artist at somebody else’s shop to opening up your own spot?
I never had any intentions or ambitions of owning a business or my own studio. It just wasn’t on my radar. It was bigger than what I had ever… I was just happy to be making art for a living, know what I mean? You know, like, college dropout – well, college dropout to learn how to tattoo.
I worked in that first shop for a while, but not that long. Then, I met my wife.
So, the first shop that I worked at was up in Pennsylvania. That’s where most of my time growing up was spent. I was kind of here and there, but I graduated from high school in small-town Pennsylvania and started to tattoo there. My wife lived down here in Maryland and I met her through my stepsister. It was not long after I met her that I had just fallen in love with her.
I would get off of my third shift job at six o’clock in the morning; I would drive to Maryland (an hour and a half) to just crash at my girlfriend’s house, just because I wanted to see her. Then I’d wake up with an hour and a half to spare so I could drive back to Pennsylvania to go to the tattoo shop. So, I did that several times a week for a while: work all night, drive to Maryland, crash… just to sleep! Just to be like, I’m sleeping next to you! And then go back home and work; and she would come up whenever she could, too, but she was working full time and she was finishing up college.
I had fallen in love with her and I was like, I have to be closer to her; well, f--- it, I can tattoo anywhere.
I was super cocky; it was stupid. So, I made plans to move down here, and I did! I just rolled out and moved all my shit. I didn’t, you know, move in with my girlfriend right away, because that’s just too much pressure. I put all my stuff at my step-sister’s house and paid her rent, but I never ended up staying there. It was the first night, and my girlfriend – or my wife, now, I keep saying girlfriend, but you know what I’m saying; [it’s a] timeline thing [laughs] — my wife was like, oh, it’s your first night down here. You can just crash at my house.
I had slept there before. It wasn’t anything crazy. So, I went over, and then I just never left.
I didn’t secure a job before I moved down. It was super reckless and stupid. I mean, it was quick. We [my wife and I] met, we hit it off, and I moved. Then I was like, now what?!
I ended up getting a job delivering pizzas when I first moved down here, and then started to get to know the city. I had a couple other odd jobs just to make money, and finally landed a gig in a shop up by Baltimore city. It really wasn’t the best shop. I worked there for a while and then I ended up working at another shop, and the problem that I was having was that I wasn’t a great tattoo artist at that point. My portfolio was small. It wasn’t awesome. It was passable; I was doing decent tattoos, but no one was like, f--- yeah, we’ve gotta get that guy to work here!
It was the middle of the slow season. It was cold outside, and nobody was trying to hire, so my options for shops (I felt) were limited. I was having a hard time getting into the better known shops with the more serious artists, so I was kind of stuck in this place where I was just working in these lower-level street shops, which is fine; but the guys that I was working with, they were just nothing like the guys that I learned how to tattoo from up in Pennsylvania. I had become really good friends with those guys and it was really weird leaving that environment, because there was nothing wrong. It was awesome.
[When I left], they were like, what the f--- do you mean, you’re just now learning how to tattoo and you’re rolling out?
And I told them, I have to.
So, the couple shops that I was working in when I first moved down here… I just didn’t vibe with the guys I was working with. They had different values than I did. They weren’t in tattooing because they wanted to be good artists. It was just, like, a “thing” that they did. They were kind of like, oh, this is cool. This is a way to make money. They just didn’t seem to be passionate, and they were definitely doing some things that were contrary to my own beliefs and ideals. Looking at the guys that owned these shops, I was thinking, man, these guys are not great people, you know? And they’re not great business men, either. That gives me hope. Maybe I could open up my own shop.
After watching these guys who had had shops in the area for years, and I was like, f--- it. If they can do it, why can’t I? I was 23, and I was broke; but I was gonna do it. No matter how it has to happen, I’m gonna do it.
So, I did. I had a falling out with the artist at the last shop that I worked at, when I worked for somebody else. They basically put my shit on the curb, and said, you can roll if you don’t like it here. We got in this verbal altercation and I left.
There’s a whole story behind that, too. That’s what led me to doing my own thing. I wanted to create my own space that I could create in, I could play by my own rules, and I could hire the people that I really wanted to work with — like, hold out and only bring people on that I wanted to surround myself with, because I think that’s really important.
That was the goal of Tattooed Heart from day one; it was to create a custom tattoo environment that was centered around customer service, and filled with artists who are passionate about making art, and being nice to people—
D: Reflecting your values as an artist.
And that’s not to say there aren’t shops like that in the area. There are awesome shops in this area, but at that point [when I first started] my skillset and the people that I knew… well, I didn’t know anybody. I was still pretty young and pretty new to the scene down here. I was using what I had and I knew I was all I’ve got, you know?
I opened up [my own shop] by myself, thinking, I’m here, and the rest will follow! I figured I would just grind away, and eventually I would attract the right people; and twelve years later… here we are.
D: Yeah, what were the early days like? How many artists did you have on staff? What was your client base like?
Early days, when I first opened up, it was [just] me. I rented this 1,500 square foot unit in a beat-up strip mall in Glen Burnie, and before I took it over, it was a tax attorney’s office, or an accountant’s, whatever. There were already a few offices built out inside of it, so I was thinking, man, I could turn those into tattoo rooms easily!
I went in and ripped all the old stuff out, put a nice floor in, repainted, put a counter in, and I was like, boom! I’ve got a tattoo shop!
So, it was just me. I worked seven days a week. Every day, all day. I did a lot of, I guess what you would call “grassroots marketing.” Like, I went to shows, and I drove around after work late at night when the kids were hanging out in parking lots.
I remember driving up to people that were, like, ten cars deep, hanging out in a McDonald’s parking lot just chillin’; and I’d be like [claps] hey, man! I had these crappy flyers that I printed at Kinko’s, with crappy graphics and just terrible designs with the logo that I put together.
I just went out and talked to people, like, “I just opened up a shop around the corner here, right now it’s just me, but I’m gonna have more artists, and I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do that. You should come get tattooed!”
People started rolling in. And I had a friend of mine who was pretty internet savvy. She made me a MySpace profile. I didn’t have any social media at that point. We added a whole bunch of people in the area and got people in the door, and, so that’s kind of what started it all.
Then I found someone who came in and did body piercing, and slowly I had artists come by and ask, hey, you lookin’ for somebody? I just left a shop or I wanna leave a shop! Eventually, we got to the point in the old space where we were totally outgrowing it, and that’s when it was time to look for a new space and open up.
D: Well, here we are. And it’s beautiful!
Yeah it is, I feel super awesome to work in this space… super grateful. I was gonna say “blessed,” but that’s such a weird word. Everybody’s like, I feel super hashtag blessed.
D: [laughs] Yeah, when I catch myself saying “blessed,” I’m like ugh, did I just say that?
[laughs] Grateful. I’m grateful. Yeah, it’s just cool to look back and reflect on the journey.
D: It was all because of your determination and shouldering the marketing on your own.
Yeah, I mean, for me, there was no other option. Like, I was gonna tattoo. I wanted my own space, so I didn’t really see any other option. I could either do it or not, you know?
D: Yeah, it’s either sit and think about it or just go ahead and do it.
Yeah, and my wife was really supportive throughout the whole thing. We were so broke. I did everything I could to pull some money together, and then max out all the credit that we could get, just to get a spot and build it out.
M: Being a business owner is definitely tough financially. A lot of people think of it as a measure of success, and it is in a way, but there are a lot of financial concerns and things that come up. You’re left at your wit’s end sometimes, and you don’t know what to do; but, again, here you are, and your determination paid off! I think grassroots marketing goes a long way. I was reading up on the Sullen guys, and a lot of big names in the industry got [there] because they had the dedication to go out late at night and sticker bomb the city; and, you know, that’s what pays off. It definitely shows—
D. —And MySpace marketing!
MySpace, man! Yeah!
D: I remember the MySpace days. [laughs]
Yeah, I mean, we did really well. Now, it’s evolved. Facebook was okay… but Instagram, man. Instagram was just made for photographers and tattooers, you know? And food photos. [laughs]
But yeah, dude, we kill it on Instagram. It’s just such a great place for us to put our work out there; and the great thing is you can connect to people all over the place. Now it’s kind of afforded us the opportunity to connect with people in different countries or all the way across the country. We can travel and be like, hey, is anybody out there in California that wants to get tattooed?
We’ve been able to connect with people locally, but then also get even further out. Just would’ve never had the opportunity to before.
D: So, do you have any goals for Tattoo Heart Studios as a whole, or is it all personal artist goals?
You talking about for everybody here or for me personally, or…?
For me, it’s always about everybody. It’s always about the studio. Whenever I talk about the shop, I always use “we.” We’re gonna do this, you know? People that I often talk to don’t realize that I own the place. I position myself as one of the artists, so, it’s kind of funny [when] people are like, oh, wait, do you own this place? And I’m like, yeah, I own it!
But, it was never… I mean, it is selfishly about me, right? Because I wanted to create my own space and I wanted to do all this, and all that stuff is what fueled the monster. Well, it’s not a monster. [laughs] You know what I’m saying; it’s what fueled the beast!!!
But, it’s [also] always been about creating a place that harbored other artists, [a place] that helped grow other people. Everything I do is always to help everybody here reach the next level, whatever that is.
If somebody is trying to create a breakthrough in their art, or they’re struggling to figure out one thing or another, it’s like, okay, let’s figure out how to do that.
I’ve always tried to be as much of a resource for the artists that work here as I can:
“What do you need?”
“What are you lacking?”
“What can I do to help you?”
I spend a lot of time considering that.
Really, right now, the goal for this year for the first time ever… we have everybody in the studio doing several tattoo conventions across the country together. So, in the past, I’ll go do conventions, or me and maybe another artist will do it, but this year, I told them I wanted us all to be in on it. We’re going to do a core group of shows together. [I have] a couple of other events and stuff that I’m doing on my own and with one or two other artists, but I wanted to get everybody to the place where we’re all going on the road together. We’re doing this as a team.
D: That’s awesome.
That’s the big thing this year, and then just working one-on-one with people, [asking] “What do you need?”
D: That’s a great mentality to have.
We all feed off each other and grow together, and it wasn’t [all] my idea. Recently, one of the girls had the idea to do group critiques. [The artists] really liked the idea of getting together once a month or once every couple months, and critiquing each other’s work, just straight-up, here’s what I’m proud of that I made this month. Now, rip it apart. Tell me how I can do it better.
So, we do that, and that’s been really cool, because you know you have to show up to the next critique, and be like, I took what you said last time and here’s what I did with it. Now, rip this apart, and let’s see where it goes from there.
A while ago, I established these “Second Tuesday” days. The second Tuesday of every month, nobody books appointments. Nobody works those days. We just do shop field trip kind of stuff, you know? We’ve gone and done all kinds of things together, like, we all shot guns and raced go-karts; we’ve all gone to art museums; and some days, we’ll just go out to lunch; and then we’ll come back here and just draw or jam out. So, it’s kind of like a team building thing. All of us just take a day that we would typically work and go hang out.
I feel like that’s made us more of a unit; it’s allowed us time to chill and connect a little bit deeper as a team, as a group of people.
D: That’s really unique and awesome for a tattoo studio.
Yeah, everybody here has a fine art base. Most of the artists here are classically trained fine art college graduates, so a lot of them are used to making art, then putting it out, doing critiques, and using that as a way to get better and to push [themselves].
Every piece of art that we do, it goes out into the world, right? And we try to put our best into it. But it’s another thing to sit down with a group of your peers and ask them to openly tell say what they don’t like about [your art].
So, I think some of us were a little nervous to do it, because we’re like, ehhh, I’d rather not know. [laughs]
It’s been super helpful though, and everybody has been really supportive of each other. I think it has been really great for the crew.
D: Criticism is really uncomfortable at first, but it’s important for overall development. We [Danny and Meeseun] do that a lot with our writing.
M: Yeah, we do.
D: We call each other the Watermelon Team.
Yeah? What’s up with that? The Watermelon Team?
M: I don’t even know how that came about.
D: I edited something in pink font and you edited it in green.
M: So, whenever we have copy to write for the company, we always put everything on Google, just because it’s easy to share, easy to access, and it’s also easy to keep track of any changes or any edits that we have. So I think it’s actually Google that automatically makes one user green and one user’s comments pink, so he [Danny] was like, “We’re the Watermelon Team!”
D: I put a watermelon icon in the company style guide… which is super professional. [laughs] But it’s cute.
M: We’ve come to embrace you and all of your “things.”
D: Do you ever find it’s difficult or stressful to strike a balance between being a business owner and being an artist?
At the same time, I feel like I have a good multi-faceted personality in that way, where I can be super creative, or I can be super-business and hit the books. I can be super-Zen and chilled out or I can also be super freakin’ crazy; I have all those different things that live inside me and they all manifest in different ways. I feel like that works really well [for] being a creative and a business owner.
Sometimes, it’s easier to flip-flop back and forth between the two. I try to manage my time by “blocking out” chunks of time. I use certain days or time blocks for different purposes, and I have it all laid out on my schedule.
So, I’ll have certain times that I sit down to do taxing, accounting, pay roll, and all that stuff that nobody really wants to do; and then I have times that I dedicate to making art or just tattooing people. I’ve gotten pretty good at managing my time in that regard.
My calendar, if you look at it, is like a template, basically. I built a whole time management thing that sits behind my calendar and it’s like, this is when you sleep. This is when you wake up.
It looks regimented when you look at it, but there’s enough flex in there that gives me enough time to get [things done by a certain] point in time, which I’ve found works pretty well for me right now; like, okay, this is email time. Even if I don’t answer emails, this is the time that I have to do it.
D: We’ve talked a lot about your journey as an artist and art in general, and this is kind of a cliché question, but what is your favorite part about being a tattoo artist, and artist in general?
My favorite part about being a tattoo artist?
D: It’s very general, so feel creative.
My favorite part is the people, you know? And the unexpected conversations that I have with people and the unexpected ways that people influence my life; which is funny because they come to me wanting to take something. But I feel like I get something from everybody that I design for, and a lot of the stuff that has happened to me, or come to me, or the changes that I have made have been [from] conversations with clients. Being inspired by things that they’re doing, or maybe [even] some epic food that they tried and I’m like, yes, I wanna try that, you know?
I’m not thinking of it like, I wanna extract something, you know? But I try to engage in those kinds of conversations with people.
And some people? Eh, it’s just a tattoo session.
My favorite part is those tattoo sessions where I walk away with something like, man, that just changed my life. It’s everything: the way people talk about their family or their job, or I had a client a few years ago named Ben; he came in to get a little mandala piece and we started talking about this cross-country road trip that he was taking and I was like, I wanna do that!
The next summer, we took this cross-country road trip, and it was epic. And right now, we’re planning for an even bigger, crazier cross-country trip.
So, it’s things like that. When you hear somebody talk about something, it almost gives you permission to try it. It’s like, shit, man, they did it, I should do that, too!
I’m all about collecting experiences. And then I love reaching back out to them and being like, dude you changed my life that day. You know? Like just dropping people random emails, and saying, “Thank you.”
D: Well, I think that’s all we’ve got for you. Thank you so much for having us.
M: Yeah thank you so much.
Yeah, no doubt.
D: And thank you for letting us sit on these comfy Overstock couches.