Meeseun (PP): First of all, thank you for having us come by today. I guess it wasn't too short of a notice, but it was something that we coordinated just in the last couple weeks.
Ava Khalsa: (General Manager): Any time!
M: The flexibility is much appreciated.
Capt.Gordon (Owner of Time Bomb): Well, fortunately, we live right upstairs, so that makes life a bit easier. [laughs]
Ava: Rolled outta bed, came downstairs. [laughs]
Danny (PP): So, Capt.Gordon, my friend, how did you get your start as a tattoo and piercing artist?
Capt.Gordon: Basically, I got tattooed with a bunch of friends of mine right before I graduated high school. Actually, back up. I was originally gonna get tattooed when I was 15. My dad totally gave me the “okay” and what have you; and that particular artist gave me all the right reasons to wait till I was 18. He was like, “Dude, your body’s not done growing. It’s gonna be distorted, faded...” all these things. So, I was like, “Alright, I’ll wait until I’m 18.”
18 comes around, friends are gettin’ tattooed by this local guy, he was kind of underground or whatever, so we all went together and got tattooed by this guy. I walked away from it feeling like the tattoo that I had just received was not exactly the quality I was hoping for and I felt like I could personally do better. I was a bit mistaken about my ego and my capabilities at the time because it certainly is a lot harder than it seemed. Nonetheless, that was the impetus to get me moving and going after getting tattooed by him.
A little while later, I ended up getting in trouble with the police and things of that nature, and I was essentially on house arrest. My family was like, “You need to pay for lawyers and such. We’re not gonna do it for you.” So, making money while strapped to a particular location is not the easiest thing to do, especially when you’re a teenager, so I said I would do what I could and tattooing was a part of that equation. I was definitely able to get people to come to me—
Ava: —you ordered up from Huck’s… from the magazine?
Capt.Gordon: Oh, yeah, we had the whole Huck Spaulding, old school, A-to-Z and all that neat stuff, you know… But again, it didn’t take long for me to figure out the folly of some of my ways and it took me a little while to get into a studio. I knocked on at least 15 different doors and was told “no.”
D: Really? Any particular reason?
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, well, back then, sharing information was just a no-no. It was a highly secretive, coveted craft and art form. People did not want to divulge that information, they did not want new people in the business. So, it was a big issue back then, and granted, that was almost 27 years ago.
Ava: The Captain is a lot older than he looks! This is pre-internet...
M: We talking like early ’90s?
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, I started in ’92.
D: I was born in ’93. I’m a baby.
Capt.Gordon: Yup, I graduated high school in ’92 and that was it. Fortunately, I had health care workers and doctors on all sides of the family. Both of my grandfathers were doctors, my dad was a lab tech for the Red Cross, and I did an internship with Comsat Labs down the road here, so I had familiarity with clean-room processes and body health safety. I was really, really fortunate to have those types of backgrounds to grow up around, because even back then there wasn’t much information sharing on that front, unless you were directly in the medical field.
Ava: It was less common knowledge than a lot of people feel like these days.
Capt.Gordon: Fortunately, it’s come around. [laughs] Education is a thing now.
D: So, when you finally got a studio to pick you up was that just because of your charm and charisma or was it [something else]?
Capt.Gordon: I had to audition so to speak, and this was for Capital Easy Riders, which… the Easy Rider’s organization is owned by the Hell’s Angels corporately. So, I go there and this guy named Smokey, who’s this big hulky Native American guy, [basically] your stereotypical hardcore biker guy.
D: I love his name.
Capt.Gordon: Right? Smokey sits down and he says, “Alright, you’re gonna tattoo me.” And he wants Rafiki’s face from The Lion King, right?
Capt.Gordon: [He wants it] on the inside of his arm. And so I was like, “Okay, cool, man,” and start setting things up. Then he goes and sits down, and he pulls out this little bat, which actually... [rolls chair to a drawer] is this [presents bat]
Capt.Gordon: —which he has now gifted me.
D: It’s so cute!
Capt.Gordon: Oh yeah, it’s real cute when he sets it down like that next to the station, you know what I mean? And I said, “So... what’s up with that?” And he picks it up and smashes it down on this pretty hard table top. I mean, it was [loud]. Everyone in the place was like, “Holy moley!” And he goes, “That’s what’s going to happen to you if you fuck this up.”
D: Oh my God.
Capt.Gordon: [laughs] And I said, “Well, good thing I’m not going to fuck this up.”
Ava: And he didn’t!
Capt.Gordon: And I didn’t! And the rest is history. I was with those guys for about a year. And really, in that situation, Aaron Kroll was also tattooing there and he was one of the guys that kind of nudged Smokey into letting me in. Then, after being there for a little while, I heard about a shop that had just opened up here in Frederick. I’m from Frederick and I know this area a little more.
So, I went to check it out, and Jerry Thomas owned it. He managed all of J.D. Crowe’s studios, if you’re familiar with him. [J.D. Crowe] did all the tattoo brand flash, which was hugely, like, worldwide popular through the 80s and 90s. Actually, J.D. just started touring with his stuff again recently, but he also had some of the first big, successful tattoo conventions that occurred. He did the Tattoo Tour, so I respected [him] a lot. And Jerry really turned me around. In a matter of two weeks, he showed me so many things that were just outside my periphery.
Ava: And [the captain] had already been tattooing a couple of years [at that point].
Capt.Gordon: Oh yeah, by that time I’d already been tattooing for three years. I’d already been tattooing, but you know, underground for a little while and then with Easy Riders for roughly three years.
Ava: And did you go into that shop as the manager?
Capt.Gordon: No. But I did become manager there for a good while and that’s when I also started my own companies. Jerry wasn’t too keen on the idea of body piercing, and actually when I came on board with him, he said, “There will be no body piercing here.” He was just afraid of the liability components of it, and back then it was a newer thing, right? Like, there wasn’t a crazy amount of body piercing studios out there at that time, but there was someone here that was the only shop that was just virtually butchering people, and I had so many of my clients coming to me, like, “Hey, where can I go that isn’t this guy?”
Ava: It was another case of, “I can do this better!”
Capt.Gordon: Right, so I started with Chris Keaton and he started teaching me some things. He owns the Baltimore Tattoo Museum. He was a rock-solid piercer back then. I don’t think he messes as much with it anymore; he’s more tattoo-focused, but he worked with me at Easy Riders and that sort of thing, so I learned a bit from him. Then I continued my education with Fakir Musafar, who recently passed away in San Francisco.
That’s how I started migrating towards that whole thing and they changed the highway systems around here so our location kinda got routed around, so I was like, “Look, we gotta move shop.”
So, I moved us down here to 415 North Market Street, where Tattoo Alchemy currently is, and I was there running body piercing and managing the tattooing. I ended up getting this greater education from Fakir and some other guys in the realm of scarification—
Ava: —more heavy mods, genital piercings, that sort of thing—
Capt.Gordon: —yeah. When I got back from that, Jerry got really scared and didn’t want those things happening under his roof, so to speak, even though we were sharing everything 50/50. He came at me with some interesting stuff... wanted me to start paying more and all this other stuff. I was like, “Look, that’s not our arrangement. That’s not what we’re gonna do.” So, he and I ultimately parted ways.
That moved forward and I spent a good six months renovating the new location. We were in that place for a good five years, at the corner of 4th and North Market, 343. Then, the housing bubble came and unfortunately blew us right out of that place. A guy bought the building and then immediately tripled our rent. And we were like, “Okay, we can’t stay here!” [laughs]
So, we went into a much smaller location directly across the street at 342. We ended up being there for about 11 to 12 years. But, that is the location where, even though it was much smaller, it visually had a certain majesty to it that I dug and liked. It had this “ancient temple” feel. You can see some of the inside and the outside of that shop if you check out the Hori Smoku videos, which is the Sailor Jerry documentary. We had Zeke Owen working with us at the time, and Zeke is a frickin’ legend in tattooing. At the time, he had been tattooing for 50 years. He tattooed with Sailor Jerry and he apprenticed Ed Hardy... [laughs] I mean, this dude had been doing it. So, Martin LaCasse had contacted us, contacted Zeke, and had come down and did filming for that.
Also, in Suddenly Royal, which is a learning channel show that ran about four years ago for one season, we were in the first episode. The shop is all in there and I basically did the outline of the King’s royal cypher on the side of [David Drew Howe’s] leg. At the time, he was the King of the Isle of Man. He’s abdicated the throne which his daughter was going to take over in about another year. And on my 40th birthday, he made me a frickin’ baron.
D: That’s super awesome.
Capt.Gordon: Right! I got my paperwork up there [indicates to wall behind him]
D: [So], you’re a baron and a captain.
Capt.Gordon: [laughs] Yeah, right? So, the first episode [of Suddenly Royal], we’re definitely in there you can see the tattoo finished in the third and the seventh episodes where [Howe] shows it off. They just didn’t record the final session [of tattooing] with him.
But yeah, as far as the “captain thing,” when I got my job at Easy Riders, I was also captaining White’s Ferry, which is the last remaining car-carrying ferry on the Potomac River. I was fortunate to be there when they were building the addition onto it, so we were like moving this massive barge a mile away down the road, connecting it all up and ultimately by the time it was all said and done, this thing was about 165 feet long and carries 28 cars, and, you know, that kind of a deal.
It was a fun and interesting job as long as you really enjoy the outdoors, you know? Because you’re either standing on a giant frying pan or a giant ice block, one or the other, but it was awesome living on the river. I had a gentleman come across, that—he was like a biker guy, and it seemed like he was setting up for a biker convention over in Leesburg and I asked him, “Do you ever do tattoo contests as a part of that?” And he was like, “Not yet, but we are setting up a tattoo shop and we do need people if you know anybody.” And I was like, “Actually, what’s up with that?” He happened to be one of the employees working for Easy Riders at the time. So he’s the one—that guy’s name was Teddy Bear—Teddy Bear got me the interview with Smokey. [laughs] That’s how I got my foot in the door there.
When I went to the Philly convention one year, Capt. Don Leslie was there, and I totally respected the hell out of Capt. Don and all the old sideshow performers. I have a link and connection in that my grandparents would take me to the circus, sideshows, and stuff like that when I was younger. Then, I came to understand the connection of tattooing and its early roots in the US around [the circus and sideshows]. And Captain Don embodied that. He was heavily tattooed and he could do all these amazing feats with his body.
We have a bunch of paintings there [gestures to the wall overhead], which actually his painting is that orange-yellow tattooed lady tucked up under there. When I was buying that painting from him, we just got to talking and what have you, and he found out that I was Captain and he was like, “Wait. You didn’t introduce yourself as that.” I was like, “Well, you know, I don’t captain the boat anymore.” And he goes, “Yeah, well, you’re a Captain, dammit! You’ve gotta own that shit, man! You did it, you earned it, you gotta stick with that, man.” There were so many other people in the business at the time [who were known as] Sailor This or Sailor That—
Ava: —and they’re not at all.
Capt.Gordon: —and they’re not [sailors] at all, although Sailor Jerry certainly was. [laughs] Granted, I was a river boat captain, so I felt weird about it, you know what I mean? But he convinced me to just own that [title] after a little while, and I was like, alright, well, if Capt. Don is giving me the thumbs-up and the go-ahead, then I should probably stick with it.
D: Yeah, wear that title proudly.
Capt.Gordon: So, that’s where “Captain” came from.
D: So, you said you used to go to the circus a lot?
Capt.Gordon: Yes. I went to the very last Barnum and Bailey show.
D: Oh really? How was that?
Capt.Gordon: Amazing and sad simultaneously. It was super beautiful and bittersweet, and it had certain components that I had never seen in a show before. They combined an ice show because it was in an ice arena, so they had all this ice skating acts going on—
Ava: —they had, like, motocross on ice.
D: Sounds terrifying and awesome.
Capt.Gordon: It was. And, you know, the guy that did the Big Cat act and stuff [gave] a really amazing speech about how Barnum had taken care of their animals over the years and what was going to happen to these big cats and that kind of thing. So, yeah, there were those sad components because they were like, this program is unfortunately probably going to go away because there’s no more heavy support for it. [They also] had this really small parade on the ice and all the families of all the performers came out... It was pretty sweet and amazing.
D: The reason I asked is because this studio has the distinction of not only being a tattoo studio, but also a menagerie of curiosities.
Ava: So, we had moved across the street to 342 into the smaller location for a decade or a dozen years and then we moved here three and a half years ago. That’s when we did this kind of decor and element. Before, the shop had been all these masks. [Points to adjacent hall] That’s our homage to the old shop or “hall of masks.” It was very tribal and [Capt.Gordon] described it as very “temple-like.”
But when we moved here, we had a lot more room, so we added all of these curiosity components. It started out as Time Bomb Body Piercing, then became Time Bomb Tattoos and Body Piercing, and then when we moved into this location, it became Time Bomb Tattoos and Curiosities. We still do body piercing, but we just took it out of the iconography.
Capt.Gordon: And when I was at 343 on the corner, we very much had a sideshow feel. You know, [we had] big gold and red carnival side-show-style lettering down the front. Everything had that feel and flavor going on with it. Each time we’ve moved, we’ve kind of pulled the Madonna thing, you know? We reinvented ourselves a little bit here and there.
Ava: This is definitely our best incarnation yet. [laughs]
D: Yeah, this is really distinctive and awesome.
Capt.Gordon: And that’s what we wanted for this location. I did not want to come down here and look and feel like every tattoo shop in the land I’ve stepped into. It has to be dramatically different.
Ava: And people will come in having zero idea that we’re a tattoo shop and people that would never have walked into a tattoo shop because they want nothing to do with tattoos—at least they think. So, you know, particularly having our giraffe in the window [incites] huge walk-in traffic.
People walk in, and say, “Can I just take a photo?” And we’re like, “Yeah, absolutely!” Then they walk around and they’re like, “Wow, we can buy these things!” And then they’re like, “Wait, are you tattooing in that corner?” It just kind of snowballs into [giving] them a little piercing, and, you know… [laughs] Gateway them through!
Capt.Gordon: Piercings. It’s the gateway drug to tattoos!
Ava: But actually the curiosities, that retail component, is the first step in getting people through the door. Also, in the slower pre-holiday season, tattoo shops usually have a little something, and this has helped us keep that vibrancy.
Capt.Gordon: There’s virtually no slump here.
Ava: Because [during the holidays] people are shopping for gifts. Then, they buy gift cards too. Then, they get more exposure [to the world of body modification].
M: I mean, it’s totally a different vibe, but also with that retail aspect, it gets people in the door. I feel like a lot of shops are kind of closed off in that sense, where they don’t want the general public to come in.
Ava: We want the most people to come in and check us out and choose us.
Capt.Gordon: Now, one thing we have done, [and] it’s a little sneaky, is our benches, you’ll notice, are kind of small. It doesn’t encourage people to hang out.
Ava: But [for] the people that are hanging out for hours getting tattooed and their friends are hanging out with them, there’s interesting stuff to keep them occupied. We [also] have our screen and occasionally we’ll put on—like if someone is getting a movie tattoo—sometimes we’ll throw that [movie] up on there.
But we try to cultivate a spa-like environment. Most of our clients are females, about 60 or 70 percent female, and so, we try to be the opposite of that stereotypical “sit down, shut up, and get your experience here” [vibe]. It’s [more] like, “Hey! Come in! It smells nice. Let’s make sure you’re not sweating or shivering. Let’s have this wonderful, positive body transformation experience.”
Capt.Gordon: We’re basically trying to foster a museum and spa-like experience, because we recognize that, unlike most other forms of business, this is one of those places where you might only come to once in your life. We hope that’s not the case, but in those cases, that is a lifelong memory for those people. You want it to be a positive one if you expect them to come back.
Ava: And for us, it’s every day work. We’re going to work, we’re home [laughs]. But for [the client], this is something they’ve been saving [for], they’ve been planning, you know... this is their day!
Capt.Gordon: It’s a massive, life-changing experience.
D: Have you had anyone who’s been [initially] put off by this industry and then come back for a second or third tattoo or piercing?
Ava: Yeah, I mean, sometimes we get people who are like, yeah, this is definitely a different kind of experience. I don’t know if that’s the story we get constantly.
Capt.Gordon: It’s not, frequently, but I feel like we definitely get those [instances] where these people surprise themselves, you know what I mean? They’re like, “I never thought I would even come in here” and then, like [Ava] said, it will go from, “Oh, I accidentally stepped through the gates of the tattoo shop!” to—
Ava: —“Maybe now I want a flower on my wrist!”
Capt.Gordon: Or, “I’ll start with this piercing!” Then they get their piercing and they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s so amazing! I trust you implicitly! How about a tattoo?” [laughs]
Ava: And then we do their tattoo and our favorite response is, “This is way better than I imagined it could be.” You know, [we love] giving people that experience that’s better than what they wanted.
D: Sometimes, it’s that initial modification that has to push people.
Ava: Oh yeah, ten years to plan your first, ten minutes to plan your second—
M: —and then it just goes downhill from there. It snowballs, right? [laughs]
D: Yeah, at this point, it’s totally impulsive. Like, just give me a cheetah.
Ava: Oh yeah, we have a couple of clients who come in and are like, “I just want a tattoo.” And we’re like, “What do you want today, Sue?” And she’s like, “A tattoo! I want a tattoo today.” And we’re like, “Okay, Sue. Let’s figure it out.”
D: I relate to Sue.
Ava: And then we have clients… you know, we did National Tattoo Day out at Flying Dog, they wanted us to come out and tattoo at their brewery, so we did that and we picked up this one pair of clients, and she’s in here like every week doing something—new jewelry change, new piercing, memorial tattoo for her cat, Capital tattoo for the Stanley cup…
Capt.Gordon: And it all started with a Ralph Steadman weirdo crab.
Ava: Yeah, from a Flying Dog bottle! [laughs] But, we have a lot of those clients who are just in here a lot, and then we have the clients who, you know, [Capt.Gordon]’s had walk in and he’s been tattooing them for 20 years.
Capt.Gordon: I have people come from all over these days.
D: That’s really great, and you probably build relationships with those clients who you’ve been tattooing for so long.
Capt.Gordon: Oh yeah.
Ava: And Frederick is a big tourism town, so we get the locals that we see regularly and we get the people that are in for a night. We like our clients.
Brad, artist at Time Bomb Tattoos and Curiosities
Matt Clark, apprentice artist at Time Bomb Tattoos and Curiosities
Capt.Gordon: Yeah. Frederick’s clients are uniquely different from most other big cities. I owned a shop in DC for a little while for about two and a half years before I let go of it, because [there were] just so many crazy headaches down there. And the clientele was dramatically different, so I feel like up here [in Frederick] we’re really, really blessed in that regard, because people up here wanna know your ideas as an artist. They wanna remain open to what you professionally think is the best thing for them.
Ava: Frederick is a very artsy town. So people are frequently coming in for art. And sometimes, people are [getting] names and letters and more of the common stuff, but they’re also coming for Mukha pieces and Alex Grey pieces.
Capt.Gordon: Lots of big color photo-realism and things of that nature.
D: Yeah, Frederick is definitely a distinctive area and a great place to have a studio. Who is your supplier for antiques, unless you don’t want to reveal that information?
Ava and Capt.Gordon: ALL OVER!
Capt.Gordon: Literally people all over the world. That God Save the King banner? Straight out of an antique shop in the middle of Edinburgh, Scotland. And I mean, that used to belong to King Edward VII.
Ava: Our giraffe, we got from an antique dealer in Georgia that had gotten it at an estate sale and couldn’t fit it in his house. Our double-headed calf came from the Gettysburg Dime Museum that just shut down in December.
D: How did I not notice the calf?!
Capt.Gordon: It’s hidden a little bit, but its X-rays are hanging in the window there and then the skull is up in the cabinet.
Ava: Sometimes, people walk in and they’re like, “Hey, I have this thing. Want it?” Or they’re like, “I inherited this.” And we’re like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” We have a curiosity dealer that pulls up in a cargo van and we go through everything in the cargo van.
Capt.Gordon: And sometimes we find out about really cool auctions—
M: —do you guys travel to these auctions?
Ava: [There are also] thrift markets. Wherever we are, we have our eyes open. Sometimes, on Etsy or eBay we find things that are really cool, so it’s very all over the place.
M: I love it.
Ava: We have some custom taxidermy from China, like, all natural-death duckies. We have an all-natural ducky skate park with our barnyard over there.
D: I was really into the deformed crocodile heads.
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, they’re pretty fun. You might like the deformed lobster and crab claws, too.
D: We also noticed some of our body jewelry up at the front. What’s your favorite body jewelry to purchase from PainfulPleasures?
Ava: From PainfulPleasures specifically, the titanium clickers. All the basic titanium clickers and the prettier steel ones, too. We get so much from PainfulPleasures. We got this nice, new chair that he’s sitting in, which we just ordered and we’re ordering a second one—the Precision artist stool. We get so much shit from PainfulPleasures. [laughs] It’s constant. We get a shipment from you guys every week—
Capt.Gordon: —we get a lot of standard installation supplies, also.
Ava: All of our basic steel stuff we get from PainfulPleasures, and all of our basic titanium nipple barbells—
Capt.Gordon: —and the majority of our tattoo supplies.
Ava: We get some stuff from other suppliers depending on what it is, but the vast majority is PainfulPleasures for sure, and it has been for twenty years. [Capt.Gordon] and Marc [Gagnier] started right around the same time and PainfulPleasures has sponsored hook suspensions the Captain has run.
Capt.Gordon: Yep, Marc helped sponsor the hook suspension team for a while.
D: How did you meet Marc?
Capt.Gordon: I met Marc through one of my employees, Brad. Brad had been snowboarding with Marc for years; they both worked at Ski Liberty up in Pennsylvania. And Brad was like, “You should touch base with Marc on some body jewelry stuff.”
Ava: Because Marc was starting out in his house, right?
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, he was in his house. Well, I guess when I met Marc, he had just moved out of his house and he had just moved things into the industrial space and that was before he had the big warehouse.
D: So, that was like the early 2000s?
Capt.Gordon: Yeah. I went to him and asked him for a sponsorship for the suspension stuff. He totally helped me out without much question at all and I’m forever grateful for that.
And we almost went into business together on a building a little bit ago, and I pulled out at the last second, just because the landlord kinda played a switch-a-roo on us and tried to force us into this much larger location than we needed. So, I panicked a little bit and backed out, so I’m still grateful that Marc still wants to be my friend after that. [laughs]
M: Sometimes, business is about going with your gut and going with what feels right. And if it doesn’t feel right, don’t make that jump.
Ava: Like with [Capt.Gordon’s] DC shop, he’d invested a whole bunch in it, but it just wasn’t returning, so why stay in the rut and get deeper when you realize this is a rut?
M: That was 20 years ago?
Capt.Gordon: I want to say it was at least 10 years ago.
M: And DC has changed so, so much in that time. It was already changing.
Capt.Gordon: This was northeast DC on Rhode Island Avenue right over the border, and at the time, it was a rough neck of the woods. Essentially, there was a lot of work and we really weren’t making a whole lot. I was splitting my time between both locations, and my clientele up here were getting really, really frustrated and upset with [me] not being able to service them as much as I had—
Ava: —and your artists were frustrated when you wouldn’t put them in Frederick and you’d put them in DC. And your employees were scared for themselves and wanted protection in the shop.
Capt.Gordon: It got scary, because one of my guys got roughed up down there one night and couldn’t work for a couple weeks. So, that started a whole fear-based thing for a lot of the folks down there and it just wasn’t worth it after that.
At that time, I was like, I hadn’t had this much trouble in 14 years of doing business up here [in Frederick], and then in two and a half years down here [in DC], I’d had exponential amounts of troubles. Like, we just needed to end this experiment. [laughs] It was not worth it, so we just regathered and refocused, and started making all this happen.
M: Frederick is so unique in itself. It has such a charm and personality to it, so it works out.
Capt.Gordon: And a lot of people don’t realize Frederick is the second largest city in Maryland next to Baltimore.
Ava: It’s a lot smaller than Baltimore, but it’s still the second largest!
Capt.Gordon: It’s also like the commuter community to both DC and Baltimore, because they all make up an equilateral triangle. It’s all about 50 miles. Everybody wants to come to Frederick to chill [laughs]
D: So, we’ve touched on this a few times throughout this interview. What changes have you noticed in the industry since 1992, both positive or negative? And what changes would you still like to see?
Capt.Gordon: I think the key thing is the perceptions by society have shifted dramatically. When I came in, it was so hard to get a location, because all the landlords around here thought you were gonna get nothing but bikers and crackheads out here mucking it up for the rest of the neighbors. [The landlords] wanted nothing to do with that. The previous three locations I’ve had, I had to fully renovate, because they were a hole in the wall that nobody wanted to touch. All of a sudden, when somebody says to a landlord, “I will fix it all up and make it pretty and rentable for you and then start paying you every month,” they’re like, “Hmm. Alright. Maybe.”
Captain Gordon (Cont'd): In that vein, the TV shows have been a double-edged sword. They have drastically popularized and shifted people’s perceptions. And it has also pushed people into getting much greater, larger-scale work compared to what used to be the norm. Most people get little popcorn tattoos, you know, things that could fit under a Coke can. Now, first timers are like, “Hook me up with a sleeve!”
Ava: [Capt.Gordon] actually just won an award at the convention for a piece that was a first-time tattoo [for the client] and the first session was 12 hours straight.
Capt.Gordon: The second session was nine hours straight.
M: No breaks?
Capt.Gordon: We had a half hour taco break.
Ava: One taco break!
D: How many tacos?
Capt.Gordon: One! [laughs]
D: Truly impressive.
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, that’s a small marathon. [laughs]
But, yeah, you have those types of people now. Also, people [are now] gearing up their bodies in such a way to do multiple-day sits back-to-back, to do large-scale stuff in compressed bits of time. I know there are groups of artists out in Spain where they’re literally training people as though they’re going to do a marathon or [as if they’re a] triathlete. So, they’re like, “We’re gonna beat your body down for three days! You have to survive this!” [laughs]
D: What’s involved in the training for that?
Capt.Gordon: Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I know it’s diet, exercise, and that sort of thing.
Ava: It’s about priming your body. Like, the better condition your body is in, the more it can take, right? And tattooing is a pretty intensive thing; so, whenever people are doing four-ish hour sessions or full-day sits with us, we’re like, “Get your sleep, be well-hydrated, be well-fed, bring your snacks, and literally be a couch potato for a couple of days before your tattoo. Like, don’t run a marathon, don’t go to the gym, don’t go out in the sun and get pink skin; get your body to a rested, relaxed, ready-to-be-exhausted state.”
D: Because you’ll be drilled with needles for several hours.
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, but I feel like the quality of equipment and tools have dramatically improved. Also, the digital era has [changed things]. I mean, when I first started tattooing, marketing was the yellow pages, and that was the end-all-be-all.
My first professional year, my boss missed the deadline for the yellow pages, and we had no yellow pages for the first year and that was hell. And then, the very next year we got it and it opened up the floodgates. It made a dramatic difference.
And now, obviously, the yellow pages are obsolete. In some cases, for some artists, websites are now obsolete. They’re just on Instagram. Then, in the art realm, the styles have shifted and changed a little, which is totally fine. You kind of expect that.
D: Hyperrealism has gotten super popular.
Capt.Gordon: Huge! And that’s the piece that I just won the award for, it was a hyperrealism piece. That didn’t exist when I first started tattooing. Hyperrealism was not a thing and even portraiture was kind of a newer idea. That had only been around for maybe ten years, so to speak, when I first started tattooing.
Ava: And there aren’t any big black American Traditional lines in the portraits.
Capt.Gordon: Back in the day, it was a big no-no to do really tiny, detailed stuff, and it still is on some level; but we’ve also learned the science [that tells us] as long as you pack every little bit of ink in there, you can get as detailed as you want as long as that pigment can’t shift and move around. But if it has that open, empty skin for it to shimmy, wiggle out, and slide into, then it’s gonna get a little hazy on you in that area.
James Kern definitely showed me that about 34 years ago. I took a class with him where he had shown this tattoo where he had done a bunch of different techniques all within the same tattoo. It was like this dragon tattoo on a horde of treasure, and that horde of treasure was, like, super blingy with lots of faceted gemstones and coins and crowns. It was just crazy detailed.
Then, the outer edge of the dragon was done a bit more like a traditional tattoo with big, bold lines and not quite having color pulled up to the edge of it, and you know, leaving a little skin for highlight, and what have you.
He goes, “Okay. This is the day it was done” and had a photograph of that. “Here’s a month later,” had a photograph of that, and it looked amazing. Then he goes, “And here’s 20 years later,” right?
And, actually, those big bold lines and that color in the dragon were way more hazy and out of focus than that highly detailed treasure chest. That highly detailed treasure chest was still almost exactly the way it was a month after it was healed, and that was just because every little centimeter of skin in that general area was packed, solid, and saturated. It just couldn’t go anywhere. It was strapped in place. But you need 20 years to learn that in some cases! Fortunately, now, you’ve got folks like James runnin’ around, spreadin’ that gospel.
Ava: You know, watercolor is a new thing, and most of the shops around us are pretty strictly American Traditional and they’ve been turning away all the watercolors, saying, “It’s gonna fade.” It’s supposed to look faded…?
D: [laughs] Yeah, that’s kinda the point.
Ava: Well, to their point, [it’s true that] no, people haven’t been getting watercolor tattoos for 20 years, so we don’t actually really know what 20 years is gonna do to that tattoo because nobody has that. So, we think it’s gonna look fine, because it’s watercolor. But, to be honest, we don’t have the time to tell it. And I think the biggest [factor] is equipment. [To Capt.Gordon] You used to say when you were starting, you would spend hours every week just making needles.
Capt.Gordon: Oh, yeah. Just making needles. Holy crap! Yeah, I’d spend at least eight hours a week making needles.
Ava: You had to be a machinist to be a tattoo artist, and now you don’t, really. You can just pick up your cartridge and shove it in your machine and bag it well and you’re fine. [laughs]
Capt.Gordon: You don’t have to sniff all the fumes of soldering and burning myself…
M: What are your thoughts on that? Do you think it’s necessary to be a machinist?
Capt.Gordon: Not now. Back then, you had to be part doctor, nurse, artist, machinist, and engineer—
Ava: —and sales person!
Capt.Gordon: And a sales person, yes. You had to wear all those hats.
D: And captain of White’s Ferry.
Capt.Gordon: Yes. [laughs] And if you did not wear all those hats, you were not going to be a very effective artist or you were going to have big holes in your program.
Ava: And [Capt.Gordon] has an apprentice now that he worked with and there’s a big conversation of, “Do you have to teach your apprentices how to make their needles and do them the old school way?” And you mostly think, like, no, you don’t have to spend your time doing that because you’re not going to spend your time doing that. If you want to do tattoos like that, then, yeah, learn it.
Capt.Gordon: If you want a serious history lesson, then, sure, we’ll sit down and do that. But, if we’re going to be realistic about practicality of tattooing—
Ava: —I’m not going to make you make your needles.
Capt.Gordon: It is less healthy for you to make your own. You’re breathing in all those fumes, and getting all these chemicals on you, and straining your eyes to look at these micro details, and things of that nature over and over.
Ava: The way that we do things now is we have a lot of counter people at our shop. It’s actually pretty uncommon, the ratio; we almost have one counter person per artist, and they’re not assigned to artists, but just in terms of our shop ratio. And it’s because we figured out that if we can just keep [the artists] tattooing, and they don’t need to bother with the cleaning of the shop or the scheduling or the answering of the phones, then they can do the most efficient, effective, bread-winning, maximum-arting thing. And if they’re making their own needles, that’s a big waste of their time. They’re not making 200 dollars an hour making needles.
Capt.Gordon: That’s eight hours they could have been drawing up a half sleeve—
Ava: —or tattooing a half sleeve. So, you can make nothing making your own needles or you can make 200 dollars an hour tattooing. What are you going to do with your time?
D: And aside from not having to make needles anymore, it’s probably easier for someone to get an apprenticeship now, right?
Ava: There are more shops.
Capt.Gordon: It is definitely far easier for people to get apprenticeships now these days with the simple fact that there’s a lot more artists out there who are willing to teach it.
Ava: And there’s also just people who are doing tutorials online and stuff like that.
Capt.Gordon: I mean, you can go to HyperSpace Studios with Guy Aitchison and if you’re someone who had a decent amount of aptitude and a self-starter, you could easily learn how to tattoo through him.
Ava: Would it be better to have a person who you were actually working with? Absolutely. But, could you actually get all of the critical info?
Capt.Gordon: I garnered enough information from Huck Spaulding’s A to Z to get me to where I am now. Was that an optimal way to get there? No. But, when I look at that laid over with what Guy has done, oh man. There are leaps and bounds more information than what Huck Spaulding was offering back then.] You can take classes at conventions now, like, none of that was available—
Ava: —just your Bloodborne certification.
Capt.Gordon: [laughs] That wasn’t even available back then.
D: I feel like walking into a shop [now] just feels more welcoming. It used to feel more exclusive and intimidating.
Capt.Gordon: I think there are still plenty of shops out there, though, that want to hold onto that old feel.
And that’s actually been a huge help to us around here. There is a lot of that old sentiment that they want to feel that old school and have that type of energy, and I’m just like, that’s not where this culture and this society is at anymore. So, if they wanna hold on to something that’s a little older, that’s fine for them, and that’s good for us. Because we like making friends! [laughs]
M: So, not to instigate, but we did see a handful of shops even just across the street and down the block. How do you feel about having so many shops in this proximity and how does it work with your clientele and business?
Capt.Gordon: At one point a couple of years ago—actually, it’s closer to eight years ago—we had three shops in a one-block radius. And the way that is actually good is it creates a little bit of a food court [effect].
Unless you have the one shining star restaurant that you’re always going to go to, if you have no idea what kind of restaurant is in town, you’re normally going to go to the area that has the majority of options and stop there first and check out what’s going on.
And so, I feel like with our guys across the street here, we kind of have that. And they were one of the businesses that was, like, right next door to us down the street. Then they came down here five years earlier than us. Then, it was just happenstance that this building was available.
They were very much not into the idea of us moving back down here and being neighbors with them again. They were very upset about it at the time, and I said, “Actually, I guarantee you this is gonna do good things for you. You might not think so, but this is gonna do great things for you.”
Well, the owner had been there for five years prior to us gettin’ down here. Once we had been here for the first year, he turned around and bought that building [he’s currently in]. That’s a clear indicator that, if it was SO horrible, why would you stay or even buy the building? It’s because it’s really not horrible and it gives people the opportunity to, you know—it’s healthy competition from my perspective. They may not feel that way, but I do. Dave Waugh is world-renowned and he’s tattooing right across the street.
M: And he also has a shop in Hampden, right? Stay Humble?
Capt.Gordon: Different Dave Waugh, weirdly enough! There’s two Dave Waughs in the same industry [the other is Dave Wah in Hampden Baltimore]. This one is the old school Dave Waugh and he kinda cut his teeth and got famous under Little Vinnie Myers. Yeah, man, [Dave Waugh’s] got tons of publications on him, so in many respects I feel honored to be right across the street from someone like that.
D: That’s a really good attitude to have.
Capt.Gordon: Yeah. Fortunately, we get a fair amount of folks from them because of some of the older, curmudgeony-type notions, so it’s not serving them well to do that, but it’s doing great for us.
D: I was just on vacation in Miami. There was a tattoo studio every other block. It was crazy.
Capt.Gordon: Yeah, in certain major cities, it’s piled in. And sometimes, to my understanding, like down around Dallas and in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, they have zoned it so [tattoo studios] are only allowed to be in industrial parks and very specific areas. Because of that, you will have whole strip malls of just tattoo studios. It’s pretty wild in that regard. That feels like a little bit much, but when it’s your only option...
D: Yeah. It’s becoming as popular as fast food.
Capt.Gordon: [laughs] Right, yeah. Sad to say.
D: Well, yeah, it’s true. In my generation, it’s almost rarer to find someone who doesn’t have at least one tattoo.
Capt.Gordon: I think the last time I saw the consensus check, most people between the ages of 18 and 60—I think it’s something like 65 percent of them have a tattoo. That’s actually a pretty strong number in my mind when you’re talking about the entire population fitting into that demographic.
D: Right, and there are so many different styles to choose from and subjects... Do you have a distinct or preferred style that you like to tattoo?
Capt.Gordon: I guess I just prefer organic stuff. I used to be really, really into doing symmetrical stuff and I still enjoy symmetrical stuff, but I have found that it’s a little more stressful on my body to do heavily symmetrical stuff. In general, I’ve always tried not to pigeon-hole myself into a particular style. Around here, I tend to be the one who handles the more photorealistic and hyperrealistic stuff and that’s mainly because most of the other folks don’t feel comfortable doing it.
Otherwise, I love doing traditional stuff. You know, traditional American, traditional Japanese, old school tribal, sacred geometry, so there’s just a wide range that I love to dig into. I love new school tattoos… As long as the person can convey to me that this thing is really gonna fuel their life in a good and positive way, I’m about it.
If they’re waffling and [I] feel like they’re settling for something, then I’m gonna nudge them and be like, “Well, why don’t you either wait until you can get what you really want, or just step up to the plate and get what you are really desiring?”
M: Also because you’ve been in that situation. Like with your first tattoo, you were saying you walked away feeling kind of like, “Meh.” That’s not a good feeling.
Capt.Gordon: That’s the thing I’ve learned. If that first tattoo for someone isn’t a good experience, they’re a lot less likely to get tattooed again, but if they can immediately identify that this is an amazing, awesome, life-changing experience, they’ll be back five minutes later. They’re definitely already planning their next tattoo.