Half Sleeve Complete

It has been ten months since I first started work on Scott’s arm. As his apprentice he let me do a lot of practicing. We started on 6/3/2018 and as of yesterday (4/28/19) we can say that he now has a little over half a sleeve fully colored from his shoulder to below his elbow. I wrote a lot about the beginning parts of the process: The First One and First Tattoo – Part Two. Some of these pictures are repeats but it is fun to see them all together to see how much we have gotten done.

Painting Eyeballs on Chaos

“My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce my heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time.  Thought and action are not different, and stone, air, ice, sun, fear, and self are one.  What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness onto ordinary moments, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the wolf, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being…To be anywhere else [but the present] is “to paint eyeballs on chaos.””( Dogen Zenji, Shobogenzo)  (249)

-Peter Matthiessen  The Snow Leopard 

It has been over a year since I read Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. I have read and listened to many other books since then, but I think more images from his expedition to mountains of Nepal have stayed with me than from the rest of the stories combined. It is a very beautiful book. What he saw, how it affected him, and the words he used to share the experiences really resonated with me. If I was going to write a review of it I would have to keep returning to the thesaurus to find all the possible synonyms for breathtaking.

Journal sketch from 2016

If it had not been a borrowed book (Thanks, Jim) I would have underlined many passages, but towards the end the phrase “painting eyeballs on chaos” just reached out and grabbed me and I have been exploring it in my mind and in images ever since.  Any one who knows my art work knows that for years I have literally been painting eyeballs (and hand and birds) on and in chaos. Depending on the piece, the day and my mood there are many explanations of what all those chaotic swirls of color and pattern might signify. There is not even a consistency within my portfolio as to whether the writhing shapes are positive or negative, internal or external, but they are certainly pervasive. However since spending so much time thinking on this phrase and what it meant to Matthiessen I have wondered how much of what I am trying to express in my art work could be simplified down to the problem of not being in the present and needing to get there.

Sitting down to write this post reminded me that I never read  Dogen’s Shobogenzo that Matthiessen is quoting, so I have just ordered a copy.  I have read many Christian Mystics whose focus on mindfulness I believe is very close to the Buddhist idea of Zen, but it will be interesting to see if his writing matches what I expect (well, if I can understand a 13th century Zen master at all).  Recent correspondence and conversations on meaning with intriguing friends have my thoughts going in many different directions, but I feel like somehow they will all spiral back together to the importance of being present here and now.

Anyway, this post is not a book report, a dissection of the meaning behind my art, and certainly not a dissertation on philosophy or religion.  I really just wanted to share that as I continue to explore these ideas I am now not only painting and drawing eyeballs on chaos, but I am tattooing them on as well!

1/2 Price – Fully Exciting!

I think today was my most rewarding day in the tattoo shop so far. I got to tattoo two original pieces and they both turned out like I wanted them to.

During October the prompts for Day 14 of Inktober/Drawlloween were Clock and Skeleton. I did a sketch that I posted but I felt like I had done it backwards. The face of the pocket watch should not have been facing the inside of the hand. I kept redrawing it to try and get it right.  The new drawing is similar but much more logical. When I finally felt like I had it I added to my little book of flash that I have been working on. What I most want to do as a tattoo artist is create original drawings that people like enough to let me put on their skin.

Jonathan came in today with his wife so she could get a tattoo from Candace, but as she was working on her paperwork he asked if the 1/2 price apprentice tattoos were still available. I told him they were and gave him my book of drawings. I was thrilled when he told me he liked the Time in Hand drawing. We enlarged it 120% so it fit nicely on the side of his leg.

I am still working slower than I would like, but I felt very happy with the quality of my lines and the saturation of the blacks. I know I have said this before, but I think I will keep saying it again and again. It is so amazingly rewarding to be able to put my own drawing on someone’s body. I am so excited. 🙂

Time in Hand

Then after Jonathan I got to give my friend Martha her third tattoo. She had actually asked me to do a portrait of her dog Wolfie for her first tattoo but I did not think I was quite ready for that. We did a simple outline to start with but since then I had been working on sketches of her best little buddy. Today we both felt like we were ready and we are both happy with the results.

Wolfie (11/11/18)

Of course I will tattoo anything (within reason and my ability) that someone brings into the shop and requests, but I now that I am getting more confident with this medium I hope more and more of my friends will talk to me about their ideas and let me draw up designs for them. And I will keep drawing my own ideas in hopes that as people flip through the book they may find the design they did not even know was what they wanted.

The 10 & 20 Dollar Tattoos

Yesterday I gave my last $10 tattoo. Overall I think I did 9 in the $10 to $20 range over about a month and a half. Though I don’t know that I will ever be able to sit down and make permanent marks on someone else’s skin without feeling nervous I have gotten a whole lot calmer about it. I still have a lot to learn, tons and tons to learn, but my lines are now pretty consistent and smooth and I feel a lot more confident. The pieces that are my original drawings are of course my favorites, but each one is still exciting.  The next phase of my apprenticeship will be giving half price tattoos. Right now of course I still need to gain experience doing whatever design someone walks into the shop with, but my hope is to be able to do more and more original pieces. For me that is what this is really about.

First Official Apprentice Tattoo

This afternoon I gave my first tattoo as a certified apprentice. A young man came in as walk-in with a limited budget and was happy to sign the paperwork saying he understood I was a newbie in exchange for a $20 tattoo. He didn’t give me much explanation as to what the cyclops woman devil anchor meant to him, but my dear sleuth friends believe it may be a symbol for the goddess Diana.

I am very happy to be able to practice my technical skill on any design, but it will be especially exciting when I can do my own original designs. I am working on lots of drawings that I will be posting soon.

Black and Grey Filler

This is Red. He is one of the tattoo artists at Celtic Crow. He has a lot of black and grey tattoos, but they are spaced out around his arms. He has decided he would rather have the appearance of a sleeve rather than separate pieces. It was decided that filler work to start connecting them all together was another good practice project for an apprentice.  I was thrilled to get to do it because I really need lots of shading practice.

We looked at HR Giger’s work for inspiration and then rather than try to create a stencil that would fit between the existing work on his arm I drew the designs right on his arm in sharpie. Scott gave me a new 8 hollow round needle to try for the line work, which went pretty fast. The majority of the time was spent trying to get the shading into the shapes. It turned out to be pretty fun. Red just sat there and played on his phone while I experimented with the different mixes of ink and water as well as the speed and direction of the strokes. It is incredibly important that I learn to create consistently smooth gradations of grey. Of course I still need practice but I think I have made some good progress. Red admitted that he was skeptical at first (he says just of my design, but I think also of my skill) but I think he was genuinely pleased with the results. He says he would like me to continue to fill the other spaces around his arm which I am excited to do.

Are the lambs still screaming? Tattoo #2

The apprenticeship is moving a bit slower than I would like, but I did get the chance to give my second tattoo. Stephen, the most advanced apprentice at Celtic Crow, has a large collection of tattoos, mainly horror film related. He has only been giving tattoos for about 6 months (he started as a piercer) but he has been getting them for years. Candace called him an expert tattoo receiver. Sunday afternoon at the shop we were chatting and he asked me what I wanted to tattoo next and I answered whatever anyone would let me do. I was thrilled when he offered himself for me to practice on. He also told me I could try and use his tattoo pen which has a very different feel than the coil and rotary machines I have been using. The shop got busy Sunday afternoon so we made plans for me to come by Monday after work. I was very excited.

Stephen does beautiful delicate line work that I am very impressed with but luckily the design he wanted on himself was not so intricate.  His choice was the moth from the Silence of the Lambs movie poster. The lines are thicker and the organic nature of the color and pattern on the wings made me think it was a good one for me to try. I was very nervous but I think I was also a little over confident. This one turned out to be more difficult and stressful than working on Scott’s arm.

The first issue was that this is a cover up. One of his son’s name is in the middle of the moth’s face. It would have been better if I could have moved the stencil farther up his neck, but he is not allowed to have neck tattoos at his job (at the women’s prison) and so we were playing to wear the collar of his work uniform ends. Dale says that if if put enough white in there it will cover up the black, but Scott does not seem as convinced. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.

The next issue was that I was using his pen instead of one of Scott’s rotary machines. It really did feel different in my hand. Though I am still incredibly far away from Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours at least I have been practicing with the Scott’s Hummingbird fairly consistently.

But honestly I think the biggest problem was that since he knows “how a tattoo should feel” every time I got too heavy or too light he let me know. Now, that should be a good thing, because I know I need to learn how to be more consistent with the depth of my needles. But what ended up happening was that my confidence got eroded and because I did not want to be hurting him I got way too light and then I had to keep going over the same areas which ends up hurting worse. Both Candace and Dale came in and tried to offer me some advice which I heard and tried to apply, but even though my head seemed to understand what they were telling me my hand did not seem to. It was fairly frustrating, and it kept getting later and later. We did not leave the shop till 1am. Someone who is usually in bed by 10 should probably not be tattooing after midnight.

So, since that evening Scott and I have looked at the moth and talked about it, and other than the issues with how Ethan’s name is going to be covered up, he feels like it is not as bad as I thought. He thinks once I add the color it will turn out to be a fine tattoo. Since the first work was done on July 16 it will be early August before I can go back in and start adding the color. Hopefully I will have a positive update then.


Final Touch Ups 11/4/18

9/13  – Finally had a chance to start adding some color. It will need a third pass to really be what I want it to be, but I feel like we made good progress.

First Tattoo – Part 2

So the work on Scott’s arm has continued with two more sessions, one going much better than the other. While we were waiting for the initial line work to heal enough to be colored we decided I should start on the sky he wants behind it all. I put massive amounts of color on his arm, but I was not able to create the effect either of us were imagining. He explained what he wanted and how he thought I should achieve it and I understood the concept but I just couldn’t get the colors to blend. Once it heals we will give it another go. Scott says it is common for big dark areas like this to need two passes, but I think he is just being nice. I think once I practice more and improve my technique there may still be the need for a little touch up but not of the magnitude of what we will need to do in a couple of weeks.

However, the third session, where I colored in the vegetation and the chunk of earth the went very well. Filling in the lines is way easier than trying to create a night sky free form as I go. I just used two greens on the leaves and grass, but I mixed 5 different earthy colors for the chunk. I must say I am pleased with the progress.

I have passed my Blood-Born Pathogens test and hopefully will be certified by the health department in the next week or so. I have ordered some of my own inks and some other supplies. I think things will start moving much faster soon. While the kids are out of town this summer maybe I will spend more than just Sunday afternoons at the shop so I can try and get more experience. Until then I am thinking I may go ahead and start adding some more to my own leg, maybe attempt some more color blending so that when I get to try again on Scott’s sky I will know what to do.

Fourth session on July 29 was all about trying to pack the sky with good solid and well-blended color. It was slow going, and we will need another session, but the portion we focused on is looking pretty good. Looking at these pictures of where we started and where we are is encouraging.

August 2 – We got back to filling in the sky and gave it more distinct borders. The funnest part was going back in with white ink and creating the stars. I hope they stay visible as they heal. At the end I went over the lines of the original sun/moon in black. I think they were my smoothest lines yet.

The First One

It is hard to believe that is has only been two months since I first stopped by to visit an old friend at the tattoo parlor on my way home from church. At that point I really was just curious to see what the process looked like and to see if I could learn a little about what made a good tattoo design. I really liked the idea of someone wearing my art but I didn’t really think it was at all realistic that I would actually be the one to put it there. But this past weekend (6/3/18) I actually took a machine with needles in it and ran it across another person’s skin leaving indelible marks.  I feel like I need to state that again: I took a machine with needles in it and ran it across another person’s skin leaving indelible marks.

Before Pic

Scott, who I am doing my apprenticeship under, decided I was ready and volunteered himself as my first guinea pig. The arm that I worked on already had several tattoos that he had gotten from other apprentices over the years. He did not like the way the Moai seemed to just be floating on his arm so he asked me to add a chunk of earth for them to be sitting on as well as some extra vegetation. I took contact paper and stuck it to his arm and traced the existing tattoos and then stuck it to a white paper and made some photo copies. I then sketched the new design a few times until we both agreed we had a good solution. A new photocopy was made and the drawing was then traced with (a special kind of) carbon paper underneath it to create the stencil. We then shaved his arm, cleaned it, put a special stencil medium on it and then carefully placed the stencil in its place. I did not do a great job with that. I had it slightly tilted so that the left side matched up well but the right was off. I thought maybe I should start over but Scott said that since it was my drawing that I should be able to fix that part as I went. As it is his arm that will have this drawing on it forever and ever I conceded.  As his apprentice I have been setting up and breaking down the station for a couple of week now, so that part went pretty smoothly, but then it was time to actually start the tattooing.

I was incredibly nervous, like heart burn and maybe going to be nauseous kind of nervous. For a minute I thought I might just chicken out and go home, call my little tattoo adventure over and start carving avocado pits again, but I didn’t. I took a deep breath (or 10) and then I did it. My first lines were very tentative, so light they had to be gone back over, but gradually I forgot to be as nervous and just focused on going slow and steady and following all the lines. I tend to want to go too fast. There is a question of when to get more ink. Right after refilling tons of extra ink comes out making it hard to see the lines, but then it clears up and you can really see where you are going for a few lines right before there is not enough ink left to create a solid line. This is compounded by the fact that you need to wipe away the excess ink so you can see how you are doing but you do not want to wipe away your stencil. It seems that it is better to err on the side of too light/not enough ink because even if it needs to be gone over again the line will be visible so once the stencil is gone you will still know how to continue. If the design is not one with heavy outlines you can start with what is called “blood lining” which is just using water and going over the whole stencil so that there are literally just red marks on the skin that can be filled in with color.

Initial Lines

More formed lines

Though I didn’t want to purposefully do bloodlines I let myself relax a little about having the first line be the perfect line and went ahead and traced all the lines on the stencil. Then I went back and shaped them into thicker more artistic looking lines. This part was more intuitive and by the end I was actually enjoying myself.

I did not look at the clock right when I started but the timestamp on the before pictures and the pictures I took of the lines after cleaning up his arm show about two hours. Overall I feel like it went well. There are definitely some lines that do not look great. There is one leaf on the far left side of the image that I absolutely hate, but you really should not go over the same area of skin more than 2 or 3 times so I had to leave it. Scott says eventually he wants a dark sky to come down from the sun at the top of his arm and fill in behind the Moai and that when we do that my ugly leaf’s outline will disappear. But there are more lines that look good than ones that look bad. And once we add color it will change the feel entirely. If you do not finish in one day then you have to wait 3 to 4 weeks for the skin to heal before you can go back in and add color and/or shading. Right as I was finishing up the line work an actual customer came in so I broke everything down and re-sanitized and set it back up so he could work on her. Once hers was done and I had cleaned up everything again I thought we were done for the day. I had come straight from spending the entire morning at church (early service, committee meeting and late service so I could try and fill my meal calendar for Family Promise next week) so I was getting tired. But Scott decided we should go ahead and do a little shading on the chunk of rock before we left.


I reset up the machine, this time with a widely-spread 7 mag needle instead of the 7 liner we had started with. We watered down two caps of ink, one a little, the other quite a bit. I actually thought from watching Scott work on other people that the shading would be easier than the line work. It is more forgiving because of the nature of shading, but because of the wide spread of needles it becomes very important which way you are making your stroke. If you go sideways it will make lots of tiny lines like cross-hatching, which is awesome for tattooing a feather, but not really what you want for a chunk of rock. I had to go back over several areas to try and get rid of those lines which meant some areas are darker than I would have liked. Scott kept reassuring me that it was fine and that when we come back in with color I will like the way it looks, but I was not as pleased with my shading as I was with my lines.

I think I will need a lot more time practicing shading before I will be able to create the type of effects I am going to want. A line is a line no matter if you are painting, drawing, carving or tattooing, but shading seems to be more particular to the medium, and in the case of tattooing does not seem very intuitive so far. What I am not so sure about is how I am going to be able to go about doing the practicing. I do not want to put ugly marks on anyone, but the truth is that some ugly marks are going to have to be made before I can get to the beautiful ones. Until I am certified I cannot tattoo anyone other than myself or people who work in the shop. The other apprentice said I could tattoo her if she could tattoo me, but I really don’t want to make her that promise. I guess I need to start studying up on blood-born pathogens so as soon as the shop owner says I can take the certification test I am ready to pass it. Once I have the certification then things open up a lot. Then my brave friends and any of the area’s meth-heads in search of cheap tattoos can come in and I can practice on them.

Until Sunday I kept thinking that I was just being dramatic and that the fascination with this would pass. I knew I was enjoying the juxtaposition of the bank and the tattoo parlor, as well as the fact that I have kept what I am doing a secret from most everyone. I thought I would only go so far and then get bored and go explore something else, but now I am not so sure. This might not just be a drastic way to distract myself from loneliness. The idea of a creative process that I enjoy deeply and I can actually make money at, well, wouldn’t that be novel? A combination studio/gallery/tattoo parlor might be just what the mountains of western North Carolina need.