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Think ink

Thriving industry has room for old-school, new looks
by: L.E. BASKOW, Mav Mess, who owns Deluxe Tattoo Parlor, is himself well-inked. “This used to be an industry of just a guy giving a product and getting paid for it, and now it’s gone Hollywood,” he says.

As an art form, tattooing is going through a boom time. Simple flash art — roses, hearts, daggers, birds — favored by sailors and soldiers for a hundred years may have been displaced by Celtic braids and tribal bands during the 1990s, but several Portland tattoo artists are reclaiming their heritage and keeping the art alive. Jeff Johnson is part-owner at Sea Tramp Tattoo Co. (207 S.E. Grand Ave, 503-231-9784), the oldest tattoo shop in Oregon. Like a lot of tattoo artists, he draws constantly. When he’s not working up a custom design for a client, he’s redrawing the traditional imagery and posting it on the walls. “I like drawing this stuff because it’s fun, but nobody takes anything straight off the wall these days. They all want custom stuff,” he says. “The only reason we have it up is as a touchstone for people who don’t have a really sophisticated art vocabulary.” His colleague Billy Jack likes to draw in a traditional American style from the 1940s and 1950s, using bold lines and colors to create sometimes saucy cartoons with a certain swagger to them. Jack also is a painter, as are many tattooers. “It’s not just the old biker crowd any more,” Johnson says. “Probably half the tattoo artists in Portland have degrees in art; the rest are art school dropouts.” His store is defiantly old-school, with fading paintwork and scattered bric-a-brac. He walks over to a display of tattoo art by the original owner, Bert Grimm. “Bert started tattooing in Buffalo Bill’s Circus in 1916,” Johnson says. “You can see he couldn’t draw — this looks like the art of a talented first-grader,” he says with a laugh. “Don Deaton, who’s 72 and worked the night shift here for 40 years, now he can draw,” he says of the elder statesman, who still comes in around midnight to do paperwork and tell stories. Johnson believes that in the 1970s artists got involved in tattooing and started pushing its boundaries, creating large-scale works of art. But such artists were still rare until the past 10 years. The current style is for sprawling, colorful images, using bold colors and intricate shading. Old, small tattoos get steamrollered by cover-ups, and new areas of bodily real estate are proudly opened up to being drawn upon. Scripted reality shows such as “Miami Ink,” “L.A. Ink” and now “London Ink” glamorize the work of a few artists and the celebrities who flock to them. The people want custom On an ordinary strip of Southeast Powell Boulevard near 82nd Avenue sits the modest-sized Deluxe Tattoo Parlor (8333 S.E. Powell Blvd., 503-774-8477, www.deluxetattooparlor.com). Expectations are defied inside the small wooden building. Deluxe also has an elder statesman, Terry Tweed, 60. In the shop every day are Mav Mess, 40, and Spike Palmer, 49. Mess, a tattooer with 16 years’ experience, did 95 percent of the flash art that lines the walls. He reworked traditional images with watercolor and ink. “I have a lot of pride in this stuff,” he says, explaining that for copyright reasons he keeps a tight rein on people using it. “When someone takes it and uses it for their band it’s a drag.” In North Portland Dan Gilsdorf has a similar affection for old-school tattoo styles. Gilsdorf, a respected conceptual artist, is a co-owner at Atlas Tattoo Studio (4543 N. Albina Ave., 503-281-7499, www.atlastattoo.com). He appreciates the thicker outlines, bolder imagery and solid black shading of early-20th-century tattooing, and personally prefers it to today’s bright colors and fine shading, although he will do what the customer wants. “It’s a low-res medium, and the simpler the images are, the better they hold up,” he says. “Colors fade and lines spread, but you account for that at the design stage.” Tattoos were designed to be easy to draw and to look good for 30 years. “I think properly done, a good tattoo looks better after 10 years than when it’s new.” But priorities have changed, Gilsdorf says. “People want them to look good when they’re young. And now it’s all about individual expression.” And tattooing now reaches a new population. “We’re so much more of an image-reliant culture,” Gildorf says. “Images are the way we communicate, so just having one is not enough now, because so many people have them.” Gilsdorf designs with pencil and paper. Computers are good for spacing text, but like Johnson and Mess (who refuses to have a computer in the store) he loves the feel of working by hand. He reckons half of Atlas’ business is custom work. “People bring in an image from a magazine or printed off the Web, and they adapt it. They have vague ideas, sometimes no idea. Sometimes they say, ‘I want something that will fit here,’ and point to a spot. “Google image search is a crazy thing — it’s changed a lot. Most of the time people are bringing in photos of other people’s tattoos; they aren’t really thinking outside the box.” At Deluxe, Mess has noticed something similar. “The classic thing is people come in, look at the walls and go, ‘Is this all you got? I don’t want anything here, I want something custom,’ but they don’t really look.” He sees people flip through the photo book without really concentrating. “Then they want to look on the Internet for something. They want a custom job but they want to see it somewhere else first. I say, ‘Why don’t we start at the same place and design something?’ So if it’s a panther, they can say, ‘Yes, a panther, and I’d like it drinking tea on a hillside’ or whatever.” TV takes over Johnson and Gilsdorf both point out that technology of ink and arrays of needles (shading often is done with eight needles at a time) hasn’t changed in years. “The big change lately is because of the TV shows (‘Miami Ink,’ etc.),” says Gilsdorf, 34. “Tattooers can now become more famous than they ever could. That changes the energy, it brings in the wrong element — you have people opening shops now that don’t have tattoos or do them.” Tattooing was always a tight culture, and Gilsdorf sees this threatened. Self-taught, he also thinks the recent law that means you can’t take on an apprentice tattooer unless you are certified by the board of education makes it too much of a hassle for some people to pass on their skills. “For $8,000 you can now become a tattooer in three months. It’s ridiculous. I kind of like the idea of zero population growth for tattooers,” he adds with a smile. Mess of Deluxe says: “The TV show kind of tattooing I don’t have a lot of time for. This used to be an industry of just a guy giving a product and getting paid for it, and now it’s gone Hollywood. But that doesn’t keep us from delivering the product.” Johnson at Sea Tramp stresses that it’s a customer-service business. “I’ve met some talented artists who are cold, curmudgeonly tattooists. I’m like, ‘I’d never get a tattoo from you!’ ” Pictures, places change Talking of customers, what do they want and where do they want it? “I do a lot of lettering, memorial tattoos and crosses,” says Ryan Zachary, 25, who works out of a studio at 4625 S.E. Woodstock Blvd. (503-957-1539). His colleague Valerie Einerson, who has tattooed her own daughter, says she gets a lot of mother and daughters who come in as a bonding ritual. “The amazing thing about tattooing is the trust,” Einerson says. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience. “I’d say the imagery is similar to seven years ago when I started, but it’s just that the places have changed, from shoulders and ankles to the ribs. When I started I did an armband a month, now I do one in a year. I’m glad that’s gone. The arm has five different types of skin — that’s hard. Plus, it’s hard to later do a sleeve with an armband dividing your arm in two.” “I remember a time when I’d do three Tazs in a day,” Mess says, referring to the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character. “Now I haven’t done one in six months.” There is regional difference. Spike Palmer says he did more crosses in his four years in Kansas City than in his previous 14 years in California and Oregon. Now he does a lot of Northwest American Indian stuff. “The iconography is a lot more eclectic now. The first year I worked it was a lot of Guns N’ Roses tattoos, now people are thinking about it more.” “People can bring in anything,” Johnson at Sea Tramp says. “Yesterday I had a woman bring in her favorite crow’s-foot necklace. I Xeroxed it and put it right on her.” ‘Tramp stamps’ strike back First-timers are more daring, going for bigger and more prominent ink. “When I started, 2 inches was a big tattoo,” Palmer at Deluxe says. “Now we’re looking at shoulder-to-elbow for the first time. Now they come in and say, ‘I want my ribs done.’ I get soccer moms who want their first tattoo to be on their neck.” Gilsdorf says: “The rib cage is a horrible place for a tattoo: It hurts, people move around. But it’s a pop-culture backlash thing against the small of the back debacle, the ‘tramp stamp.’ ” The lower back is a good place for tattoos, being flat and smooth. But this decade terms like “tramp stamp” have arisen, denigrating women with lower-back tattoos. “Someone who hasn’t got any tattoos probably made that,” Gilsdorf says. “Now you can get T-shirts at the mall saying ‘No tramp stamps!’ It’s ridiculous!” The fact that the canvas is attached to living people is what makes tattooing such a dynamic art form. At $120 an hour inking time, a large tattoo can run into four figures. For many people it becomes the first time they’ve collected art. “At the end when someone says, ‘This is like art!’ that’s kind of neat,” Mess says. Palmer, a painter, has an art dealer in Sacramento. “I tattooed her entire thigh. She gave a talk on collecting at the Crocker Art Museum, and she lifted up her dress and showed that tattoo off, and said, ‘This is just another way of collecting.’ It has little or no resale value but it’s still art,” he says with a smile. “And if it opens their mind to regular art, that’s good.” Johnson agrees. “If you go into people’s houses you see they can’t afford original paintings, they have reproductions and posters. But getting a big tattoo is changing how people think about art, they’re doing more research, they’re talking color values and contrapposto (where a figure is twisted on its own axis). They’re building an art vocabulary.” Some people like quirky tattoos. Johnson drew a three-eyed Hillary Clinton portrait and offered it for free. He had one taker, a woman in her 30s who got it on her calf. “Funny people get funny tattoos,” he says. There’s plenty of cover-up work, too, of badly executed tattoos from people who trusted their tattooer too much. But there are still limits. Context is everything, in place and time. Johnson, like many, won’t do faces, necks above the collar line or racist tattoos. “You don’t want an 18-year-old to get something on his neck,” he says. You don’t want to go to a PTA meeting 15 years from now with a big pair of dice with fire coming off them on your neck.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.