Addicted to Ink
For many individuals that are heavily tattooed, there is a certain kind of addiction that cuts deeper than the needle itself. It is more than the solitary memorial piece or the tribal arm band; hearing that tattoo machine fire up and feeling that initial bit of pain can be very therapeutic and addictive. Tattoos have been described countless times to the degree that it seems cliché to try to put it into words. For me, it was a love affair that started at a very young age.
My grandfather passed when I was five years old so my only recollection of him was that of a tall man who would wear the same black suit, white shirt and tie to work daily. When he came home from work, as a ritual he always hung his coat, hat, and rolled up his sleeves and have a seat in the same armchair that only he was allowed to sit in. He would drink a single glass of bourbon, smoke tobacco from his pipe, and read his paper. I still recall he had two faded tattoos, one on each forearm. One was a black panther and the other was a tiger. My grandfather in his youth had served in the Navy during World War II and for his generation those tattoos were a rite of passage. Today there is no such defining mark that symbolizes a boy crossing into manhood. Nonetheless, as a young kid at five, I was fascinated and knew I had to have one.
At 14 years old, I had acquired a fake ID from my older uncle and was beyond determined to get a tattoo. At that time the only people I had seen with tattoos were military like my grandfather, bikers like a few of my uncles, and a couple of hardcore cons from the neighborhood, with that fake ID in hand, a couple friends and I drove to a local tattoo shop in Northern California that at the time was in a shady area of Sacramento. My buddies stayed in the car and smoked as I walked in alone. I had a poorly drawn tribal and 55 dollars, and as I walked into the tattoo shop I was somewhat nervous. I was not sure if I was going to get the crap kicked out of me or laughed at. Nonetheless, I walked in the door and there sat three bikers smoking cigarettes. They all immediately stopped talking and looked directly at me. The artist at the shop spoke first and said “we don’t want any” as if I were trying to sell magazines; to which I responded, “I’m here for a tattoo.” He asked if I had an ID and as I gave him my fake, he slowly looked at it, and then at me and laughed. He told me to take a seat. That would be the start of my own addiction; twenty years since that date has passed and now it seems like a lifetime ago. Over the years, I have witnessed the art of tattooing and the acceptances of it completely evolve. With these changes many artists have seen the high and low points of the profession. As in all art forms and or movements, if one is truly passionate with what he or she is doing, then they will be able to weather the storms. My friend Lou Gomes has fifteen years in the profession and is one of those individuals.
Looking at Lou, you can tell he is an artist but not like some of the tattoo artists of today. Instead, Lou looks more like an individual you would expect to see in a small, dark, smoky bar in Massachusetts telling epic fishing tales, fresh off the boat. He wears a mustache and has a scrappy way about him for being five nine and a 160 pounds. He has a ton of old school tattoos, some of which are faded, but none are of fishing boats as far as I know. He dresses rather meagerly in the same chucks and mechanic jacket, and never brags about being a tattoo artist. You can also tell by looking at him there’s a certain wisdom that can only be gained through experience and careful observation, so if that makes him old-school then indeed he is.
When I first approached Lou about his story, we actually argued back-and-forth a little as he was under the impression that I was looking to do a story on traditional tattoos, to which he would respond that he is not a traditional tattoo artist, but I explained that I was looking to write a piece on his experience as an artist and the art form as a whole.
His story starts as a young artist, not a fisherman, in the fall of of 93. New to Southern California, Lou wanted to catch his first break and work for a tattoo shop; however, he quickly came to discover that every shop he looked to apprentice at was not concerned with his artwork, they were concerned if he could shell out 3 to 4 thousand dollars to pay for the apprenticeship. In his mind, that had never sat right with him. Instead, he thought the questions should have been along the lines of could he draw, or what made him want to become an artist and so forth. He quickly abandoned that hope and continued to live out his passion for art as an illustrator, while paying the bills as a construction worker.
Shortly after he moved back to Massachusetts in 2003, as fate would have it, his cousin asked him to draw a piece for his back. As Lou drew it, he was reluctant to believe it was good enough for an actual tattoo and accompanied his cousin to the shop out of curiosity. His cousin’s tattoo artist was immediately in awe and asked Lou if he had ever considered tattooing, to which he replied “I’ll stick with a real job.” As he hung out at the shop, he started to realize the profession had completely changed and had become more respectable. He accepted the apprenticeship; however, this time around his experience was different in that the shop actually wanted him to learn the art of tattooing from every angle.
In his mid 20’s, an apprenticeship would not pay the bills, so he worked construction during the day and spent his nights at the shop. His time spent as an apprentice would not qualify as the norm. He did not have to run the gambit of tasks, ranging from sweeping floors and emptying trash cans to countless hours watching other artist tattoo. Instead, his time was spent drawing for walk-in customers that needed quick pieces. Being an illustrator would give him a leg up as he fit the mold perfectly. He still worked the front desk and emptied trash cans but he mostly dove headfirst into his artwork. He would perch himself like a hawk for hours on a small stool and watch the owner and his mentor, Steve, tattoo clients. He also religiously carried a notebook and frequently wrote down as many notes as possible from session to session. He had truly become a student to the ways.
Even today with 14 years of experience he still likes to view himself as a student. Over seven months as an apprentice he felt as if he were taking advantage of his mentor. His experience was not what he had expected; he did not have to pay fees and was treated as an equal. Feeling as if he had to return the favor for his teacher, Lou one weekend secretly remodeled the shop while Steve was on vacation. Lou can still recall his mentor telling him that that was the only time another man made him cry.
After four months of apprenticeship and walking the line, setting up stations, breaking down stations, learning equipment and tattooing pigskin, he was ready to take on his first tattoos. His first few were basic line tattoos given to friends who were willing to allow an amateur with little experience to permanently ink their body. Lou quickly found out that his friends would come out of the woodwork; to Lou, though, it was a chance for more practice to further his craft. After his initial few attempts he quickly progressed
Over the last fourteen years in the business, he has learned how to weather the storm, and how to ride the tattoo wave of success. Anyone that has spent five minutes in the city of Albuquerque will notice there is just about one tattoo shop or barbershop on every corner, making the competition beyond fierce. Lou realized early in the profession that in order to make it in this city he would have to not only get his customers in the door but keep them coming back. He also made it a habit to stay away from the seasonal specials and focus on the long-term clients. In his own words, “cheap tattoos aren’t good and good tattoos aren’t cheap.” He feels like the industry is heading out of that slump.
One of the many things that stuck with Lou from his days as an apprentice is the love for the art of tattooing and its culture. He learned early on not to just drink from the well that others have dug, but to learn its history, and past while continually refilling that well. Like any good teacher does for his apprentice Lou’s mentor always made sure to reference other artists from the Lieu family to Julie Moon. He would be eager to explain their artwork, and style. He wanted Lou to have an appreciation for the history along with the possibilities. Speaking with Lou, he has obviously studied the craft and recognizes that “the culture has shifted. 90 percent of the tattoo shops today do not look like shops but more like art galleries. There’s comfortable couches, it smells nice, there’s palatable music playing. It was something that was consciously done because there’s only so many, bikers and sailors to get tattoos. So the acceptance of tattoos has been very lucrative for many artists.”
Lou is also quick to point out that many of his clients today run the gamut of professions and are from all different backgrounds, from Intel workers to soccer moms. Because of his vast clientele, his artistic mediums have also grown and have allowed him to study and create other art forms outside of tattooing. Like an obsessive mad scientist, if he is not at the shop, he is at home in a dark art room with one light focused on his desk, often with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, while hovering over his latest canvas in a trance-like state. To Lou, tattooing is not a job but a calling. He is not in it to make a quick buck, for those days are gone. Instead, he continues tattooing because he is still hungry. He is also somewhat unsatisfied with every piece of art he starts often finding an avenue to make it better or different.
Over the last fifteen years as an artist, Lou has worked in a few different local shops under a handful of like minded artists like Chris Partain and Jason Ward. Lou was a co-owner of a shop for a few years and he still travels back to Massachusetts to guest tattoo at his old shop Mass Ink. Over the years, he has also learned to be very observant and to never force anything. He is happy with the profession and the role he has played in it. When asked what advice he would give to any new artist he points out, “Never get comfortable in this profession. Stay hungry and continue to improve your skills, never rest on your laurels.” which is sound advice for anyone that wants to excel in what they do.
As I wrap up the interview with Lou, I can’t help but to look at my own arms, covered with tattoos. Most have faded over the years and I realize that perhaps we were part of a generation, a time, when having tattoos made you feel punk rock. Today, however, it makes us more common than ever and that envelope of being rebellious was pushed long ago. 14 years ago, when I started my first sleeve, I would often get frustrated when people would ask me what my tattoos meant and if I would like them when I was older. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would, but that was part of the fun, and the more tattoos I acquired, the less serious I would take getting them. Now as I gaze at them, I can appreciate the tiger on my forearm like my grandfather, or a Misfit’s skull like so many other punk rockers. Perhaps, initially, I was too young to appreciate the culture and its history. As I look back over the years, I realize my tattoos do mean something now; they’re a great story, a timeline in my life, well worth the addiction and the pain.