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I’ll never forget my first time getting inked. I was terrified—of the pain, the permanence, the potential regrets. I was a total basket case, sitting in the shop and dreading the inevitable machine buzz. I kept asking myself: why do I want to do this, again?

Several years and several tattoos later, I can’t help but laugh. That near-paralyzing fear gave way to immense pride; my tattoos are now an intrinsic part of my identity, and I love expressing myself in such a unique and personal way. Despite their incredible publicness, tattoos feel deeply intimate—it really is like wearing your heart on your sleeve.

It’s partly because of that intimacy that tattoo artists must find the balance between creator and translator. After all, they are dealing with identities—their clients’, yes, but also their own. The tattoo artists at San Francisco’s Seventh Son, known for their strong and unique artistic voices, have perfected this balance: they’re not only creating masterful works for their clients, they’re also shaping the city’s creative identity.

San Francisco, which saw Ed Hardy and other pioneering artists rise to fame, has a unique role in tattooing’s rich history. Erik Rieth and Luke Stewart, co-founders of Seventh Son Tattoo, have helped bring about the next chapter in its tattoo culture; they’re melding new and old, drawing on those time-honored influences while moving the conversation forward. We sat down with the pair to talk about that process—their collaboration, inspiration, and thoughts about carrying the torch.

How did you get into tattooing?

ER: I kind of dove in, jumped in with both feet, and did it all the wrong way. I didn’t serve an apprenticeship. It got me where I am now, so no regrets, but in hindsight point A to point B could’ve been a lot easier. But yeah, just naïveté and youthful enthusiasm [got me into it]. I’d gone to a tattoo convention and just seen a couple books, and thought I could do it. [I] bought a bunch of equipment and just started doing really fucked up tattoos on my friends and family for a couple years. I somehow managed to get hired at a busy street shop, and that’s where I really started to learn tattoos.

How did you end up at that convention?

ER: I was living in Pittsburgh and going to CMU [Carnegie Mellon University], and there was a tattoo convention that a friend and I decided to go to, just for something to do. I think I only had one tattoo at the time, and I just thought it would be a cool thing to check out. I definitely got enamored with it; it’s pretty easy to get enamored with it. It was just really exciting.

LS: Like Erik, I guess I didn’t do it the ‘right’ way; I didn’t get an apprenticeship. I was in the punk rock/hardcore scene in the Bay Area, and just surrounded by amazing tattooing and amazing tattooers everywhere. All my friends were tattooed and getting tattooed at 222. It’s been closed for like, ten years—legendary shop. Anyway, at the time I was 18, going to 222 and being totally blown away by all the art around me.

I always wanted to be a tattooer. It seemed totally out of reach, but I eventually became friends with some really influential tattooers in the Bay Area who got me started. [They were] helping me tattoo at my house for a little bit. I was really lucky in that way, that everyone around me was just a top notch tattooer.

Had you ever drawn before? Even if you’re attracted to art doesn’t mean you can do it.

LS: I definitely grew up drawing and doing art; I mean, I was never classically trained, I didn’t go to art school. You’re put in a position where you have to learn to draw, have to learn to illustrate all these tattoos that people want. I also think that if you have the drive to do it, you can learn to be at least a capable artist. Maybe you won’t have the talent that some people possess, but I think someone who’s never done it before can actually sit down and learn to do it. Some people, like I said, have that ‘thing’ that other people don’t.

I definitely think I had some talent to begin with, but I was just surrounded by everyone doing amazing tattoos. I was hanging around the right shops and the right people, and I was just super lucky in that way. And San Francisco, at the time, was probably the most influential city in North America doing tattoos.

ER: I’d say the world. Everyone at this point knows Ed Hardy’s name through the clothing, but he was and is much more than that. They call him the ‘godfather of modern tattooing’, and that’s not an understatement. He was always based in San Francisco: he ran Tattoo City in North Beach, and before that it was Realistic Tattoo on Van Ness, and you can go on and on. He really set the standard for San Francisco and made it like a mecca for tattooing.

LS: San Francisco is definitely the birthplace of custom tattooing. I also later on worked for [what’s] now the oldest shop in the city, Goldfield’s Tattoo in North Beach. I worked for Henry Gold for two years, which was definitely an experience; getting my butt kicked and paying my dues, so to speak. Working for an old-timer and getting screamed at and things thrown at you; working in an old environment that’s basically a tattoo museum now. It’s the oldest shop in San Francisco—it’s been there 35 years, I think. I worked there and then went on to work at a couple other shops in the Bay Area before we opened Seventh Son in 2006.

Why did you decide that you wanted to open up your own place?

LS: For myself, the dream is to have your own shop and to have people working for you and be able to do whatever you want with your space.

ER: For me it was just time. For a long time I didn’t feel like I needed to have my own shop; I was able to do a lot of traveling earlier in my career, and that was more important than being tied down with a business. But it just became time. I’d been tattooing for like fourteen years by the time we opened the shop. I’d bounced around, and anytime I’d land back in a city where I was going to be at for a while, it became harder and harder to answer to anybody who was supposed to be my boss. It just like felt time to be the boss.

What do you think is the most important part going into designing a tattoo with somebody?

ER: It’s definitely a process. I think designing a good, large custom tattoo isn’t something you’re going to take on earlier in your career—I mean, people do, but you shouldn’t. It’s just a whole other ball game.

We have consultations with the client before anything, and talk about their ideas and what they want, dig up references, and hammer it out ahead of time. Then [we] literally go to the drawing board. Over time tattooers will tend to develop a style, so most of the time the client, if they’ve done their research and chosen you for a reason, has a decent idea of how you would do it.

Would you say a lot of your business is word-of-mouth?

LS: Yeah, online and word-of-mouth. I think the ideal client comes to you because they like your work and they have an idea about how can we make this a good tattoo. Some people have their own ideas of what makes a good tattoo, and it’s our job to educate them about [what] isn’t going to work.

ER: Sometimes the worst clients are other artists in another medium. They could be amazing at what they do, but most of the time it’s not going to translate. Tattooing has its own visual language. It isn’t that hard to understand, but it needs to be respected and acknowledged.

LS: And there’s a reason it’s simplified and dumbed down: because it’s going to last, stand the test of time. It’s not going to be a muddled piece of weird fuzzy lines in ten years. A lot of people come to you with things they’ve seen work on paper or a piece of canvas and it just does not translate at all. A lot of times we have to say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” [From] some of the guys in the shop, you’ll hear no way more than yes. And the reason, I know from my [own work]: I’ve had so many experiences where I said yes and I regretted saying yes. It just didn’t work, and you’re like, “Why did I try to do this?” I have clients all the time who say [that they] appreciate you saying that’s not going to work, instead of trying to make it work.

ER: You definitely hear that. It shows that you give a shit, and you’re not just trying to take their money. It’s [also] really common in the shop to pass a project on to someone else who would do the job better. If you explain the reason why, people really appreciate that too.

So we heard you make machines over there.

LS: There’s a couple guys, Greg Rojas and Jeff Croci, who make and build machines. [They] sell them to other tattooers in the trade and within the guys in the shop, and go to conventions and sell them.

ES: It’s its own art and craft. It’s weird, because in certain ways it’s easier than it sounds—I mean, there’s only one moving part—but it’s harder than it seems as well, because there’s a certain mojo to it.

LS: Yeah, even good machine builders will say, “I don’t know why this runs really good. It just does.”

ER: I think it’s a combination of the magic touch and a lot of knowledge and skills. It’s a weird thing, but not everyone’s good at it.

Are you all using their stuff?

ER: Pretty much. I’d say almost everyone in the shop is using at least one machine from both of those guys. Which is pretty cool.

So you’re a pretty self-sustaining shop.

LS: Yeah, I mean we mix our own pigment, everything. I think that’s one thing in tattooing that’s kind of getting lost. I came up with Henry Goldfield, sitting down with a soldering gun and making my needles for the week, and making pigment.

LS: Our shop has a really good variety of [experience levels]. Greg Rojas has been tattooing, what, 22 years? And Gordon Combs, our youngest tattooer, has been tattooing five years. So you have definitely the two old and new schools and ways of thinking.

ER: Yeah, in San Francisco I do feel like we’re carrying the torch. We have this legacy to live up to. Since the 1970s there’s been great artists and shops in San Francisco, and I think we do great stuff and we’re top tier in the city, but there’s lots of competition in the top tier.

Is it very competitive?

LS: It’s competitive without being a rivalry, I’d say. It’s friendly competition. We’re friends with a lot of our peers, other shops.

LS: Also what’s cool about this city is that a lot of the tattooers that were big names ten, fifteen years ago are still the guys [from whom] you’re seeing amazing work on the street. You’re like, “Whoa, who did that?” Or even, “Yeah, Grimey did that,” or “Tim Lehi did that.”

Where do you draw your inspiration for tattooing?

LS: I definitely get it from the guys I work with everyday. Everyone’s work ethic, being around so many people who are so into tattooing and into making their work better. Just watching how hard they work makes you want to work that much harder, and keeps you on your toes. I try to surround myself with people who are doing what I’m doing and who I think are doing it way better than I am. I’m always striving to be better.

ER: Probably like any artist, I’m open to almost anything I see that turns me on, whatever it might be—not just tattoo art or tattoo-related stuff, but usually when it comes down to the drawing board it gets translated as a tattoo. A lot of times looking at historical tattoo stuff, I find myself going more and more backwards, especially for Japanese [styles].

It’s strange: it kind of makes the work more focused, but somehow it’s also more liberating. When you get rid of some of the variables and you’re working within a tighter framework, somehow it makes it easier. I don’t know how to explain it. It frees you up from other distractions, from adding different bells and whistles to a piece. You’re working within a specific stylistic framework.

LS: When in doubt, go with the classics. You can’t go wrong with simple.

You mentioned San Francisco being like the center of tattoo art. Do you think it has a unique voice when it comes to the art coming out of here?

LS: I’d definitely say a bright, bold, aggressive style. The 222 days kind of set the tone for SF tattooing. I mean, Ed [Hardy] obviously did too—real bright, punchy colors.

ER: Yeah, all roads lead to him. They call San Francisco the ‘Gateway to the Pacific,’ you know, so I know [Hardy will] say that a lot of it came from Pacific Islands, as well as Japan and the Orient. So that influenced the San Francisco style early on, and then it got distorted through a weird San Francisco lens. ‘Cause that’s how we do things here.

But there’s definitely a different look. I’m getting my back done by a friend in Tempe, and he says that you can tell it’s a San Francisco tattoo. And being immersed in it, I understand that, but it’s the kind of tattooing I see every day so you kind of forget it.

So there is a stylistic element to it; even the east coast/west coast thing. I went to a tattoo convention in Boston last year, and I hadn’t gone to an East Coast convention or shop in quite a while, and it kind of blew me away how different it was. The Northeast now [is] much, much more focused on American traditional stuff. Really digging deep, beyond Sailor Jerry, who’s the one everybody knows. [They’re into] people who were influencing Sailor Jerry, which is cool.

There are a lot of different directions you can go in tattooing, because there are so many influences on it. In a certain way it’s a commercial art, pop art type of thing. It draws from all these different sources, and which sources you choose to draw from kind of makes your tattooing what it is.

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