By Aubrey Trufant
Austin, Texas is a vast melting pot filled with all kinds of food, entertainment, culture/counter-culture and lots of art. Austin has been home to many great tattoo artists, past and present. The talent in this city alone is overwhelming but I spent some of my time at Rock of Ages Tattoo (ROA). The ROA team consists of co-owners Tony Hundahl and Steve Byrne, supported by Jay Chastain and Bobby Padron. They live and breathe tattooing, which has established Rock of Ages as one of the best shops in Austin.
Aubrey Trufant: Steve, what is your exact age and how many years have you been tattooing?
Steve Byrne: I just turned 33 in August. I did my first tattoo around the end of 1996 so that means I have been tattooing for nearly 15 years.
AT: Being British and from the UK, how did you end up in Texas and why did you move here?
SB: My wife and I were looking for a change of weather and a change of pace. We lived in Florida for a while, the UK for a year or so… I had a fair amount of offers on the table, but when the opportunity arrived to move here and work at Rock of Ages, I jumped at it.
I held the shop in really high regard, pretty much considered it one of the best tattoo shops in the United States since it’s inception. I was originally going to work for Jason Brooks, part-time I guess, but he decided to sell the shop to Tony and I. That was over two years ago. Now we have Jay Chastain here, Bobby is up and coming fast. I couldn’t be happier with the shop and the way things are going.
AT: How well do you like tattooing in Texas compared to England?
SB: Honestly, I find it does not matter where it is that I am tattooing. If you want to stay busy, you do nice work and treat people right, that’s the same the world over. I’ve got a large body of work to look at in my portfolio or online. That helps for gaining trust with walk-ins but especially with serious collectors, already aware of my work, there seems to be 100 percent creative control… So, it’s about the same really.
AT: How has it been working alongside Tony Hundahl? I hear it can be challenging?
SB: Not at all, he’s one of the best dudes I’ve ever met. Keeping pace with him has definitely been the biggest challenge. Just when I think I’m getting somewhere and I’m enjoying my work, he’ll bust out something that makes me just want to quit. I’m not proud, I’m always asking the guys for help with drawings, color schemes, stuff like that… we all are. That’s the best environment to do tattoos in.
AT: Let’s talk about your favorite subject matter or favorite imagery to tattoo…
SB: Anything in the Japanese-style, Western or American Traditional, or a combination of the two. Not necessarily full on Traditional Japanese, I love it and I’ve witnessed it first hand in Japan but I’m not from there. That doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate it, know your stuff and all but I’m no expert with the stories and all the myths. I’ve got Jay working five feet away from me if I ever need help with that.
AT: Who comes to mind when you think of Texas tattooing?
SB: Dave Lum, Mike Malone, Jason Brooks, Chris Trevino, Richard Stell, Oliver Peck… All the usual suspects I suppose.
AT: What has been the most memorable moment in your tattoo career?
SB: Difficult to pick one thing that really stands out. There’s been good times for sure. Most recently, my Australian tattoo road trip with Chad Koeplinger this year was amazing. Being welcomed by Horiyoshi III at his studio in Yokohama. Working at Spotlight, hanging out with Bob Roberts at his house and watching him paint… Having the opportunity to work with so many amazing tattoo artists is something I’m always going to be grateful for.
AT: What are your favorite tattoo machines at the moment?
SB: This Steve Turner liner is a solid machine. I just had Jimmy Whitlock sort out some old machines. I have a few old Aaron Cain ones…
AT: Are there any tattoo conventions that you are looking forward to?
SB: San Francisco and Richmond.
AT: Do you have any memorable guest spots you did? Where have you had the most fun doing tattoos?
SB: Inksmith and Rogers was fun. Gold Rush, NY Adorned, Chicago Tattoo Company are all awesome… My trip to Spotlight Tattoo was great. My first day was Richard Stell, Baby Ray and myself. I walked in and Ray was trying to hustle me down for a tattoo.
He was like, “What do you want kid? A rose or a skull? Oooh, I do a good rose, it’ll be like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
Richard was nudging me laughing. It took him a while before he realized I was there to work. I was already unpacking, behind the counter and everything…
I’m like, “Nice to meet you mate! I got appointments, where shall I set up?”
AT: Awesome! That’s hilarious! So, any last words for the interview?
SB: I don’t know man, I got a long way to go. There’s a lot of tattoos still to come from me. Tattooing isn’t everything in life but it certainly has given me a lot and it means a great deal to me.
One of the most eye-opening moments I had as a new tattooer, I’d been tattooing a year maybe, was when getting a critique from Bugs at Evil From The Needle. He told me as he was looking through my crappy photos…
“You are a baby. No… you haven’t even been born yet. You will never, ever, EVER love tattooing as much as I do.”
I love that. It stuck with me, you know. This far in, looking down the ladder at the people involved in tattooing, attitudes towards the craft and the originality of the tattoo work show, I’m starting to understand more and more what that meant.