By Sean Herman
There is nothing like the sound of a solid, in tune tattoo machine. The thick buzz, the pop as the needle first hits the skin, and the feeling as you pull a clean, solid line. Any tattooer will tell you, “that’s addictive.” The feeling of tattooing, it’s like nothing else. That is why I tattoo. All I can think about day in and day out is that feeling. It’s like when you first fall in love and nothing matters but you and that other person. That is tattooing… It’s a passionate love affair that found me in a small town in south Alabama over 15 years ago, it has taken me half-way across the world, and brought me right back to the same small town…
I wanted to write something for the TAM blog that showed the positive light of tattooing, something that all tattooers could identify with, and something that people who were interested in tattooing could also find themselves in, and what better than the love of tattooing.
The first few of these blogs are going to be about how certain tattooers got into tattooing, how their passionate love affair began and where it is taking them today. I am going to talk to friends of mine, people who found tattooing and realized that it is something they could never live without. First, I’ll tell you how it grabbed hold of me…
I’ve told this story many times, but never really sat down and shared the emotions behind it, and honestly, this might be the last time I share it like this. Usually, it’s just something that people ask about, and I’ll give a short, concise answer and they will be on their way. “So you used to be a preacher, and now you’re a tattooer, well how’d that happen?” I hear it a lot, and usually my answer is, “Well, they aren’t necessarily as different as you think.” Here is my view, which is a little different from how I usually tell it.
Like a lot of kids I grew up getting into skateboarding and punk rock. I met an amazing group of kids when I was 12, and they have remained my family even up until today. Punk rock was an outlet, something that told me I wasn’t alone, something that told me other people felt the way I did. Screaming along words that meant everything to me, to us, something you can never really explain how it felt, but you know you loved it.
With Ian Mackaye I said I was “out of step with the world,” with Henry Rollins I said, “I was tired of your abuse, try to stop us, it’s no use,” and with Milo Aukerman I said, “My day will come, some day I’ll be the only one.” They spoke everything I was always trying to say and giving a voice to a kid that didn’t know how to use his own. Punk rock found me, and it saved my life. That was my first exposure to tattoos. Henry Rollins having these old, black, scratch-like marks all over his arms, marker bands (like the Misfits, or Black Flag) and experiences. That idea started to intrigue me, markings of progression through life. A way to visually account for where you have been, and where you are going. Marks of progression…
Some years passed, I grew more and more involved within punk rock culture, seeing all my favorite bands every weekend, and all of them being covered with tattoos. It became something that was in my face all the time. I remember one day reading a piece on Paulo Sulu`ape, that forever changed my life and I fell down that rabbit hole, immersed in the magic of tattooing. At that point I had already received two tattoos from my friend Jason Cline, and would have been completely covered, if it wasn’t for my job not allowing me to get anymore for the time being.
What was my job you ask? Well, I was an intern as a youth minister at a small Southern Baptist church. I know, I can hear the crickets chirping and everyone looking around, wondering if they heard that right. Yep, I was going to be a minister. I know it comes out of left-field, but I’ll explain it a little better further on in our story. Going back to Paulo though, that is where I identified with him, the magical, spiritual connection in tattooing. The way he spoke about a connection to the person receiving the tattoo and the power that it gave, it was amazing… inspiring. That is where the bug bit me, I knew tattooing would forever be an obsession to me, something I could never get out of my head, but I never thought I would be one of the few lucky ones that could give a tattoo, I thought I would only be one of those that would receive one, or in my case when I was 19, a ton.
Quick story to interrupt, sorry. Years after I was affected by Paulo, so much so that I had become a tattooist, I found myself working under the watchful eye of an amazing woman in the Netherlands. I went out there for a guest spot, and she became something of a tattoo mom for me. She had been in the industry, had seen the world and had fought for tattooing. She was tough, and I respected her immensely.
One night we were having a meal out and she asked me this same question of “how did you get into tattooing?” I began by telling her about Paulo Sulu`ape, and how his words changed my life. She looked at me, smiled and I noticed tears started coming down her eyes. “Paulo” she said, “was the love of my life.” I sat in awe and listened to a story of them falling in love, getting ready to spend a life together and his untimely death that forever changed her life. I listened and was amazed. I told her how his words changed everything I thought, to which she smiled at me, and softly said, “It’s tattooers like you that Paulo lives on through, forever.” We sat, in silence, with tears in our eyes, forever connected. To me, that is tattooing.
Now back to the story, I started getting tattooed almost everyday when I was 19. I was in college at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama studying to get my degree in theology. At that point I had started preaching throughout the state of Alabama, to churches large and small, and was working toward going to seminary and eventually leading a church. But in this time I started dealing with complete doubt of what I believed and who I was. So I started getting tattooed, it was something I could control in a sense, I was able to receive markings that I wanted to show where I was at that time.
I knew that life was now changing faster than I could watch and that everything would change from here on out. Within six months I had spotty sleeves, my hands and both of my lower legs. I was getting tattooed everyday, by different friends with different meanings. As my feelings on Christianity began to fall apart, tattooing became everything I could think about. I lost all sense of footing, losing my religion, education and home.
Eventually, I walked away from the church (and the world I had come to know so well) completely. I was homeless, living like any 19-year-old punk rock kid does, touring with bands, crashing on couches and scamming to get by. Tattooing became my goal in life, I knew that is what I wanted to do. Everything I had held on to was now gone, and tattooing was all I wanted. It was my light at the end of a very long tunnel, one where a difficult road lie ahead.
This road led me to Mississippi, not far from the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil… Fitting, I suppose. Especially since in a different life, years prior, I had worked on performing exorcism in the city north of there, and now found myself in a different world, waiting for Abraham to offer some water. But that’s a whole other story. I was there, working as a handy man, trying to figure out what to do with my life.
I had spent the months before talking to all the tattooers I was friends with, asking for an apprenticeship. I wanted to tattoo more than I wanted to breathe. I remember some good advice I got from a tattooer, I really didn’t expect him to say what he said. One day, while he was tattooing me, I asked him for an apprenticeship and he said, “You’re too nice man, I don’t want to see you get wrapped up with how people can be in tattooing. It’s more than you think it is.” And you know, he was right, it was more than I thought it was but it’s always been worth every hardship that comes with it. It’s just like a relationship, that passionate love affair.
Ok, no more interrupting, now to finish the story… While I was still in Mississippi I got a phone call from one of my friends who had tattooed me quite a bit (Kele Idol) he said, “If you still want to tattoo, I want to teach you, just come back to Birmingham.” I remember dropping the phone and just staring. I couldn’t believe it, after all of the time I thought I would never be part of the family, giving tattoos, I now had a chance.
Honestly, I felt like Charlie getting the golden ticket, just sitting there… holding it, staring with my jaw dropped. That was one of the greatest days of my life. I packed up our bags and came back to Birmingham and received my apprenticeship at Aerochild Tattoo under Kele Idol, along with a ton of help from the owner Justin Kontzen. That was my first step into a world I am so thankful to get to be a part, and it’s because of them giving me that chance that I could; I am eternally grateful to them.
The road was full of stories and crazy experiences, from naked PCP filled men ripping cars apart in front of the shop, to losing clients that you grow close to because life is something they no longer can live. With every new experience, I’m constantly growing and becoming more and more of a tattooer. From there I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing people and make amazing friends. I even once got lucky enough to have Zeke Owen tell me I had bad breath and my tattoos were horrible, telling me the ins and outs of cock-fighting and then spending days teaching me how to draw lettering, but that’s another story, for a later time.
For the next few blogs I’m going to be interviewing friends of mine, talking to them about how they got into tattooing and why they feel the passionate love for tattooing that they do. Their stories are exciting and some of them I couldn’t believe, from their lives before tattooing, getting their apprenticeships or living through the apprenticeship. As tattooers we are storytellers and I hope this blog tells some great stories that we can all identify with, for the love of tattooing…
(Sean Herman is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine.)
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