Interview By Jason Schroder and Shawn Barber
Henry Lewis: I did the shop-guy thing for about four or five months, and then you asked me to be your apprentice. And you gave me the whole low-down on what it would be, and at that point, you know, I was a cocky little graffiti-asshole who thought the world revolved around me, and uh, you know…
Shawn Barber: And did you stop painting at that point?
HL: I didn’t stop painting, I just put that on hiatus for a little bit, because the apprenticeship was a little more important. And I didn’t have a lot of free time.
SB: So you were tattooing, and just focusing all your energy on that.
HL: I was focusing my energy on the apprenticeship. And when I got a little free time I’d draw. Like, I kept illustrating and drawing images that I thought would work as tattoos. I would try to make graffiti-type characters into traditional tattoos, but make them have like a graffiti edge. It was sooo bad. [Laughs]
Jason Schroder: But you were still probably the most naturally talented artist I’d ever met in my life. You can draw basically anything. At the shop, if we were like, “Oh, we’re fucked,” Henry was the guy who’d knock it out of the park. So yeah, we kind of started working on your apprenticeship from there…
HL: And I fucked that up. That was totally my bad. I fucked it up because, in my head, I thought, “Now I’m family with these guys, and I can do no wrong.” So I took liberties, and I thought my shit didn’t stink.
Maybe two weeks before I got fired you sat me down and said, “Hey dude, you’re fucking up. So we’re going to give you one more chance, and if you fuck that up, you’re gone.” I remember it was you and Mark Heggie and Barnaby, when he was drinking. So I remember hearing that and being depressed, and then going out with my roommate and getting drunk and stoned and showing up for work the next day an hour late. And you guys were all in the back. And Travis comes out and says, “Hey dude, we gave you a chance. And you blew it. So you’re fucking fired.” I was like, “What? I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” And you guys were like, “Sorry holmes, you had your chance. Get the fuck out.” So Travis gave me my two weeks of pay, and then I got the boot.
SB: So after the apprenticeship ended, did you pick painting back up again?
HL: After the apprenticeship, I started getting into it more and more, working with two people. Mark Heggie, first and foremost, and Adam Forman.
SB: And both of those people you were working with at the shop. So they were around.
HL: Right. Yeah. They were around. Once Mark moved to New York, to work at Venus, then Adam came in. It was like a tag-team match. And Adam showed me more than I can remember to be honest.
SB: With what mediums?
HL: Adam was using acrylic. Acrylic and charcoal pencil, and a lot of ink. And I think it was because he had kids. He’d moved from Detroit out to South Pasadena, and he didn’t have a big studio space or anything, so I think he had like one portion of his apartment that served as a studio and he had kids around and everything. So he used acrylics and grease pens.
SB: So this is probably what, 15 years ago? 10 years ago?
HL: We’re probably talking about close to 12 years ago.
SB: And where were you working at the time?
HL: I’d gone to work for another shop in Duarte. And that was a bitch, because at the time I was actually trying to get a regular job after the tattoo shop, so I even tried to go back to work at Kinko’s for a minute but they were all full.
So then I made some flash and started trying to sell it everywhere, but nobody was buying, because they couldn’t reproduce it. I think I sold one set to Tattoo Asylum, and that was it. And then my buddy told me there was a shop opening on Duarte road—was that Monrovia or Duarte?
JS: It was Arcadia.
HL: It was Arcadia. Yeah. So I got a job at this tattoo shop, Red Hot, working as the helper, getting twenty dollars a day, if I was lucky. If I was lucky.
HL: So I learned the biggest lesson, ever. And it humbled me to no end. I knew my shit stank worse than anything, and to get back in the good graces of you guys—my family—I had to show that I really wanted to be a tattooer, that I wasn’t just doing it because I wanted to be the cool guy at the bar.
So for almost a year I worked at the other shop, tattooing friends who were also getting tattooed by you guys at Incognito, and then you saw the work and hopefully you saw I was serious enough about it to ask me if I wanted my apprenticeship back. And all that time, in my head, I was kind of content with being where I was at, because I knew I’d fucked up, you know? But then getting that phone call from you, saying, “Hey man, let’s talk about having you back over here,” that was one of the most amazing things a young man could ever hear. To me, it felt like a whole prodigal son deal, where I was cast out, I left on bad terms, and I had to come back and show that I was actually serious about it…
HL: In my head! [Laughs]
Henry Lewis can be found at Skull & Sword in San Francisco.)
Henry Lewis is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine issue #28.