Sean Herman: Famous Gabe Smith
By Sean Herman
It’s been almost 10 years since I got some of the greatest advice I’ve ever been lucky enough to receive. I was getting tattooed in Pensacola, Florida at a beautiful shop called Hula Moon. Famous Gabe, a name he received from Bob Montagna, was tattooing me, a little skinny 19-year-old. I had just received news that I was going to start my apprenticeship at Aerochild Tattoos, and was so excited that it was all I could talk about…
While I was going on and on about it, Gabe said something that stays with me to this very day, he said, “Some people want to be rock stars in tattooing, ya know, but fuck that, I would rather tattoo the blue-collar working guy and give him the best tattoo he is gonna get.”
Years later, I found myself in a situation where I felt like I had completely lost touch with my roots and where I had come from, and those words rang in my head. In Gabe’s words, “You took the road less traveled, the strange road, and you came home.” Here is the story that comes from my home, about a man who has changed my life, and how he got into tattooing.
First, a little background about him. Famous Gabe Smith has been tattooing over 20 years now and is the owner of Hula Moon, which has now been open for over 10 years. He’s traveled the world, done enough paintings that could line 10 shops, and put in more hours of tattooing than that of 10 tattooers careers combined.
Gabe has traveled the world tattooing and has a good story about every place he has been. To me, Gabe truly is tattooing at it finest, storyteller, artist and honest. Without further ado, here’s how Famous Gabe Smith got into tattooing, in his words.
“It seems like yesterday all this started but it wasn’t overnight and now I look back at a road traveled and it has been such a long road, over many mountains and rocky steps. There were the ups and downs, but that’s life. I learned from a crazy native American guy called Captain Billy. He taught me a lot, not just tattooing but becoming a man too.
The town where I grew up in Mississippi had only two shops. Capt. Billy’s place and Junior’s. I got some of my earliest work from the old biker dude named Junior. His place was pretty nasty, even for back then. After I met old Billy, which was the night me and my brother fought an entire frat, but again, that’s another story. Dave and I hung out at his shop. Since we were kids Dave always pushed me to use my artistic skills for tattooing but I guess I just knew better than to learn how to tattoo on my own. We would stare at the tattoo kit ads in the back Easyriders and dream about it though.
So, I am at Billy’s place and I guess I had hung out enough that he didn’t run me off. Capt. Billy intimidated the heck outta me. He is still the most talented man I ever met. He might not have been the best tattooer but that guy believed in a naive kid like me. Every chance I could be at the shop I was. It was a competition everyday. It wasn’t easy because I wasn’t the only one hovering. He had several grommets always hanging out like vultures waiting on the chance to get a foot in the door, but Capt. Billy had his methods for weeding out who was serious and who was not.
Once he made me walk miles to buy him a Coca-Cola and it had to be ice cold when I got back to him. I was only allowed to walk, nothing else. So I did it. I think he was surprised I came back, and the Coca-Cola was cold. It literally took all day. He confided years later that usually that was his go-to to really run someone off.
Back in those days you did what you were told. You mopped floors or shined spokes on the bosses ride. I just watched and did things before he asked. As soon as he was done with a tattoo I broke the station down, set back up and then washed the dirty tubes. You didn’t have to tell me to take the trash out! I worked like that to stand out from the other guys hanging around.
I don’t miss those days even though they were pure. It was raw back then. Hitting up sewing stores and snipping the heads off sewing needles to tattoo. I used to have to go in Wendy’s and get as many of those little ketchup cups as I could to use for ink caps. If it saved the boss a nickel he would do it. I remember too that gloves had only recently found there way into the tattoo industry. I would get yelled at for ‘wasting’ gloves ’cause I wore a pair one day when scrubbing tubes. I only say those times were pure because I didn’t know any better. We tattooed just to tattoo. I was stoked to do anything!
There didn’t seem to be fads or if you had a style it was trying to be like Mr. Rudy or Mr. Monte. We had some bunk old Spaulding flash but the real gold was that flash catalog. I could spend hours searching those pages for something cool I saw in there. Customers would pick the pieces out of it and we would have to draw them to actual size. No photo copiers in that shop! I used those old stencil pencils and I still have one after all these years to remind me how good I have got it now.
Later on, I got hit on my bicycle by some old drunk guy (that’s another story) and when I got the check from him I signed it over to Billy and we went in together and opened a shop. It was a small town in the greatest state in the nation, Mississippi. Meridian had a training base for the navy and on the weekend they would pile into the shop. There would be tattooing around-the-clock on the weekends.
During the week not so much, but it gave me time to paint. I was into doing big canvas stuff. Jim Perlman stopped by the shop the other day and we were reminiscing about the old days. He reminded me of how prolific the painting was back then. I forgot but the whole shop was lined up two and three paintings deep leaned up everywhere.
Jim toured with different bands. He came to Meridian back in the early 90s with one of my favorite bands Doc Hopper. I remember Jim had tattooed the bass player and it was the best tattoo I had every seen. I was blown away. Here I was owning a shop and I knew right then I just wasn’t doing things right. I had to change. When Jim Perlman showed up with the band Doc Hopper (pop-punk outta Boston) he had just tattooed the Mickey’s bee on the bass player. It was so bright and bold lines. I guess it was something new to me.
Jim had been hanging in Baltimore with the left overs of the old Flint, Michigan crew. Seth and Brady Duncan to name a few, and it showed. We barely had quality mags, and the phones back then were still attached to the wall and didn’t take photos. There really was no way to readily spread information back then even though we were into the 90s by then.
It wasn’t an exact point I guess but it weighed on my mind. I knew I could do better. So I started branching out. I went to who I knew was good in my area. I made the drive to the coast to go to Sailor Moses’ shop. I was so intimidated that I wouldn’t say I tattooed. I went here and there and finally felt the urge. It was a big world and I wanted to see it. I went all over in my old VW van and ended up chasing a girl to Wisconsin. It was from there I went to Florida. My van had about seen the end of it’s days and I broke down in Pensacola. I guess it has been home ever since.
In my travels before and after landing in Pensacola I always took advantage to always gain as an artist. In my college years I fell in love with an artist named Walter Ingles Anderson. I made it a point, no matter where I was, I always went to the museums.
I also fell in love with Edo period wood block prints from Japan back in college. It went with my fascination of medieval manuscripts. My father was so supportive. He always made sure I had paper and pencils to draw with even though we didn’t have a lot of money. He bought me a book I still carry around today of old manuscripts. The idea of the patience and diligence those artist spent just to hand write and draw the pages of the bible was amazing.
I always find it hilarious when I hear artists or clients say they are tired of koi fish or it’s a fad, or whatever. It has been over 20 years for me. I can’t imagine ever walking up to one of the master artists in Japan and say that. I think the one way I have progressed the most is from the drawing and painting. I try to everyday. I hear people say they have to be in the mood, but not me. If I can move my arm and one eye is open I will draw.
On a wild weekend at a tattoo show in Tampa I guess I fell asleep standing up in the shower (dang Grady Spades got me all snookered!) and I turned around to see a beautiful English countryside instead of the hotel shower stall. I was dreaming and there I was by a white picket fence and Shay Cannon walked up and said, ‘Remember to always take the strange road!’ and I woke up! What a statement… and believe me I do try.”
To this day, Gabe tattoos, draws and paints more than anyone I know. He is always creating something, be it a good story, joke or an amazing tattoo. Gabe’s mind is always going, and tattooing is always at the center of it. I am lucky and proud to call him one of my mentor’s, and am excited to see where his career goes in the next 20 years.
Contact Gabe @Hula Moon
473 North Pace Blvd., Pensacola, FL 32505
(Sean Herman is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine.)
Sean can be found at:
Royal Street Tattoo
110 North Royal Street
Mobile, AL 36602