By Victor Farinelli
I was 18 years old when I got my first tattoo. That was in 1988. The first tattoo shop I walked into was Dave Lum’s shop in Austin, Texas. I was on the fence up until that time on whether or not I wanted to get a tattoo. I had always wanted a tattoo because my dad had them, but I was used to seeing tattoos that were poorly done and faded. As I looked through Dave’s photo album, however, I saw a whole new side of tattooing. Each page was filled with vibrant colors, surreal images and clean lines. Two weeks later, I got my first tattoo. Dave did his version of the cartoon character Bill the Cat on my upper arm…
About this same time some of the young guns of the tattoo world started emerging: Marcus Pacheco, Aaron Cain, Freddy Corbin, Daniel Higgs, Guy Aitchison, Filip Leu and others. Everyone was pushing the envelope to the extreme. But no one was pushing it as far as Dave. I remember him saying one time, “I don’t mind doing a black panther, but I’d rather do a black panther with a big pink dick.” That is the mind of Dave Lum. He doesn’t care what people think. In turn, he attracts like-minded people who allow him to push the boundaries so far that even the most open-minded artist and collectors were aghast. Dave was an equal opportunity offender. He told me once that he wanted to do tattoo of a Hasidic Jew riding an oven. I had a co-worker, who was Jewish, who wanted that badly but never got around to getting it.
By the beginning of the ‘90s, Dave had appointments booked 6 months in advance. Saturdays were first-come, first served. Those of us who could not get an appointment during the week would camp out in front of the shop. Seriously: camp out. People would start showing up around midnight. The shop did not open until 1:00 pm the following day. Even so-called rock stars had to camp out. The late Jani Lane of Warrant was in Austin on tour with Mötley Crüe and came into the shop on a Friday to try to get tattooed.
This was when Warrant were all over MTV, and they had money out the yin-yang. Lane tried to talk his way into getting an appointment that day, and Dave said he was all booked up. Lane even offered to pay more money. Dave didn’t care who this guy was. He told Jani that if he wanted a tattoo he would have to camp out with the rest of the folks and try to get an appointment on Saturday. I was the first one in line and camped out for Saturday when this huge limo pulls up and out comes Jani. The limo left, and he parked his ass on the grass with the rest of us.
Dave also had a tradition of giving away free tattoos on April Fool’s Day. The only stipulation was that he tattooed what he wanted, where he wanted. If April 1st fell on a regular work day, he would open at the regular time. If it was not, say on a Sunday or Monday, he would open up when he felt like it.
He opened up at 4:30 in the morning one year. He was a good judge of character so each tattoo he did seemed to fit the person who got it. He would draw the design on your skin (he rarely used stencils) and if you wanted it, he would tattoo you. If you did not want it, he would erase it and say, “next.” I got three April Fool’s tattoos from him.
I never planned on getting the super-weird tattoos that Dave graced me with. They just happened. If you speak to others who have tattoos by Mr. Lum, I am sure they will say the same thing. He would be tattooing someone and just throw out an idea: “You want a Lady Luck? How about a fat lady luck?” I thought that was an awesome idea, so I got that on my thigh.
When we started talking about doing my arms he said, “You should have Bill the Cat drowning a baby in a baby pool of blood… in a rubber room.” Nothing is sacred to him. That is what makes his work so awe-inspiring. We would sit in his shop for hours throwing around ideas for tattoos.
Dave kept saying he wanted to do the Last Supper with Frogs. Eventually another customer of his said yes. Dave was set to do it when the customer backed out. I said I would do it. I thought it was a funny idea. I never thought it would become such an iconic tattoo. Same with the “Blue Plate Special” (eggs, bacon, and hash-browns on a blue plate) on my head. I just wanted a plate of food on my head because it was funny.
In 1992 Dave and his wife, Tera, decided it was time to move. They packed up the kids and their stuff, sold the shop to Chris Trevino, and headed to Salem, Oregon. My wife and I didn’t have any plans for the future except getting tattooed, so we packed up our things and moved up to Salem shortly after that. Back in the early ‘90s, in a small town, tattooed folk were not well thought of. We were all accused of being drug dealers and criminals. It was a big deal to have your neck and hands tattooed back then. Nowadays, getting your hands or neck tattooed is an old hat.
Dave got a reputation for being “the mean guy who tattoos down the road.” I think people take his straight-forward, tell-it-like-it-is attitude as ornery. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to get tattooed by him. There were many times that he said “I think you are in the wrong shop” and they were. Dave has had a long, eventful life before getting into tattooing, so he is not about to compromise and do something he really doesn’t want to do. From what I have observed, most good tattooers are the same way. You get to a point when you’re doing something long enough that you get tired of saying “sure” when you really mean, “I am not about to tattoo another Tasmanian devil with a basketball.” Now if the Tasmanian devil had a big pink dick…
I always said that I wouldn’t get tattooed by anyone else. But we grow up and things change. After five years in Salem, the Mrs. and I missed Austin, so we moved back to Texas. We have both been tattooed by numerous artists since we moved, but it always gives me a warm feeling in my heart when artists and collectors talk about getting tattooed by Dave or seeing his work. Many of the artist have told me that Dave is the reason they got into tattooing. Tera and I still keep in touch. People often ask me if Dave is still working. He still tattoos, but Tera mentioned that he may retire at the end of 2012. If you want a tattoo by one of the pioneers of tattoo debauchery, I suggest you make a trip to Oregon soon.