Sean Herman: Jeff Ensminger Interview (Part I)
By Sean Herman
So what did I do that night? I get home, I got the needle, the india ink, the thread, and here I am trying to poke a cross into my hand. I am like a weenie little kid, and I don’t want to poke myself with needles, so I’m trying to do it, but it just didn’t seem to want to go in. So what made the most sense to me was, ‘How do you INJECT the ink into the skin?’ I couldn’t figure that out. I was like, ‘How’s a needle going to INJECT the ink?’ So the only thing that made sense to me was to get a syringe… –Jeff Ensminger…
With those words from Jeff, I spit my food out laughing, well, not really, but I thought I was going to. Jeff Ensminger has been a friend of mine for years. He has always been one of those guys that I identify with. I really enjoy his work and he has been the inspiration for countless tattooers, but even more than that I enjoy his stories, especially about how he got into tattooing, and the people who influence him.
Tattooing has a strong history of oral tradition, it’s the ability to tell a story that kept many early American tattooers busy. Early 20th century fair and carnival tattooers had a great quote, that’s been quoted by many amazing tattooers, it comes from W.C. Fields, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”
Every good tattooer has that magical time, while they are tattooing someone, that that person is in the palm of their hand. The person getting tattooed is listening to every word you say, and you’re giving them a memorable experience, a story that they won’t forget. Here are some of the stories that Jeff told me about what tattooing means for him, how he got into it and where he has gone. Jeff has enough stories to write a best-seller, so here are a few of my favorites…
Sean Herman: Like all of us involved in tattooing, Jeff remembers the time when he knew he loved tattoos. Here’s the first time he saw one…
Jeff Ensminger: Okay, it’s definitely… The first time I saw tattoos and thought, “That’s a piece of art work on the skin,” where I really realized what that was, was on one of my uncles. He was a biker and had all these crazy black and grey biker tattoos. I remember, I was five or six, seeing that stuff and thinking it was freaking amazing, wizards with crystal balls and grim reapers with shot guns. It was a grim reaper forced perspective with a double barrel shot-gun pointed out at you with smoke coming out of it. Kind of Southern California Chicano, Jack Rudy style black and grey biker mix. He had them all over him. I thought they were the most freaking amazing things I had ever seen. Even being that young, I thought it was the most amazing thing you could ever have, these tattoos. Even if they were a skeletons, because if it was a skeleton -it was so much better.
I asked Jeff if this is where his affinity for skulls and wizards comes from.
Why not? It’s classic and it works, and wizards are always good, the world doesn’t exist without wizards.
Truer words were never said. I asked him to tell me the story about the first thing he ever drew.
Okay… The first time I remember sitting down and doing a drawing (for real) as in, I felt as though I was sitting down and doing a piece of artwork, I was eight or nine and I was just getting into 80’s metal… I had an older step-brother who was really into that stuff. He was in his 20s and had a room I wasn’t allowed in because it was filled with posters of a half-naked Lita Ford, Judas Priest and naked chicks in general. It was awesome, it was like the specials they used to have on the Christian channel about the bad kids. It was locked but I used to sneak in there and see the stuff… some of it was cheesy stuff like Poison, but I loved it.
So I remember the first tape I ever bought myself was Poison, Every Rose Have Its Thorn single… Maxi-single, it wasn’t even in a sleeve. It had a pictures of Brett Michaels on the cover and his tattoo of a rose with a dagger through it. I was like, “TATTOO!” It’s amazing. So I sat there and drew a picture of that tattoo. I probably drew it 20 times so it would look exactly like that tattoo. It’s funny because the first drawing I remember doing, not the kind in school that you have to draw but the first one I sat down and wanted to draw, was a tattoo…
Jeff also tells a lot of great stories about doing things that all kids do, such as taking art classes, getting kicked out of class for not saying the pledge of allegiance, or hating one of your teachers. But there’s one thing that not most kids do -get arrested in the 6th grade.
I couldn’t go to that art school anymore because I got arrested when I was in the 6th grade. That sounds bad ass… (laughing) but it wasn’t.
He continues, saying why he got arrested…
Just for being a kid…
My mom didn’t have money. We didn’t have a lot of money, and I don’t want to blame it on money but I didn’t get a lot, no toys. Didn’t get the things that I felt like everyone around me was getting. So what did I do, I stole them. I was just stealing a lot at the time. Obviously it was bad… It was great I got arrested, I got what I deserved. I became a little thief with a bunch of kids doing the same crap, being wild. Kids usual start that in high school… I got started early. (Laughs) I got started and blamed it on Mötely Crüe.
That was a pivotal moment in my life, I got in trouble. Enough trouble that I had to pay off all these fines by doing manual labor when I’m in the 6th grade. (Laughs)
I make a comment about it sounding like a child chain gang, which is just hilarious to me…
I was definitely in a chain gang. It was the equivalent to a chain gang. You could rent youth labor, and that’s how we would work off our restitution. So I had to spend time at a juvenile facility and do this outsourced labor, it was churches that would rent the kids to do this stuff. The money went to pay for the juvenile facility. I remember digging a trench for a pastors hot tub (laughs), at his house. It’s hot as hell and we’re out there with a pick axe digging a trench.
A pick axe.
Editor’s Note: Due to the length of this article it will be broken up into two parts… Stay tuned for more.
Jeff Ensminger can be found at: http://www.jeffensminger.com/.
(Sean Herman is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine.)
Sean can be found at:
Mobile, AL 36601
251 432 4772