Sean Herman: Jeff Ensminger Interview (Part II)
By Sean Herman [Editor's Note: To read Part I of this interview please click this link.]
One of my favorite [stories] from him was the story about him “tattooing” himself. It’s pretty amazing. I think Jeff is one of those great examples of someone who loves tattooing so much, they will do anything to be involved in tattooing…
Jeff Ensminger: When I was in the 6th grade I had a teacher, not really a teacher, but a teacher’s assistant, she was a bit younger. She had to have only been like 18 or 19. So she had this cross with the little rays, total Chicano style gang tattoo, it was on her hand, between the thumb and pointer finger.
I remember I saw it one day and I had to have been the only kid in 6th grade that noticed that tattoo on that girl’s hand and thought it was the most amazing thing, cause no one else gave a crap about that, but me. It’s like I saw it from across the room…
“What’s that tattoo on your hand?” (Laughs) She said, “Yeah, it’s this tattoo,” and I was like,
“How did you get this done?” ’cause I didn’t know… How do you get a tattoo? I just thought it was amazing.
She said her brother gave it to her a long time ago. I asked how, and she said, “With a needle and thread,” and she totally went into how you would hand poke this tattoo. Thinking about this now, no teacher should ever tell a kid in the 6th grade how to give themselves a hand poked tattoo. (Laughs)
She realized it right when she said it, she was like, “It’s not a good thing, so you don’t want to do it.” 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 a syringe. (Laughs)
Sean Herman: I just want to pause the story there, let me sink in… INJECT the ink… A syringe… Okay Jeff, continue…
So the next day after that I was at one of my friends’ houses and his dad had diabetes. He had a little sharps container and fresh, in the package syringes. And I was like, “Oh, shoot are those syringes?” and so I asked if I could have one…
He totally gave me one, and there I was that night, down in my basement, (I lived in the basement) an unfinished basement with Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Anthrax posters all over it.
I had the india ink out, I had it cause I was an artist, I was going to art school at the time. I had India ink for drawing, I had a full calligraphy kit. (Laughs) I think it was a Higgins Calligraphy kit I had out.
I had that thing out there, I loaded the syringe up with the ink, and I’m barely sticking it in the skin. I’m thinking, “I have to get it in there, but I don’t want it to hurt.” But I know I gotta get it in the skin, just enough, you don’t want to get it all the way through… but you have to get it in there a little bit.
So as I’m poking it through, it’s going through every little layer, and I’m like, “Oh, I’m in there,” and I’m all excited, ’cause I got it in there. (Laughs) Then I squeeze the syringe and I realize, “Whoa, I squeezed it way too much,” ’cause I have something that is almost a dime sized spot that’s just bulbous.
I pulled the needle out and I turned my hand because I was frightened, I had a bubble of ink that stuck out like two or three millimeters. It was the most frightening thing, all I could think of at that point was, “Why the hell did I just do that?” (Laughs) I seriously thought that I was going to inject a line into my skin…
So it’s the most ridiculous thing, but immediately after I did that all I could think about was how they talk about how you shouldn’t do drugs in school and somehow, if you use a needle, you’re going to catch a disease. So the first thing I thought when I saw that bubble in my hand was, “Oh my God, I’ve got AIDS.” I’d sweat every time I thought about it for at least a year, thinking that I had AIDS.
It took a while to go down, it went down after maybe a week or two. Obviously your body is going to absorb up that liquid. So I was left with this thing, it ended up just being a dot. It really subsided a lot… It looked like it was the size of a dime at first, but I ended up with just a big fuzzy dot. It was very fuzzy, it was my very first blow out. (Laughs)
That’s a good first blow out.
Jeff talks about how he got/did his second tattoo. He mentions picking up tattoo magazines, how that created even more of a tattoo obsession for him, and that it was a Paul Booth back piece that made him think, “Holy crap, I gotta start jamming out these death angels.”
I was like, “I’m doing it!” So a guy I went to school with… I would talk to him about the tattoos and stuff, all the stuff I had seen in magazines and all the stuff I had seen on my Uncle at the time. Somebody had shown this guy how to make a prison tattoo machine, I don’t know who it was, maybe the Anarchist Cookbook or something, I really think it might have been that. (Laughs)
So we did it, made a homemade tattoo machine, used a lighter to bend the toothbrush, mechanical pencil as a tube, the guitar string, sharpened up… the RC car motor, we used a little cam on the motor that you popped your needle into, we used an eraser chunk, you would pop that piece of eraser on there, then poke a hole in one side, you bend your guitar string, put it in there, then that spins around and causes the… whatever, you know, it’s a little tattoo machine…
The first thing that I did was start going over that dot on my hand, made it into a star, and added some other little stars. That was really my first actual tattoo, I was 13. I pulled a couple other lines here and there, but nothing really stuck. That was about it, I decided that was it for tattooing for me at the time. I don’t know why I didn’t run with it. Maybe I had just enough sense to stop before I had tattoo Guns N’ Roses stuff all over me.
Believe me, I wanted to. I had already gotten arrested, I had to move out-of-state, I didn’t want to get in too much trouble at the time. So it stopped there, but I was definitely interested in tattooing, the whole time. I thought it was the raddest thing ever. It was illegal to tattoo in Oklahoma, so even by the time I was in high school it wasn’t accessible. I had some friends that would get tattoos in high school, and I thought they were the most awesome things. I wanted to tattoo, I wanted to have tattoos mainly… that was really one of the first reasons I wanted to tattoo, because I wanted to have tattoos. It took me a while to actually get my first tattoo from someone else.
Fast forward years later and Jeff’s dream had come true, he is now tattooing, and working at a street shop in Texas, right at the Oklahoma border. He talks about his first week there…
The second day, I did two tattoos and I was like, “This is awesome!” I made a couple hundred bucks, and just couldn’t believe it. They gave me $200 dollars and I was like, “Holy shit, they gave me $200?” I would have paid them $200…
The third day hits, I think it was a Friday, I did a decent amount of tattoos, I did three or four tattoos. That was my third day working at a tattoo shop, that’s a lot. And then Saturday hits. Saturday at this shop was like nothing I have ever seen before. This is the only shop that advertised in Oklahoma on the radio, they were the very first shop over the border, like only five miles over the border.
So Saturday hits… I have to be there at 10 a.m. and clean the shop, and then we start tattooing at 11 a.m. It was pretty early, definitely different from rolling in at 2 p.m. or something. I get there and there had to be at least five cars already outside, and I was like, “What are these people doing here?” They were waiting for the shop to open, at 10 a.m.!
That day, I think I did 15 tattoos… My fourth day tattooing I did at least 15 tattoos. That was the day I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this,” ’cause it wasn’t like an apprenticeship… It wasn’t quite what I thought it was going to be like. I was immediately thrown to the wolves basically, and it was hard.
It was a bad situation, because I’ve got people yelling at me. Here I am, doing a tattoo in the middle of the day, and I look over at the wall of tattoos to do, pinned up on this little wall thing, and there was probably 20 stencils already made, and there are four of us tattooing. Twenty stencils, and that’s so much pressure. The guy I worked for didn’t tattoo, he was like a biker guy. Everything you would expect out of that situation, it just wasn’t good. He would spit in your face, yell at you, tell you you’re a piece of crap, accuse you of stealing, everything. Then I got another guy, kinda crazy, with a gun in his drawer, sitting next to me telling something bad is gonna happen. I had no idea. It was bad, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it.
I went through a couple of weeks like that… I didn’t feel I had a choice. If I’m going to tattoo, this is it. This was all I knew. I did some tattoos, a few here and there the next week, and then Saturday hits again, and sure enough, just as many people. I think by the time I hit my second Saturday I had done 20 tattoos in a day. From then on, for the next year-and-a-half, almost like clock work, every Saturday I did at least 20 tattoos. Some where big, like some big tribal armbands. Some of the bigger flash from the Cherry Creek, like half pagers and stuff.
I may have gotten to my third or fourth week at that shop and I was immediately like, “I don’t know if I can do it.” All I could think of was “sink or swim.” That became my motto at the shop, it was sink or swim. No one is going to make it happen, except for you, you have to do it. It’s either that or you don’t do it and you go home, tail between your legs, back to Oklahoma, and not be a tattooer.
Jeff left that shop after almost two years. He then went to work in Dallas, and that was about the time that I met him. Jeff had an early career based in a more realistic style. He was known for glowy skulls, bio-organic, almost surrealistic pieces. Eventually, everything shifted and became more based in traditional tattooing, which has been a really interesting and exciting thing to watch. Jeff credits Randy Muller with changing how he thought about tattooing…
Randy Muller, the first time I ever saw a tattoo from him I had to rethink everything I was doing. It didn’t look like anything else I had seen. It was a very rendered traditional tattoo. Now someone who does traditional tattoos will look at the same tattoo Randy did and say, “That is not a traditional tattoo,” but it had those things, it had that foundation, the skeleton, the frame-work… A ton of black, and just the way it was done…
You could even see some rough whipping that was in there. It was cool, but it was still fancy, still rendered. I had actually never heard of Randy, and there was a reason why, Randy doesn’t really care if anyone knows who he is anymore.
The first tattoo I saw of his was on a tattooer that was a refuge from Hurricane Katrina, and he worked at Eye Candy in New Orleans, which was Randy’s shop. It was a day or two after Katrina and this guy comes into our shop, his name was Jeremy Justice. He is an amazing tattooer. He came in and needed a place to work. He had nothing. So some guys at the shop gave him stuff, and he worked at the shop for at least a week, maybe two weeks. He got some money together so he could travel to where he had family.
He had a leg sleeve and one of his arms done by Randy. I saw it and I asked, “Who did that stuff?” and he was like, “Oh, Randy Mueller…” And I was like, “Who?” You know when you hear a name and it’s that amazing of a tattooer, you wonder, “How did I not know who this person is? How can there be someone doing that good of tattoo work that isn’t out there?”
A few years ago, Jeff and his girlfriend Alexis starting traveling in their RV across the country. Jeff has spent two years going from town to town, doing guest spots at different shops. Initially it started out as their search for a home, but eventually the motor home became home. He talks about the first stop, which very fittingly was at Randy Muller’s studio, Eye Candy.
Our first stop was Randy’s shop in New Orleans. I tattooed there, traded tattoos with Randy, which was an honor. It was awesome, he tattooed our motor home on me, and made it coming out of a yellow rose. So it was like us leaving Texas, the yellow rose of Texas. Awesome tattoo… I love it, one of my favorites.
Jeff also credits Nick Wagner, and his shop, Black Hive in Jacksonville as an influence on him…
Super awesome guys, and Nick is an amazing tattooer. He does the most solid tattoos (healed) that I’ve ever seen. Just the most richly packed solid color in a tattoo. It heals amazing, super simple, to the point, no frills, just a good tattoo. It’s amazing… That’s how I want to tattoo. I want to tattoo like that, but still have a piece of me in it. Everyone is astonished about how rich and solid it is, tattooers, everyone is like that with his stuff. He is another person that not enough people know about him in tattooing.
Jeff introduces me to new tattooers, new ways of doing things, (and really) new ways of thinking and looking at situations in tattooing. I can say that he is one of the few people I know that truly have a passionate love for tattooing, and I think it shows in his work.
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