Interview By Chad Koeplinger
Chad Koeplinger: Who are some of the tattoo artists that you were interested in at that point? What were you looking at tattoo-wise? What was blowing your mind?
Valerie Vargas: At that point I don’t think I became fully aware of people that I like now until I already started my apprenticeship, because that’s when I was allowed to have a look through the books that for me at the time were way too expensive -I couldn’t afford them. And my boss had all of the Tattootimes. He never looked at them anymore but they were up on the shelf and any time it was quiet I’d have a look. I became more aware of Ed Hardy and more of the West Coast kind of guys. But even then I was still struggling to remember names, I just knew the work. I remember some backpieces that are still pretty awesome. And it was also through my friendship with Stewart in the beginning that he was really on it. He knew who everybody was, what they were doing, and he was totally stoked about everything, and he taught me a fair bit about it…
(Stewart) If I can interrupt, the tattoos you were into were more cartoon stuff. Not Mr. Cartoon stuff, but like…
No, there was Cory Kruger, I still love his work… Joe Capobianco…
(Stewart) Joe was the one I was going to mention. There are still things in Joe’s work that are present in Valerie’s work, but Valerie’s is more traditional. But there are kind of playful girls and shit like that. But that was then. And from there you learned about more traditional styles.
Definitely. Because I remember, funnily enough, when I was doing my apprenticeship I began to notice more traditional stuff, heavy black outlines, black shading and at the time I just didn’t understand it. I just thought foolishly, as pretty much anybody that thinks that they can draw that gets into tattoo, “Aw, anybody can draw that. That shit is easy!”
(Stewart) I remember that spider…
Yeah, I drew a spider and dagger. I still have it but I’m not going to submit it for this interview. (Laughs) it’s fucking awful.
(Stewart) She said, look, I can do old school, it’s fucking easy. I’ve done this spider and dagger. And she emailed it to me.
And you critiqued it and I remember being so hurt.
(Stewart) I’d been tattooing about six months or maybe a year and I just said a few things that were wrong with it -why are these shapes uneven? Why is this like that? Why don’t the legs of the spider meet the body properly? She says now that that’s the point where she realized traditional wasn’t just easy. Traditional tattoos don’t look the way they look because the person who applied it can’t draw. They look like that deliberately.
That’s true. And that was maybe a year into my apprenticeship and that kind of changed where I started to look for reference… And to change what I was looking at just from tattooers work in general, really. And I remember seeing your name quite a lot in magazines -Chad on the road, Chad on the road, Chad on the road.
Yeah, you and Mario Desa actually. And Chriss Dettmer. Those were the names that just kept coming up. And I began to realize, shit, this stuff looks good for a reason. Like Stewart just said, deliberate. And I realized it doesn’t need to be a realistic spider, just because you want a spider. It needs to be what a spider might look like broken down to its basic form, basically, yet remains readable.
And after that I remember my work kind of improving, and trying to understand traditional. Because I didn’t understand traditional for a while. My boss at the time as well. I remember I didn’t know what whip-shading was. And my boss said, “Don’t even mention that term in my establishment! Old school is shit!” Because he was an older guy… To him old school was what the guys before him did, why would you do that? And he was more like, not new school, because he didn’t’ do new school, but he did that kind of look with like 10 different shades of blue mixed together and getting it right and stuff like that… He liked calling it color-bomb or something. To him traditional was where everything was built up, like built up lines and he was like, “Why would you want to do that?” So he was really against it and he didn’t want me to go down that path.
Like the era of dudes that rebelled against real traditional tattooing -the guys that wanted to push the art farther.
Yeah, he was one of them. Exactly. That’s part of the reason why he gave me a job in the first place. He could see I could draw and he wanted to develop that. But sometimes I look back and wonder, wow, I can’t even imagine what my work would look like if I had gone down that path. It’s kind of strange. And I’m so happy where I’ve ended up.
How did you find the technical aspects of tattooing? Because it is a lot different than pretty much any other medium.
It is, yeah.
Was it hard for you to pick up? Well, obviously not because you’ve only been tattooing for like two minutes.
I haven’t been tattooing for two minutes! (Laughs) I think because I understood that it was a completely different thing and I just tried to unlearn whatever I had. It was hard at first, but within a year of tattooing full-time I began to understand that I just needed to let go whatever I had thought was tattooing and just kind of…
I like that you came from the art school but didn’t decide that you knew better than the way it’s supposed to be. You didn’t come into it going, “Oh no.” I know you’ve had your few minutes of that -a couple months, but you learned it quick. Most people get taught that lesson early but they don’t heed it and five or six years later they’re still fighting against it. It’s cool that you were able to check your ego relatively quickly.
I have to check it constantly. But I remember Dave, my boss, my tutor; he was always very keen on reminding me of that. Just because you can draw doesn’t mean you can tattoo. He just kept repeating it. And at first I thought, “Why are you being so mean?” And then after the first couple of tattoos I did I was like, “I totally know what you mean.” This is a completely different kettle of fish. And certainly I think being in a relationship with another tattoo artist whom I respect, whose work I deeply respect and have done for a long time -we have some really awesome conversations.
Do you guys talk about tattoos a lot?
We talk a lot about tattoos. All the time. When do we NOT talk about tattoos? I don’t even know.
(Stewart) When we talk about food.
Yeah. (Laughs) Food or tattoos. And we work together as well so it’s a good way to kind of keep you in check too. If he sees me trying something out that he can tell that I’m just trying to get a little bit too clever… it’s not that he thinks, “Oh, you’re getting too clever, you should check yourself.” It’s more a case of, “Well, you tried to get clever and that obviously didn’t work. Go back to the drawing board and work out why that was.”
Valerie Vargas can be found at Frith Street Tattoo in London, England.
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