The Official Blog for Tattoo Artist Magazine

Jay Brown: Coeur d’Alene’s Blue Rose Tattoo – An Interview with Robert McNeill (Part I)

By Jay Brown In Northern Idaho there is the lake town of Coeur d’Alene, actually more of a city than a town. In the sea of tattooing these days, some of the old timers really shine through as great tattooers as well as incredible artists, one of those is Robert McNeill. I recently got a chance to stop in to see him at his studio on 4th Street right in the heart of downtown Coeur d’Alene. Blue Rose Tattoo is a clean, comfortable shop, with lots of incredible artwork adorning the walls, all of which is either Japanese or American Traditional tattoo designs, all painted by Robert. And speaking of painting, Robert is incredible at that, pin-ups I think being one of his strong points, but he can do anything, all in all Robert is one of those artists that can create on skin as well as he can on paper or canvas. So after we were done with the hellos and the pleasantries, we got down to the interview, which wound up being 43 minutes long, so I am gonna edit things, cause I don’t have enough pictures to go with that many pages, and that’s a lot of pages so we’re gonna trim it down a bit, although it was a great interview all the way through, but we’re not writing a book, but I digress… Yes, so the interview. I hope you enjoy… [Editor's Note: Jay's interview, due to its length, will be broken into three weekly installments, this is Part I of III.] 

Jay Brown: You’ve got a great shop here; I really like all the painting and signage outside. You can tell it’s a tattoo shop. Love your mural. What blows me away about these days is shops will open and they don’t even have the word tattoo on the building.

Robert McNeill: Yeah!

Jay: It doesn’t make sense to me how can you have a tattoo shop and not have the word tattoo on the outside of it?

Robert: Yeah! Right!

Jay: Whatever happened to the traditional “Tattoo” signage instead of so-and-so Gallery, or whatever Lounge, it’s a tattoo shop. I’m sorry…

Robert: You shouldn’t have to apologize. The attitude has definitely changed. I sorta question the whole boutique thing personally. You go to them and they look like a beauty salon they have that whole look to them.

Jay: Hair salons…

Robert: Yeah, I don’t dig that…

Jay: They either look like hair salons or art galleries…

Robert: Or both, and you don’t know what you’re in! I purposely decided to keep my place looking kinda old school, I think people find it comforting… They are looking to get the whole tattoo experience, a lotta people do. They prefer it…

Jay: I think it’s great you are keeping the traditional look cause it’s definitely something that s getting lost. Like you said when somebody walks in they want that experience…

Robert: I think it actually might come back. It’s been just wandering and wandering and wandering, nostalgia always has a way coming back. It’s kinda like 50’s stuff. You Know. I figure the old school look in tattoo flash will come back too. And not that New School stuff…

Jay: Yeah, the New Old School?

Robert: Yeah! I just really, really, really don’t like that stuff…

Jay: Find the worst (Old School) image you can find and make it…

Robert: Uglier!!! Do a really bad job of watercoloring it, and walk around like they are Leonardo di Vinci. (Both laugh)

Jay: I noticed you have a knack for the Oriental style… it seems like it’s one of your niches…

Robert: Yeah that has been my passion since I first started. I first got interested in it was in the early 70s and there was a movie with Robert Mitchum called the Yakuza… And the opening credits of this movie where these photographs and filmed images of real irezume and horimono, and they just blew me away. Then in later, I guess in 1980 I think, Sandy Fullman’s book on Japanese Tattoo came out…

I knew that was what I had to do. So then in researching it, I discovered that early Americana, early American tattooing was all based on that same style. By sailors… But the look of it, the bold line, the bright colors and black shading are signature elements of both, they just applied them to American type images, military stuff mostly. But those Japanese tattoos are a product of over a 400-year evolution. It’s not like they didn’t try everything. Because that’s what they do… they figure out to take a thing then take it apart and make it better, and better, and better, and better. It is not accidental what they did.

Jay: They work hard too, I remember a tattoo convention, one of the Tattoo Tour one’s, in 1993-4… I think it was Philadelphia, might of been Chicago. It was one of the Japanese tattoo families that was there and they worked all night long, all day and all night.

Robert: So I found out what their apprenticeship consisted of, you know, and I set myself to the same tasks. So I’ve drawn 1000s and 1000s of dragons, and 1000s and 1000s of tigers, and 1000s of koi fish, and geishas and warriors… Copied countless woodblock prints, and studied and studied and studied them. I looked into the history so I would be able to make them look authentic. There are things you don’t do, things you don’t combine like snakes and cherry blossoms. And I see that constantly and it drives me crazy. And I know a few Japanese tattooers and they just laugh at that kind of stuff…

Jay: People just don’t know…

Robert: Or don’t care…

Jay: Aren’t the scenes (in traditional Japanese tattooing) all from stories and myths or legends?

Robert: Yeah, most of them are from a book called 108 Heros of the Suikoden, this hugely popular book, it’s a novel, pretty much like Robin Hood, it’s a bunch of guys who ran around killing evil guys and helping the peasants… Based on a Chinese story originally, but every major Japanese woodblock artist like Hokusai and Kuniyoshi all illustrated those… It was a best seller for over 200 years and that’s what established that book and images for Japanese tattooing. It all originated with the working class and the Yakuza, who really appreciated the stories. And most of the Kabuki plays are based on those stories. And lastly, most of the guys doing tattooing came from the ranks of the woodblock engravers. Which is why the word Hori is always attached, it’s the first syllable of any tattooers official name, “hori” means engraver…

Jay: I have “tattoo artist” [tattooed] on my wrist and one time when I was in Philly I got grabbed by a Japanese guy and he said,”You a tattoo artists!” I asked how he knew, he said my tattoo, that it said “engraver of skin.”  I thought that was pretty cool.

Robert : Yeah, that’s the higher form… yeah that’s cool… So anyhow, I studied all those artists and all those stories have been a real education, I don’t claim to be done by any means. I am constantly working at it…

Robert can be found at Blue Rose Tattoo in Coeur d’ Alene, ID.

(Jay Brown is a tattoo artist, machine-builder and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Jay can be found at A Fine Art Tattoo Studio, in Moscow, Idaho.)

Read more from Jay:

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Jay Brown: Coeur d’Alene’s Blue Rose Tattoo – An Interview with Robert McNeill (Part II) « TAM Blog

  2. Pingback: Jay Brown: Coeur d’Alene’s Blue Rose Tattoo – An Interview with Robert McNeill (Part II) | makesmeunique

  3. Pingback: Jay Brown: Coeur d’Alene’s Blue Rose Tattoo – An Interview with Robert McNeill (Part III) « TAM Blog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,796,154 other followers