Jay Brown: Coeur d’Alene’s Blue Rose Tattoo – An Interview with Robert McNeill (Part II)
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 II of III.]
Jay Brown: So I noticed you like painting quite a bit, and I’ve noticed mixed mediums… Watercolor… What other mediums do you like to work with?
Robert McNeill: I do acrylics, oils, of course graphic mediums, charcoal and pencils and I do wood engraving too… And I do sculpture.
J: That’s a broad spectrum of art! (Both laugh) You got just about everything covered.
R: They all have their unique uses…
J: So pin-up girls…
R: Oh I’ve been painting pin-ups for 20 years.
J: Would you say that’s another one of your favorites?
R: Yeah, but who doesn’t like naked chicks…? (Both laugh)
J: So how long have you been tattooing now?
R: 34 years… Since 1978.
J: So you’ve seen tattooing go through some changes over the years? I know that in 26 years I’ve seen a couple…
R: Yeah, you say changes, you mean fads?
J: Yeah, like the Tasmanian devil and tribal, and biomechanical…
R: The New School fad, and you got that photo-realist thing going on, you got everyone copying photographs. That’s been around for a couple years.
J: So how long have you been here (in Coeur d’Alene)… and where did you get your start?
R: I’ve been here for 12 years… (I started) in the Bay Area.
J: Who did you work with out there?
R: I know (knew) Lyle, but the guy who mentored me, or (really) got me into tattooing was Chuck Eldridge… And of course Henry Goldfield and the Martynuik’s I worked at Picture Machine, and Greg James another good friend and kind of a mentor in the beginning. We both shared a passion for Japanese style tattooing…
J: So from San Francisco where did you go?
R: I worked all over the Bay Area; I worked a little in Hayward, Concord, Martinez, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek and Livermore. I worked a lot of different places ’til I moved up here. We moved up here to care for my mother, she had cancer. And she cashed in my promise from when I was a little boy to not let her die in an old-folks home, so she could die in her own bed. After she died she left us the house… and we decided to stay here instead of going back to California. I got a job working at a shop here in town that’s no longer in existence. I was there a couple of months and they asked me to manage it. The owner developed a very serious substance problem.
J: Yeah that always seems to be the downfall of shops.
R: I decided to move on after a couple of years there. I had been keeping in close contact with Aaron Bell from Slave to the Needle in Seattle, and he offer me a spot there, ’cause he was opening a second shop, and needed someone to run his original one. And I had some money saved up and I decided what the heck. We could move to Seattle, or we could stay here and see what happens, so I took my savings and invested in this little place, and I’ve been here ever since.
J: Yeah, right on, it’s a nice spot.
R: Yeah it’s not bad, not too far from the downtown, good parking!
J: It looks like a tattoo shop…
R: Yeah, it does look like a tattoo shop. You know we have 13 shops in this town now… They just keep generating work for me. (Laughs)
J: So where do you see tattooing going these days, since it is so overwhelmed, TV shows, equipment everywhere?
R: Of course I don’t think the TV shows do a service to the industry. In fact just the opposite. I think the caliber of people getting into tattooing is the highest it’s ever been. A lot more people are coming out of art schools and getting into it. I think the talent base is much broader… serious gifted artists that are going to make contributions. Some of the equipment today is a 1,000 times better than the stuff that was available in the 80s, and the ink that’s available now is phenomenal, compared to when we started it is infinitely better. On the downside though I see that it is inevitable that the government is gonna get involved… with more legislation. I don’t think that it’s going to protect anybody. (With license fees) it’s just another way to get money outta the practitioners.
J: Right. That’s how it seems to be happening with a lot of states with the regulations, it becomes a fee. Beyond that you pay your (license) fee every year, and nothing is done… You call to report someone tattooing out of their kitchen, and they get a slap on the hand, and then they are back at it in someone else’s kitchen…
R: I think the ultimate result of that is it will go back underground… ’cause it will wind up being illegal… In Japan at one point it wound up illegal and went underground…
J: And if that happens there will be a lot of kids working at Burger King with tattooed hands and necks… Digging ditches… (both laugh) and that’s ’cause of China on eBay and places like that selling kits for $49.95…
R: You can learn to tattoo on YouTube…
J: That’s another question, what do you think about that whole aspect, the cheap tattoo equipment available to anyone? I mean when I started it used to be in the back of biker magazines…
R: Mechanics Illustrated… I don’t like it one bit. I don’t think there is any way to stop that. In the effort to do it, more legislation would be involved… and maybe that’s something that the TV shows have helped to do… Some programs, from watching them, it became evident that you didn’t have to settle for just what was on the wall. That that tattoo guy could actually draw you something custom and one of a kind. And when people got hip to that idea, it created kind of a boom in the industry, for guys who have shops with guys who can actually draw.
J: As Rosini used to always tell me, “ You gotta be able to out draw ‘em… As long as you can outdraw ‘em you’ll always have work to do.”
R: At the end of the day that’s what it comes down to… I think that’s sound. That was always my edge. When I started out not many tattooers could draw. And no one was gonna teach you to tattoo. You had to have something to offer. The guy who started me out (* not Chuck Eldridge, person to remain unnamed) he couldn’t draw a lick. But I could. I drew my ass off for that guy. I must have drawn him 200 sheets of flash.
J: I cut stencils… I learned from an old carny tattooer that was still using acetate in the 80s…
R: I cut stencils… Did he send you to the junkyard to cut windows out of convertible tops?
J: No, He had a roll he got from Spaulding and Rogers, I think Spaulding was still selling acetate back then… At first I got to cut ‘em by hand before being able to use an electric engraver… And I didn’t get to keep any of ‘em, which is kinda a sad deal…
(Robert McNeill can be found at Blue Rose Tattoo.)
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