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 III of III.]
Jay Brown: Okay… Another question I ask everybody. What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into tattooing? Somebody who has got it set in their mind that they are going to tattoo?
Robert McNeill: One, learn to draw. Two, wait ’til you are 25. You need to get some life experience before you tattoo. There is no way an 18-year-old can relate to a 50-year-old war veteran… You know? And half this business is being able to talk to people… It’s not just tattooing your friends and your girlfriend. You gotta be able to read people, you gotta be able to understand and empathize with ‘em… can’t be too judgmental. You have to have some life experience, and you’re not gonna get that at a tattoo shop ’cause you are too freakin’ busy, you gotta go out there and learn that stuff first. Then you have something to offer the trade. We don’t need another deadbeat with an attitude… and really that’s all you get in an 18-year-old these days. A Mozart might come along any day, but you have to go through a 1,000 guys that haven’t got a clue. I get three to four guys every week.
J: That’s sound advice… An 18-year-old is not going to be able to ease someone’s mind who is nervous, about ready to piss themselves ’cause they’re so nervous about getting tattooed, if you haven’t been through a little bit in your own life…
R: That’s true, you need to know when to talk… and when to shut up. (Laughs)
J: When I started you had to hang out at the shop, and pay to get tattooed, to get in, you couldn’t just walk into it…
R: Yeah, no one is gonna say, “Thank you for walking in and here are the keys to the kingdom” and it shouldn’t be (like that). This is the probably the most wonderful profession on earth… Certainly one of them… Chuck Eldridge told me something, he said, “Once you get tattooing and you’re in a position that you’re gonna be willing to train somebody. You have to promise to never bring anyone into this profession that won’t be a credit to it.” And I thought that was very good advice and I have practiced it my whole career. You can often tell at a first meeting if a person has that quality to them or not.
J: The guy that I just apprenticed finished a couple of years ago is my last one; I don’t need to add any more (tattooers) to the problem. (Robert Laughs) He was very impressive; he went to WSU to get his BFA in Art. He and his shit together, he worked his ass off for it. He did three years, didn’t put needle to skin ’til after two years…
R: Yeah it’s funny how everyone thinks this is a glamorous profession or a lifestyle. They think it’s all big bucks and blow jobs…(Laughter) I can say I spend two hours drawing for every tattoo I do… Not including the time for all the other stuff that it takes to keep a shop afloat. There is no time for fooling around, there is no glamour…Tthe fun is in the work!
J: Well that’s great advice! When I asked Philadelphia Eddy that question he said, “Reach in your pocket, give me all your money, go find a nice bridge, and jump!” (Laughter from both)
What else was I going to ask you… So another good question people like to know is who are your influences in tattooing outside of the Japanese tattooers?
R: I would say that Greg James was a big influence on me, more technically than aesthetically, but his approach to tattooing really profoundly changed my approach (to tattooing), Japanese tattooers there are too many to name really. Um, Brooklyn Blackie, I gotta say Brooklyn Blackie. I met a guy who got a tattoo from him when I first started… right when he got back from the Korean war he got a tattoo from Blackie, and it was still the most impressive thing I had ever saw. It was just a ship, it was just solid, looked like it had been painted on with an airbrush… You know? And this was 20 years, 20-plus years old, and it was just wonderful. Just straight up New York old school. It just had a look…
J: Those guys knew what they were doing…
R: I can’t say Sailor Jerry (Collins) was really a big influence on me. I never really liked his drawing, I know he was one of the first guys to bring purple in the mix, and a reliable yellow… Duke Hoffman, his drawings always blew me away. Yeah, I would say that’s probably it. A lot of my big influences come from fine arts, rather than the tattoo side of it. Part of it is ’cause I think if you rely too heavily on tattooing as an influence it’s ridiculous. It’s like the kids copying old school tattoos, they think those mistakes in drawing are cool. Those drawings were messed up ’cause those guys couldn’t draw very well. If they could’ve drawn better they would have.
J: But some of those guys were really good, I got a book from Cliff White just put out and it is all stuff from the Bowery, that Bill Jones did stencil rubbings, and went over them with a steel pen, and some of those guys that worked down there could really draw. And some of ‘em aren’t so good.
R: True. And it’s funny how people sometimes will pick the ugliest one. (Laughter)
J: Amund Dietzel, he was way ahead of his time, Fred Marquand…
R: Yeah another one. Chuck Eldridge had me copy, you know Chuck produces those line art books, and I did the Marquand book cover, from his stuff. I’ve done a few like that.
J: I love Marquand; I have a nice collection of his stuff… (Right then the door opens and a customer walks in, so we ended the interview.) Wow, well we’ve got 43 minutes done and I think I covered everything…
R: Has it been that long, it doesn’t seem like it…?
J: Time flies when you’re having fun!
Later we were able to get photos of the shop and Robert with his mural on the side of his shop, he did “The Tattooist,” the famous Norman Rockwell painting. It looks as if Rockwell had painted it himself. Robert is definitely one of the Northwest’s hidden treasures as far as tattooing goes. His experience, ability with fine art and design, along with a comfortable studio, is just the right combination for a great tattoo. Robert is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/robert.mcneill.33?fref=ts.
You can buy prints of Robert’s artwork for $80 and up. Originals contact Robert personally. You can find Robert in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho at his studio:
Blue Rose Tattoo
510 North 4th Street
Coeur d’Alene, ID 83814
So if you are ever in the panhandle of Idaho, be sure to check him out…
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