Tattoo culture shock

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First Posted: 8/27/2013

Tattoos are certainly no longer as taboo as they once were, but there’s always room to experience different artists and learn something new about the artistic trade, which has been around as early as the 18th century.

This is the prime reason for the first ever NEPA Tattoo Arts Festival, a convention that will bring artists from all over to the area this weekend, exposing locals to a wider range of tattooing.

“I find that a lot of locals do not leave our area to get tattooed,” Gena Russo, of 570 Tattooing Co. in Wilkes-Barre and one of the organizers of the event, said. “There are amazing artists throughout the U.S. Find one, and then go get tattooed.”

There’s a payoff through the convention not only for those seeking a tattoo, but artists who make a living doing such a thing.

“I also feel that as a tattooer if you sit in your same shop day in and day out, you can’t expect to grow as an artist,” Russo said. The only way to do this is to expose yourself to other artists and learn from one another.”

Steve Gulbin of Marc’s Tattooing, also an event organizer, said he’s already been exposed to a new level of the industry and tattooing as a whole simply through setting up the event.

“I think the convention is going to be a concentrated culture shock to NEPA’s perception of tattooing,” he said. “None of us will ever be the same.”

Artists such as “NY Ink’s” Chris Torres, “Tattoo Rescue’s” Joey Tattoo, James Vaughn from North Carolina, and locals from Marc’s, 570, and House of Ink in Exeter will be in attendance. There will also be piercers, a live painting demonstration by Ron Russo of 570, and seminars throughout the weekend, serving up everything a tattoo savant could hope for and more.


Shaun Flynn, 27, 570 Tattooing Co.

How did you get into tattooing? I wanted to do something with art and I didn’t like college, so I walked into a tattoo shop with my portfolio and I’ve been doing it every since, about six or seven years.

Do you do any artwork outside of tattooing? I do a lot of colored pencil and marker work that I sometimes sell at conventions or make prints of.

How would you describe your artistic style? Cartoonish, fun, dynamic.

What’s your favorite piece you’ve done? Right now it’s what I just did, a heart getting squeezed by tentacles. I also recently did a pocket watch that I really liked.

What’s your favorite tattoo that’s on your own body? (points to the sides of his head) These, “Star Wars.” I grew up on it. I’ve got a Scout Trooper helmet, an Ewok, and lightsabers.

Why is it important to have a convention like the NEPA Tattoo Arts Festival? It helps educate people who aren’t really involved in the industry all the time. People get to see really cool artwork and other artists from around the country. It’s just an awesome opportunity for the community.

Andrew Coutts, 25, Marc’s Tattooing

How did you get into tattooing? After I graduated high school, I walked into Marc’s in Dickson City with a portfolio, and I kept coming back until I finally met Marc. He liked my work and offered me an apprenticeship and I’ve been doing it ever since. I started my apprenticeship at 18 and started tattooing just before I turned 20.

Do you do any artwork outside of tattooing? More or less just for myself or close friends; tattooing takes up a lot of my time. Maybe when I get older I’ll sit down and be more disciplined and do more.

How would you describe your artistic style? Illustrated realism. I like to do a lot of animals. I kind of like dark stuff, too, though, like bloody stuff. I think I just like to do a little bit of everything. I just started doing portraits. Anything to further my skill awesome. I don’t like to limit myself to one thing.

What’s your favorite piece you’ve done? The latest tattoo I do is always the one I like the most. You put everything you’ve got into that one piece and try to make it look even better than the last one you did, and you learn that way.

What’s your favorite tattoo that’s on your own body? I just got my stomach and chest started by Seth Wood who works in Brooklyn. He’s one of my favorite artists.

Why is it important to have a convention like the NEPA Tattoo Arts Festival? People need to be made aware of all the different artists out there. Some people get stuck to one person because they know them or they got a good deal, but there are so many good and different styles out there. It’s cool to get a broad perspective on anything, really.


Sometimes, people just need a little help.

Joey Germinario, also known as Joey Tattoo, an artist from New Jersey who runs Bella Arte Tattoo, recognized that and has set out on a mission to help the peers in his industry through Spike TV’s “Tattoo Rescue.”

The shop owner has been in the business since he was 19, opening his first shop in 1996. He’s currently using all the experience he’s gained to help those who may be less in tune with what they need to do to run a successful shop.

THE WEEKENDER: How has the industry changed since you entered it?

JOEY TATTOO: It’s definitely a lot more mainstream. It’s nothing to see a woman with full sleeves now. It’s also not just grabbing a stencil anymore and putting it on somebody. Everything we do in my shop right now is 100 percent custom.

W: Do you think, then, that the perception of tattoo artists has changed?

JT: That’s part of the reason I wanted to do the show. There are a lot of people whose perceptions have changed, but there are a lot of people whose haven’t, and rightfully so, because there are a lot of shops out there that haven’t really changed their ways. You have to get with the times. If the industry is changing, you have to change with it or be left behind.

W: How did the idea for the show come about?

JT: It was a collaboration with myself and a producer I had met. I think it all stems from shows like “Restaurant Impossible” and “Kitchen Nightmare.” I think everybody that owned any kind of business said, “Wow, that needs to be done with my kind of business.” A lot of the feedback we get is from shop owners thanking us because every day when you’re there doing the same thing over and over again, sometimes you just miss things, and it’s not that you mean to. For instance, my first show, I showed the woman how dirty the bottom of her chairs were. You have no idea how many people contacted us like, “Wow, I never even realized to check that,” because who does think of that? In this business, you have to think of everything, though.

W: What’s the most challenging thing you’ve come across during the course of the show?

JT: There hasn’t been many big challenges we haven’t been able to get through, but I’d have to say the hardest thing is attitude. It’s the hardest thing to change. It’s easier to make someone become a better tattooist than it is to change their attitude about the whole thing. People will ask me how certain shops are doing and there are a couple, whose names I won’t mention, that I know went right back to what they were. It takes a while to change someone, and we only have a week to do it. Unless there’s somebody standing over them every day for a while, they don’t change their ways. But hey, any shop we can help helps the industry. I believe shops should be like hair salons. When you walk in you should be catered to; you shouldn’t be given attitude because you’re a customer and you should be comfortable.

W: Do you think some people in the industry may take what they do and what it means to people for granted?

JT: There are definitely a lot of people, not only owners but tattooists, that have a little chip on their shoulder, that take for granted that you’re there to get a permanent mark on your body. These people are putting more trust in you than what they put in their doctors, really.

W: What should someone who is going into a tattoo shop for the first time look for to ensure they’re in good hands?

JT: I tell everybody the first thing you do is walk in the bathroom and look at the bottom of the toilet bowl. If that’s not clean, walk right out of the tattoo shop. That’s the least clean place, so if they’re cleaning that they’re cleaning their shop. If that’s clean, just talk to them like a normal person. If they treat you like a friend and you’re comfortable, that’s when you look at their work. Don’t even get to looking at their work until you’re comfy with the way you’re being treated. No matter how good of an artist they are, if they’re an asshole, you don’t want to sit there for a couple hours and get tattooed.


Though he was standing beneath an awning amidst a downpour in the middle of Brooklyn just blocks from his house, there was not a thing that could damper the ecstatic mood of tattoo artist Chris Torres when he spoke with The Weekender last week.

“I am pretty much the happiest person in the world right now,” the 36-year-old New York native said.

Happy, yes, but specific? No. Torres was very vague when sharing his good news, though he hopes he can clear things up by the time the NEPA Tattoo Arts Festival rolls around this weekend.

“I just looked at a couple properties and Brooklyn’s about to get its well-deserved…well, Brooklyn’s about to get what it’s got coming to it,” Torres, who currently works at Leathernecks in Brooklyn, said. “I don’t know how else to say it besides that. Brooklyn is getting something that has been long-awaited and it’s been much-needed.”

Torres, who is well-known for his stint on TLC’s reality TV show “NY Ink,” would be just the person to know what the New York borough needs, as his upbringing there has fostered who he is not only as a person, but a tattoo artist, a time that he speaks very fondly of.

Torres has been drawing since a young age, his talents recognized and nurtured by two parents who he said were in no way artistic. He grew up in a family where his mother once expressed that “tattoos are for stupid people,” and his World War II U.S. Navy veteran grandfather was more than happy to say he never got a tattoo. Torres himself was apprehensive about the trade at first.

“When I grew up in New York, tattoos weren’t something you just had,” Torres said. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, you’re edgy.’ It was more like, ‘You’re a f—king criminal and you probably killed people.’”

But still, the allure of the culture drew him in when, at 17 years old, he used his skills to draw his girlfriend at the time a daisy chain tattoo, taking his drawing to a studio and setting the appointment up for her. Little did he know that she would protest that she simply couldn’t get a tattoo alone, and so Torres found himself in the chair for the first time in a basement somewhere in the city.

“I got it done, and it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said of his experience.

It was then that he realized all his time spent drawing for people, all the temporary tattoos he used to mock up and sell at yard sales with his friends – it could be turned into something more.

“Growing up, people would crowd around me and watch me draw,” Torres said. “People would ask me what I would want to be when I grew up and I thought, ‘Well, there’s got to be something in this.’”

Torres soon found himself being led to a shop by a neighborhood friend who knew the owner.

“I got all dressed up, got my drawings together, and sat down with the guy. I told him I wanted to get started in tattooing. He looked at my drawings, slammed the folder closed, and said to me, ‘You’re looking to get f—king started and you bring me this bulls—t?’ and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what did I do?’ The guy pulled a gun on me, said I was lucky that I knew the guy that brought me there. Then he goes on about how it’s impossible to start tattooing and how I’ll never be able to do it and I have to learn to use all this equipment and the equipment I’ll probably get my hands on will be s—t.”

Eventually, after moments of patiently listening, the shop owner softened up and started doling out advice and answering Torres’ questions. Torres then went back to the shop he first received a tattoo from and began his foray into the art.

At around age 20, he saved up enough money and, with help from his parents, bought the equipment needed to run a safe and sanitary shop from his folks’ basement, where the learning process began.

“I ended up tattooing all the neighborhood kids, my friends,” he said, before pausing to burst into laugher. “I had a lot of stupid friends, and needless to say I don’t have any friends any more, but I know how to tattoo.”

Torres can’t exactly describe his tattooing style, but much of it harkens back to those days, where he said he was exposed to a “traditional tattooing” style, where artists wouldn’t tattoo for months at a time, then spend straight days inking a line of people around the block because of things like sailors coming in to the city for Fleet Week or a carnival coming to town.

“It came from a time when they didn’t have anything else besides primary colors, when they were making their equipment out of beer cans and car batteries, and they were getting them in and getting them the f—k out to make a living that would last them a month in three days,” Torres said. “They’d do anything that walked in the door, and they would do it fast and they would do it good.”

He’s also influenced by Japanese traditional tattooing, comic book and graffiti art, and the old masters, like Botticelli, Michelangelo, and da Vinci.

It’s been quite the ride throughout Torres’ career, but nothing could come close to the craziness that was “NY Ink,” where Torres often found himself at odds with fellow artist Ami James – tension that ended up in a final telling-off in the season two finale of the show in 2012.

Considering how crazy it was, would Torres do it again?

“That’s a very difficult question to answer because it was so bittersweet; had I not done it, I would have watched it and been like, ‘Man, I should have went on that f—king casting when my friends told me to.’ But then I did it and it turned out to be one of the most negatively charged….look, I’ve been a tattoo artist for 16 years; no one has ever been mad at me. They leave my shop telling me how great I am, how awesome I am; I hope you’re enjoying talking to me. I’ve never made anybody mad. It was all editing.”

Torres gets heated when he thinks of the people who came into the show who weren’t born and raised New Yorkers like he was, who thought they were going to gain fame by doing nothing at all but sitting in the city and having a bad attitude about it the whole time.

“Everybody thought they were going to plop down here and be like, ‘Hey, we’re famous, check us out,’ – like anyone in New York City gives a f—k. This is New York City. I’m famous every day because I get on a train and 20 million people see me on my way to work.”

Torres also feels the show didn’t do the tattoo culture of his town justice.

“It was the poorest excuse for television. It was the most unprofessional representation of tattooing, the most contrived representation of New York City, of New York City tattooing,” he said.

Yet still, he knows the value of the show and his experience on it.

“It was offensive and I’m almost embarrassed, but at the same time, people in Brazil know who I am as a tattoo artist; people in Australia know. So it’s, like, where do I get mad?”

He couldn’t ever, not at something having to do with his profession, which he said is now a lifestyle he loves and could not walk away from even if he wanted to.

“I’m happier than anybody,” Torres said. “Well, maybe not anybody, but most people. It’s the passion that I have to see the visions in my head on a tangible surface. It’s the fact that every day is a new day and it’s a different day; I don’t know what the shop has in store for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get there – it could be one extreme to the other, and it could be everything in between. Honestly, at this point, money or no money, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

NEPA Tattoo Arts Festival Schedule:

Aug. 29

Pre-party hosted by 279 Bar & Grill

Aug. 30

Floor opens: 3 p.m.

Frank Froese: 7:30 p.m.

Jove: 8:45 p.m.

Tattoo of the Day Contest: 10 p.m.

Floor closes: 11 p.m.

After party hosted by Bottlenecks Saloon & Eatery, Wilkes-Barre

Aug. 31

Floor opens: Noon

Prosidy: 2:30 p.m.

Militia: 4 p.m.

Tattoo Contest: 6 p.m.

Pin-Up Contest: 7 p.m.

ZFL: 8:45 p.m.

Tattoo of the Day Contest: 10 p.m.

Floor closes: 11 p.m.

After party hosted by Rodano’s, Wilkes-Barre

Sept. 1

Floor opens: Noon

Dan Henk Seminar, “Everything and the Kitchen Sink:” Noon

Sean Sullivan Digital Art Seminar: 3 p.m.

Tattoo of the Day/Best of Show: 6 p.m.

Attending artists:

Shaun Flynn, Charlie Hagenbach of 570 Tattooing Company

Jarid, Dani, Andrew, Cole, and Liz of Marc’s Tattooing

Chris Torres

Paul Acker

Sean Sullivan

Dan Henk

James Vaughn of Straight A Tattoo

Marshall Bennett

Jay Cunliffe, Nate Cook & John Pohl of Bonedaddy’s Tattoo

Karl Berringer, Tom Muron & Ron Meyers of 252 Tattoo & Hot Rod Tattoo

Casey Anderson, House of Poncho’s

Robby Latos, Latos Artist

Justin Zakareweski, Paul Messina, Susan Zrinko, Joel Springer, Christine Hall of Inksanity Tattoos and Body Piercing

Timothy Boor of The Bohemian Tattoo Club

Vinz Bonitz of Infamous Arts Gallery

Derek Entenmann

Rob Costaldo and Jason Dixon of House of Ink

Takashi Matsuba

Andy Mast of Resolute Custom

Michael D. Robinson of Let It Bleed

Andy Johnson, Phil DeAngulo of Long Street Collective

Vinnie Peachey of Marc’s Tattooing

Brian Geckle of Flower of Life Studios

Jessie Heart and Jose Sanchez of Outsiders Ink Tattoo

Bill McKay, Alyssa Choma, Verb, Jason Jansen of Northern Lights Tattoo

Robbie Villacampa, Michael Obrien, Giancarlo Hernandez of Our Lady of Ink

Michael Herbert, Tony Scientific of Inkstained Tattoo

Josh Payne, Sean Price, Adam Golden of Ascend Gallery

Precision Body Piercing by Mat Dapkuins, Crystal Phan, and Kat Sorber from Marc’s Tattooing