Career, Q+A — April 1, 2013 6:32 pm

Career Q+A: Tattoo Artist


A tattoo artist reveals his love for the ink industry and discusses where he finds his inspiration.

Dave Halsey, 24, at Barber’s Electric Tattooing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Lauren Purkey

After deciding not to return to art school, Dave Halsey, 24, completed a traditional American two-year apprenticeship. Now, with three years of experience under his sleeve, he tattoos at Barber’s Electric Tattooing in Cincinnati, but still appreciates the basics art school equipped him with.

Q: When did you decide to learn to tattoo?

A: I decided to learn how to tattoo after I ended up getting pretty covered in them. I had dropped out of art school and was working at Dewey’s…and I just really didn’t want to toss pizzas for the rest of my life, you know? I’ve always been intrigued by the mystique and aura of a seedy tattoo shop and the lifestyle of tattooers. There was always something dangerous and adventurous about it.

Q: How does a person become a tattoo artist? What kind of training did you go through?

A: There are a lot of ways to become a tattooer. It really depends on what you want from it, I suppose. Some people teach themselves; some go through proper apprenticeships; and for some I guess you could say it just falls in their laps. I went through a traditional American apprenticeship, which is an apprenticeship under a mentor tattooer for one to three years. I became an apprentice by getting tattooed a lot by the person who I wanted to mentor me. Learning things about the shop, drawing a lot and painting, answering phones, all that — kind of like an internship. Eventually, I just started getting covered in tattoos and expressing my interest in the trade. He eventually took me on as his apprentice and through a lot of struggles, and ups and downs…Well, here I am today.

Transparent water color ink is used on paper to color in tattoo designs. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

At the time, I thought it was the worst thing ever, but now I’m so thankful for what I went though, because not only did I learn how to tattoo as a career, it taught me a lot about life and how to be a good person in this industry as well.

Q: What other kinds of mentors do you have?

A: I have a lot of mentors in the vast industry of tattooing and a lot of them don’t even know they are. You kind of never stop apprenticing, you know? There is always room for improvement and there’s always someone better than you. You can learn a lot from everyone. Sometimes it might be what not to do, but there’s still something to gain from that experience. I work with some of my mentors every day, and some have been dead for 80 years or something. Some of them I have met and some of them I just watch from afar. I really am privileged to have the resources young tattooers have today. I’m constantly learning.

Q: When were you able to tattoo on your own? How does the person you’re apprenticing under decide that you’re ready?

A: You kind of decide for yourself when you’re ready to be done. You have to balance keeping the shop clean, making tattoos and art, as well as pleasing the tattooers at the shop by giving them an extra hand without having to be asked to do it. Drive, discipline and initiative have a lot to do with it.

Q: What was your first experience tattooing like?

A: My first experience tattooing was pretty hectic. It was on one of my good friends and mentors so I knew I had to do a good job. My hands were shaking and my palms were sweating — and so was everything else. It was just all around a scary experience. I didn’t end up doing a very good job but it got the ball rolling for me.

Q: When did you first becoming comfortable tattooing on your own? When did you begin to feel like you had your own style and how did that develop?

Halsey uses his tattoo machine to tattoo a customer. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

A: I would say I kind of still don’t feel completely comfortable with it, you know? I always have so many questions when it comes to things I don’t understand. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, but it never hurts to get a second opinion. I started developing my own style kind of early in my tattoo career. I just mimicked the style of a lot of old timers until I felt like I had a pretty rough grasp of what was going on and then just started putting my own spin on things. In art, as well as all things, it’s impossible to be completely original. You always end up learning something subconsciously from something you’ve seen before by keeping other tattooers’ art in the back of your mind. You just end up applying similar aspects to your own tattoos and artwork. I would say a tattooer’s style is more in the execution and application than anything else. Other than that I would say there’s no use trying to reinvent the wheel. Things work because they work, you know?

Q: When did you decide you wanted to tattoo for a living? Was it a difficult decision?

A: It was never really a question for me. Since I graduated my apprenticeship, my goal has always been to tattoo until I physically can’t anymore. I love this industry and it’s only second to my family. I could never let this gift go.

Q: So you went to art school. Did you finish?

A: [Laughs] I absolutely did not finish art school. I always toyed with the idea of being a tattooer but it was always a pipe dream for me. I went to school because my girlfriend at the time — who is currently my baby mama and fiancée — and my mother, really pushed me to do so. I was never really into it and always saw art school as kind of a gimmick. However, I do feel like it helped me a lot with understanding why colors work the way they do and definitely helped me with the overall composition of a tattoo.

Q: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome as a tattooer?

A: I think just finding my niche. I’ve worked at quite a few shops in comparison to how long I’ve been tattooing, so I always thought maybe I just didn’t play well with others. Turns out I just had to get in where I fit in. The shop I’m at now is really cool. Barbers Electric Tattooing is the shop I wanted to work at since I started tattooing and now I’m here and I’m stoked about it. It’s everything I could’ve ever asked for.

Q: How is where you tattoo now different from the other shops?

Halsey tattoos a customer at Barber's Electric Tattooing.

A: I would say Barber’s is different because it’s a shop where everyone is working as a collective as opposed to operating as a single entity. No one is trying to cut your throat for business, everyone has their own clientele, and most of all, everyone is very skilled and specialized in what they do. Whenever I need help with a drawing, I can just ask, you know? I can honestly say I would let anyone I work with make a tattoo on me, which is saying a lot, considering my ever-dwindling amount of space I have left. [Laughs]

Q: Where do you find inspiration behind your tattoos/tattooing style?

A: I would say I find most of my influence from a lot of the old timers — the godfathers of the modern tattoo, if you will. Anywhere from George Burchett who tattooed in the United Kingdom at the turn of the 20th century, to Sailor Jerry Collins who tattooed in Hawaii until the day he died in 1973. I just really like tattoos that look like tattoos…if that makes any sense. There’s something to be said about the Traditional Tattoo and its timeless designs. It’s been popular for 150 plus years and isn’t going anywhere. Those designs — when executed properly — will stand the test of time and you will still be able to tell what it is 50 or 60 years from now. Everything else as far as different styles of tattoos go…they just get kind of blah. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke and all that.

Q: How has your tattooing style changed or evolved since you first became a tattoo artist? How do you want it to continue to evolve?

A: I would just say I got a better grasp on what it was I was trying to accomplish in the first place. I focused in on what was really going on instead of what I thought was happening. I humbled myself to the degree I needed to in order to learn something. I just want to make good, immaculate tattoos, focus in on my creativity and stay humble, you know?

Q: Tattoo artists seem to have more and more of a presence in mainstream media. Why do you think all these reality shows about tattoos are popping up? How does the tattoo community feel about it?

A: I don’t know. I guess people from outside the industry are trying to make money off it somehow, and succeeding at it. It’s a bummer mostly because it gives the general public a very skewed view of what really goes on. They feel as if they’re let in on some of the behind-the-scenes aspect of what’s really going on, and they are being misled. I guess it’s just an overall misrepresentation of something people work so hard for and hold in very high regard — sometimes even making a mockery of it.

Q: What is your biggest dream/goal as far as tattooing goes?

Dave Halsey, 24, at Barber’s Electric Tattooing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

A: I just really want to travel and see the world. With this career, I have the opportunity to make money while I travel. Tattooing can take me anywhere. Also, I want to continue to support my family, buy a house, and so on and so forth.

Q: How did you start traveling to other places to tattoo? What has that experience been like?

A: Well, I’ve just had the blessing of knowing a lot of people in all the right places. I haven’t traveled as much as I would’ve liked to, but there’s still a lot of time for that. It’s really interesting to get to see how other shops in different parts of the United States work, as well as just the people who get tattoos and the people who do them, for that matter. I’d like to go to the United Kingdom and Europe to do some tattoos eventually. We’ll see what happens.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about tattoo artists or the work they do?

A: I would say that people just think we’re just drawing pictures all day and it’s all fun and games. In reality that’s not even half of what goes on. You always kind of have homework, you know? You never really get to stop doing this. When I’m at home, I’m drawing for appointments or even just trying to further my knowledge. Or I’m painting for the same reasons. It is the most fun I think I could personally have with an actual career… but it is extremely hard work. It’s worth it, you know? As with every other career that exists, you get back what you put into it. If you’re good to tattooing, tattooing will be good to you.

Q: Why is tattooing important to you? Why are tattoos important in general, in your opinion?

Halsey fills in a design with water color ink at Barber’s Electric Tattooing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Lauren Purkey.

A: I’ve never been more obsessive over anything. From the first time I was ever tattooed on my 18th birthday, I’ve just been fascinated with everything about it. I’m very thankful I’ve had the opportunities I’ve had thus far. Truthfully, I only think tattooing is important to those who take it seriously. Otherwise it’s just something ‘dangerous’ to do. Maybe you’re rebelling against your parents or society as a whole. But realistically, tattooing for me always came in high priority. If I had a tattoo appointment and had rent due the same week, I would still go get the tattoo and figure rent out later. I guess I’m a different breed. Tattooing is important because it changes the way you look and changes the way you feel, and most importantly, it changes the way people perceive you. I would say just being able to have that effect on someone’s life as a whole is what makes my job worthwhile…along with getting to wear whatever I want, talk however I want, voice my opinion no matter how P.C. it is or is not, and just getting to be me. I’m happy when I get to come to work. I don’t know too many people who can say that.

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