William, one of 3 tattoo artists at RicRoks Tattoo and Body Piercing in Highland Park, California, used to carry around a sketchbook where he would regularly draw freehand portraits in pencil. As artists tend to do, he would share his work with other artists who would provide feedback, valuable critiques and oftentimes praise. Eventually he started sharing his designs with tattoo artists whose reactions were overwhelmingly positive.
So much so that in 2010, William decided to put the pencil aside, take up the ink gun as his brush of choice, and adopt skin as his new canvas.
In the world of tattoo styles, there (allegedly) exists a fundamental divide: Old School, as we see in American Traditional tattoos, and New School, as evidenced in abstract tattoos, photorealism, and new color palettes.
Traditional tattoos rely heavily on the usage of thick, bold black lines, simple but vibrant color palettes, and little to no shading. Norman Collins, the infamous Sailor Jerry, is considered the father of this Style of tattooing and many of our notions of what old school tattoos are - sparrows, hula girls, anchors and hearts with MOM scrawled across them - have their origins in the designs Collins would ink onto his clients.
While American Traditional is still very much alive, William notes that trends in tattoo shops have changed over the years, and that the realism new school tattoos have to offer is gradually becoming something clients desire in their tattoos more and more often.
It is in this school of art that William really excels. He prefers executing his designs in color and has a penchant for realism, which is only natural considering his background in highly detailed portraits. Aside from a shift in styles, William also comments on the progression in the quality of the art and the techniques and technology involved. "We are more developed with our colors and inks, as well as with our needles," still "the techniques that were developed throughout the years by really well known artists are still a big part of tattoos today."
Perhaps it's more accurate to speak of style in terms of an ongoing contextual process instead of static divides. In Sailor Jerry's heyday people were collecting tattoos like stamps just to show off, and the color palettes were limited. Advances in colors, guns and needles have broadened the artist’s tool box and have drastically changed what can be accomplished. Also, it's not unusual to see one 'school' bleeding into the other, as a modern design will assume an old school feel and vice versa. However, today we see people giving much more conceptual considerations to their tattoos, and their ideas for designs are now custom and personalized as opposed to generic and flashy.
Custom is definitely where William prefers to work. "It's more unique, and I can do more in terms of color." Tattoo artists never know what kind of design or idea a client is going to walk through the door with, so it's a constant challenge to operate within these specific parameters. Executing custom designs that make both client and artist happy is a way for artists like William to constantly be honing their craft.
William stresses the importance of artists sharing their work with each other and influencing one another. This is, after all, the reason he decided to pursue tattooing as a career: other artists! I asked William if there were any artists that particularly inspire him to push his craft further. "Placaso, with his great freehand style work and Josh Duffy…crazy style…the list goes on."
(Armando 'Placaso' Casas, based in Santa Ana, California, and Josh Duffy, currently based in San Pedro, both excel in realistic design with their own distinctive twist and edge.)
One of the things William and his fellow artists at RicRoks pride themselves on is the long term consideration of any given tattoo they do for a client. "I feel like we think about how the tattoo is going to look after it heals (months/years) and more…consideration apart from how it looks when it's done." Tattoos, although permanent (removal and cover-up aside), are still subject to change. As a client ages and makes certain lifestyle choices, a tattoo may begin to fade, colors can lose vibrancy, and lines can seemingly bleed together, especially in overly dark tattoos. It's nice to know that artists like William deliver their art with an eye towards the client's future.
As for the future of tattooing, which is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream media, William sees "more people not being afraid." He elaborates "I feel like tattoos are more welcoming. And it's not just for certain types of people…everybody's doing it…seems like."
What I really took away from my talk with William is something both simple and profound having to do with the way he views his clients. I asked him to describe his relationship with his clients and he responded with a beautiful image: "I feel like they're my friends. They are more than my clients. They carry a big part of me on their body…and that’s my art…and I thank them for that."
There’s something deeply satisfying in the thought of someone carrying a piece of you on their body in the form of your art.
A tattoo artist with concerns for the future of your tattoo and who thanks you for the opportunity?
Sounds good to me.
If you're interested in artists who share William’s philosophy, check out RicRoks Tattoo in Highland Park, CA.
They've got a great location, friendly, outstanding customer service, and "the ability to give the customer what they ask for."
Check out Williams Profile page @ http://www.tattoo.com/william