When you think of a small business you probably have images of the diner down the road or the coffee shop around the corner. But what about your local tattoo parlor?
English and Christopher Cousins run Safe House Tattoo in Nashville, Tennessee. In this podcast, we talk about many subjects: the art of tattooing and the long journey to competence, the effects of coronavirus on tattoo parlors, and how to keep a healthy marriage when working in a small business.
Pierson Hibbs: Hey everybody. My name is Pierson Hibbs, and we are with the Marketing is the Product podcast. I’m here with Brandon Rollins.
Brandon Rollins: Hi.
Pierson: And today we’ve got English and Christopher Cousins. How’s it going, guys?
Christopher Cousins: Hey.
English Cousins: Hiya.
Christopher: Doing well.
English: Things are good over here.
Pierson: Good. English and Christopher are tattoo artists at Safe House Tattoo in Nashville, Tennessee, about two hours from where we’re at in Chattanooga. And they’re kind enough to join us on the show today and talk about their journey and what got them started in tattooing and what that’s like working together at the same shop. So to start out, why don’t both of you guys give us a little background of what got you into tattooing, how long you’ve been doing it, and how long you’ve been at Safe House?
English: So, yeah. I’m English. I’ve been tattooing for eight years now. I got my apprenticeship in 2011, but had always created art, always been fascinated by tattoos in general. Even as a little kid, I remember being three and on my grandfather’s back, coming back up from the beach. And we were walking up the public access, and there are these two old bikers that have just horrible tattoos on them. And I remember as a three-year-old just staring at this guy that had this eagle on him and his friend had a skull, and they were both terrible. They were terrible tattoos, but I remember being super fixated on them despite the fact that they were really poorly done. Yeah, and I guess… I don’t know if it started then, but I definitely remember drawing on myself as a kid and into my teens. And then in 1999, I believe that’s the correct year, but the TV show Miami Ink came out and that was the first time I had seen tattoos being executed by artists. That was news to me. I grew up in North and South Carolina. And in South Carolina, particularly, it was illegal to tattoo until the year 2005. So this is huge.
English: Yeah. Yeah. It’s very strange.
Brandon: Oh, that’s weird.
English: So there was a big culture of terrible tattoos done by people that had no inclination on what they were doing and oftentimes no artistic ability. So for me to see on television true artists accomplishing these beautiful tattoos, it was kind of a light bulb moment for me that, “Oh my gosh. This is another medium.” And as soon as I had that realization, it was like, “Okay, if I’m not dancing, tattooing is the only other thing I ever wanna do with my life.” And I was fortunate enough to get to dance professionally on the front end. And then when the economy crashed and all the dance gigs dried up, it was like, “Okay. Now it’s the time to make that transition.” And luckily, my husband, Christopher, was super supportive. I don’t even know if we were quite married yet. We might have still been engaged. But he definitely gave me the push, and that’s kind of what started the journey and I ended up getting an apprenticeship and I’ve been doing it since.
Pierson: So cool. So Christopher, you got into it after English.
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. It took me a little longer to figure out what I wanted to do with my life in general. And sometimes you get led down a path and you think that’s gonna be something that you can mold into what you want it to be, but that didn’t end up being the case for me. I think for me, just growing up listening to pop punk and loving skateboarding, that’s kind of where my first experience with seeing tattoos looked like. My grandfather had a small tattoo on his forearm, and I think that was always fascinating to me. It was his name misspelled, but that was always [chuckle] a good story to hear. But yeah, and I think for me, growing up I’ve always been drawing and I would hear kids say, “Oh, you need to design that. You need to tattoo.” I was like, “I don’t know what that means. I just don’t.” I knew I wanted to be covered in them one day, but I didn’t know what it meant to apply it and what it took. And it wasn’t until I got my first tattoo… I was fortunate enough to be tattooed by a guy named Zack Spurlock. He was tattooing at Anonymous Tattoo at the time.
Christopher: And yeah, he was just super open. He was… Not like in a way where he was trying to push his knowledge on me, but he just was… I was definitely eager to learn and absorb what he had to say and he wasn’t… He didn’t hold back with that and it really opened my eyes to both the artistic side of it and the professional side of what tattooing could be. And from that point, I was hooked, and that was when I was 19. And so fast forward a few years later, I’ve been screen printing for years at that point. And I thought that was gonna turn into the career for me, ’cause there’s… When you’re working for a company, there’s a low ceiling on how much you can do. And so I was gonna open my own business and all of that. Anyway, that just didn’t pan out and it was never really the thing that I wanted it to be, which ultimately was tattooing. And I was fortunate enough to actually get an apprenticeship at the shop my wife was working at at the time. And that was… Yeah, that’s it.
Pierson: The rest is history.
Pierson: It’s crazy how everything falls into place like that for both of you guys in terms of the direction you were heading and where you were able to go at the timing. It’s a pretty special thing.
Christopher: Oh, for sure.
Pierson: So one thing I wanna circle back and talk on, could you go over what an apprenticeship is for anybody that might not know what that means for you guys as a tattoo artist? What is that process of getting into a shop and becoming a featured artist there? What’s that process like of going through an apprenticeship, learning the craft, and then taking that into the next step?
Christopher: Well, that’s a lot. And it’s different for everybody. Not everybody really gets, I think, the ultimate experience of what they hope an apprenticeship to be, where they’re nourished and supported by artists that give a crap. And that wasn’t my experience, so I don’t wanna go into super detail about it. A lot of people… A lot of tattooers have had similar experiences where their mentors just aren’t invested and, yeah. So it was a struggle for sure, but that’s kind of… You have to endure that if you wanna get to the end result, and that’s you being a tattooer. And so that’s only part of the question.
English: So an apprenticeship is the process by which you get basically brought into a shop or brought under a particular artist’s wing, and they slowly but surely teach you the craft of tattooing and how the business is run and all the facets of that. It varies state to state. So each state is in charge of their own regulation. So for instance, in South Carolina where we both came up, there’s a certain number of hours you have to accomplish, and you have to meet certain health standards and keep records current for those certifications and that kind of thing, year by year. In Tennessee, it’s different. You have to apprentice for a full calendar year under an artist that’s been doing tattoos professionally in Tennessee, I think, for three years and begin, at least. And then again, different through state by state by state after that. Typically, apprenticeships are unpaid. I actually had to pay for my apprenticeship, which isn’t also… It isn’t a terribly uncommon thing. But yeah, like Christopher said, it’s different for everyone. I know from experience, the guy I apprenticed under, he was an old biker guy. And he said, when he was looking at my portfolio, he was like, “I can’t teach you a damn thing about art, but I can teach the mechanics of how to do a tattoo.”
English: He was like, “But you know how to make art. So if you wanna learn how to do this, I’m happy to take you on.” And I was so grateful. But that meant a lot of extra research and a lot of extra study and time that you had to spend on your own filling in gaps. I don’t think that that’s a bad thing or a bad approach in general. But yeah, it’s different these days. It’s funny to say that, having only been tattooing eight years. But truthfully, when I was given the advice by a tattooer I really looked up to, when I finally got the guts to say, “Yeah, I’m trying to find an apprenticeship. Do you have any advice?” He was like, “Don’t walk into a shop and tell them you want an apprenticeship. They’ll tell you to get the fuck out.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Okay. Well, what the freak do I do?” So for me, I was trying to let a shop have me come answer phones for free or clean or whatever, and that didn’t even really work out. I wasn’t, on the surface, very visibly tattooed at all. The tattoos I had, you couldn’t see them. They were under my clothes. That was a challenge just in and of itself. Whereas, today, it’s very commonplace for people to come in and say… Just be very forthcoming and say, “I want an apprenticeship. I’m looking for an apprenticeship.”
English: I’m not saying that’s the way to do it. I’m not saying that everytime someone comes in the shop and has a portfolio they wanna show somebody, that’s not to say I’m chomping at the bit to see what they have to offer. I think there are better, more productive ways of solidifying an apprenticeship, but I’m also not really… This sounds bad. I’m not really eager to roll out the red carpet to have a flood of people coming in. I think the information’s out there in lots of facets. I think the driven people that are the right people for the job are gonna find a way, no matter what. And there’s so much information out there for free, as far as being able to look at your favorite tattooer’s work on the internet in two seconds and see what they did today. I don’t feel like there has to be this big ushering in process. I think the information’s available.
Brandon: Is it a relatively recent trend for just a ton of people to be interested in tattooing or becoming an artist?
Christopher: I don’t think it’s a recent trend. I think that my experience with people coming at it has been just sprinkled throughout my short career, and it’s been just exactly that. It’s either people calling in, just the time that I’ve been tattooing. No one’s really come across and done it in a way that has made me eager to work alongside them. There’s not a lot of people really…
English: That have the tenacity or the tech [10:26] ____ or the combination of the two.
Christopher: That’s true, yeah.
English: I think it is a career that we both feel very fortunate to be in. It’s provided for us both artistically and financially, which is I think more than we could have ever wished for. We both grew up thinking that all artists were starving artists, so this has been a pleasant surprise that this is our one and only job. But at the same time we work a lot. Even at Safe House, which has the best hours you could ever ask for, we work 11-6 daily and have two consecutive days off, which is unheard of. But even still, you finish work, you come home, you draw for the next four hours or so for the next day’s appointments. And then when you finish that, you hop on and if you have time before you have to go to bed, you do some emails. It’s a lot of work and it’s not an hourly job where you’re getting paid for the work you’re doing every hour. You only get paid for the work that you do when you have a client in the chair. And I think it’s really easy to miss those things when you’re just seeing it on television or as this glamorized lifestyle. I wouldn’t trade it or anything. I think this is what we would be doing or pushing for regardless, but it’s not for everybody. And it’s a little bit comical when you hear like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. My nephew draws real good. I keep telling him he should be a tattooer.” And it’s like. “Maybe, maybe he should be. Maybe that is… “
Brandon: Does he also research really well and teach himself new skills really well?
Pierson: So a couple of questions from that that I got, and one of them, you touched on a minute ago. Social media has been a huge part of tattooing in the last several years, especially in how artists get their name out there and market themselves. How have you seen that change in the time that you guys have started to now? Has it reshaped the way that the industry is in a way?
Christopher: Well, I’m still figuring out how to do social media.
Pierson: [chuckle] Me too.
Christopher: I’m working on it. I’d say it’s definitely a… It’s a crucial part for me of what represents me and what I’m putting out there. It is my portfolio. So I treat it like that, I refine it, and I take things out of it that I don’t wanna be seen, and I try to put out there what I do wanna be seen, and what I wanna be doing more of. It’s definitely the thing that I’m gonna guide people to the most. So yeah, that’s… Yeah.
English: Yeah, it’s great. As far as helping develop a client base, it’s incredible. We moved here three years ago now, and I knew the guys that I was gonna be working with at the shop and a few other tattooers at a few other shops in town just via having… Via doing guest spots before we physically moved. And that’s the only group of people I knew in Tennessee. And in spite of that, via Instagram and Facebook and just marketing myself as a national tattoo artist… Just in the sense of throwing that as a hashtag on the end of a photograph, I was able to build a client base really quickly. And that’s not to say that social media is the only way that you build a client base, but it absolutely is a nice jumpstart in the right direction. Same thing goes whenever we’re going to be working at a convention or traveling, I just go ahead and start throwing those hashtags in there, throwing my name out there into those pools. I have paid for Instagram promotions just to show the artwork that I’m already showing on my page in a new market where they’ve never heard my name, and that does help.
English: It helps to get bookings when you go somewhere else. And it really does also educate clients, I believe, a little bit more. Because they’re seeing tattoos more frequently and they’re getting the exposure of like, “Oh, okay. That’s what that style looks like, and this is what this style looks like.” I think that clients can have a better idea of what it is that they’re after, and like I said, the tools are right at their fingertips to find the artist that is the right fit for the work that they want to do. And outside of that, I think it also gives you the chance to really instill some confidence in your clients and in your own abilities. I think it’s very common for people, especially on their first tattoo, to… Having no experience with the process of getting a tattoo before, when they’re dialoguing with their artists, oftentimes you’ll get the question, “So when are you gonna send me a drawing?” or “Can I see a drawing ahead of time?” And for me, it’s a personal policy, I don’t send drawings out ahead of time. A, you don’t want somebody walking down the road with a design and getting it tattooed somewhere else, put the time and effort and energy into drawing it, so that’s no good. And B, you can get hypercritical and hyperfocused on something that you just agonized over day by day by day. You get too close to it and you can almost ruin a good thing by picking it apart.
English: Anyway, all that to say, whenever I have clients that ask me that question, I let them know my policy. And because I have this breadth of work that’s available on Instagram, I can confidently say to them, “If you like the work on my Instagram, if you like the tattoos you’re seeing from me, all those are original drawings, original compositions, original designs. This is the aesthetic and quality of work you can expect. If you’re on board and confident in that, I’d love to move forward with you.” And nine times out of 10, people are into it because they’ve seen that exposure via what social media has been able to do for us.
Pierson: Social media is awesome in that regard. In terms of… People think of portfolios, and I think the average… Maybe someone that’s not as in tune with tattoo culture, they think of the binder that’s in the shop when you first walk in the door. And for a long time, that was how people showed off their art. And now, it’s to a place that I can search English Cousins on Instagram and find your entire… Like you said, your entire breadth of work and it’s at my fingertips and, in large, that’s how I found you. I am going back to what you said. I hadn’t seen a single tattoo from either of you that I was getting until the day I went in there. And I think that that’s the best way to go into it. We’ve talked a lot about that.
Pierson: And just giving complete control to the artist. I’m not an artist. I don’t look at it the same way that you guys would as a professional tattooer. And I think that by giving that trust to you, you’re gonna walk out of it with something so much better.
Brandon: Instagram is the binder now, and I feel like it’s important to point out… I was trying to find the statistic earlier, actually. This isn’t just tattoos. This is just a general thing that’s happening to basically every business. It’s some wild statistic like five or six or seven in 10 people go to Instagram and look up a brand’s name, or have done so at least once before they buy a product. That’s a really recent change. That wasn’t happening five years ago.
English: Last night, I was even agonizing… I was trying to find wallpaper for a room in my house, and I was searching nonstop at every wallpaper site I could think of or search through, and just not finding at all what I was looking for. And then this morning, I wake up and I have an Instagram ad from some wallpaper company I’ve never heard of. And it totally narrowed on exactly what I wanted, and I was like [18:07] ____. The internet is both scary and amazing.
Christopher: Get out of my head.
English: Yeah, get out of my head, but also thank you.
Pierson: No, I think you came in clutch there.
English: Yeah, you did.
Christopher: Get out of my head but also thank you could be just the tagline for basically any digital marketing company.
Pierson: So in terms of your inspiration for both of your styles, ’cause you guys have different styles in tattooing that you both gravitate towards, what serves as inspiration for you guys in your art, both inside of tattooing and outside of tattooing? ‘Cause you guys are artists, first and foremost before everything else. And I have a painting of yours, English, which is like two feet away from me right now, that I got the last time I was in there. You are artists, first and foremost.
English: Well, thanks.
Christopher: Yeah. I think there’s a lot that goes into influence. There’s like what influenced me as a kid and I think that sets the stage for a lot of what I’m into now but yeah, I don’t know. I’m definitely inspired by tattoo art specifically now that that’s my main focus and my main drive. But I get to see through what other people are making, where their influences draw from and I think that’s what kind of draws you to specific people. But I’d say stylistically, I kind of fall in, draw from traditional American-style tattoos and try to just push that a little further, kind of a little more illustrative and then also just, I pull a lot of inspiration from Japanese tattooing as well.
Christopher: But, yeah. But I’d say as a kid, it would be comic books and cartoons, TV shows, even the nostalgic stuff like Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry. And so yeah, and seeing how that affected actually traditional American tattooing and then formed so much inspiration and stuff from cartoons and I don’t know, it just kinda comes full circle with that stuff.
English: Yeah. As a kid, I definitely drew girls and princesses and nature stuff ad nauseam. And to this day, I mean girl heads I freaking love tattooing them, they’re super fun. I also enjoy tattooing nature and cool stuff as well, don’t get me wrong there. But yeah, I feel like my work, I call it neo-traditional. When I got into tattooing, neo-traditional was considered tattoos that were subject matter-wise, based around the same themes that are in American traditional tattoos but unlike American traditional tattooing, neo-traditional just kind of opens up, I guess the possibilities as far as color choices, technique, little tricks that you can add in here and there.
English: In American traditional tattooing, you typically are gonna have heavy black line work which I still implement in my tattoos. I think it’s crucial. You’re gonna have usually a third black shading, a third color shading and a third of the skin tone. And usually, your color shading is going to be brown, blue, red, green, gold, that’s kind of it, maybe purple a little later down the line. But with neo-traditional, you can kind of expand your palate a little more, things get a little more refined, a little more nuanced. There’s a couple of different line weights you use.
English: Yeah, it just kinda gives you a little bit more of a rendered refined approach. That’s how I define neo-traditional tattooing, even still although again, social media and the internet, that’s kind of… It seems to be taking a more specialized approach even, with a very muted, almost a very grey color palette with one or two really bright, vibrant colors and yeah, what I would call, what social media portrays as neo-traditional tattooing, I would probably call more neo-nouveau, which is a new term that’s coming out.
English: Anyway, I’m getting totally off topic but yeah, I don’t know. I really like, again, looking at tattoos and tattoo work. But outside of that, I really love patterning and ornamentals so a lot of recent inspirations come from Mehndi style ornamentals, which is the henna patterns that are… They’re done on people’s hands and feet, oftentimes with henna paste. I really like ornamentals that you can find in textiles and embroidery. I love looking at old posters and prints from early advertising in the 20s and even prior to that. You can just find some really cool renderings. Antique shops are a great place to find inspiration.
English: Oftentimes, when we go, you wanna buy everything, you can’t, but we’ll take…
English: Yeah, we’ll take some great photos of fun things that kind of get your brain working in a different direction.
Brandon: For sure.
English: And I think that’s probably part of the magic of Americana tattooing. It has this thing about it that resonates with all of us and it feels right and it feels like home and… I don’t know, it feels familiar and nostalgic and you’re not necessarily sure why and then all of a sudden you’re in an antique store and you’re looking at this canister that you’re supposed to put flour in that’s got a painting on it that you’re like, “Oh my gosh! That’s where that image came from. I saw that… Saw something like that in my grandmother’s house.” And you have a connection to an image and you don’t even know why.
Pierson: It’s pretty amazing that art can transcend that in that way and you can really draw inspiration from just about anything.
Pierson: And one of the hard parts, and we’ve talked a little bit about this, too is, especially with COVID and everything going on, it’s been really hard to draw inspiration being in this confined state all the time and not being able to go out and live and experience different elements of life. So if you could, would you talk a little bit about how COVID has kinda started to reshape what tattooing looks like for you guys ’cause it looks very different when you go into the process of it that I’m sure on a core level, it’s kinda changed how you guys go about everything.
Christopher: Well, just on a basic level for what we had to do and just being able to open back up, we had a limit on how many people could be in the shop at one time. So we had to go in over quarantine and basically open up a secondary tattoo shop within a tattoo shop to split us all up so that we’re appropriately social distanced and so that was interesting. And we’ve got a limitation on what kind of clientele’s coming through the door, we’re not doing walk-ins the same way that we have been in the past.
Christopher: We’ll fully get the idea and we’re doing more of a call ahead or email ahead type stuff, if we can get you in on that day. We’re just really trying to be… Our front manager or our front desk guy does a really good job of orchestrating all that and making sure that everything’s timed out right and there aren’t too many people in the space at one time. So that’s just little stuff that we have to work around.
Christopher: I think there might have been a little fear going into us opening back up and having that limitation on how much business we could actually take at one time, affecting the amount of money that we make at the end of the week but ultimately, I think the… It’s kind of refined. I think for me, really the financial aspect of things hasn’t stopped but there’s been less kind of basic level tattoos coming in and a lot more serious clientele looking for serious tattoos and allowing me to expand upon what I wanna show to people. And so yeah, right out the gate, coming back in after quarantine, just doing a lot more creative stuff and it really just kinda boosted for me what I wanted to represent to people. So honestly, it’s kind of just been a blessing [26:00] ____.
Pierson: That’s awesome though, that it’s been able to kinda work in reverse of what it might have seemed like it was gonna be.
Brandon: It’s surprising at first. I’m glad that you didn’t get caught in the crossfire of this pandemic, Lord knows too many businesses have. I guess it makes sense because really you only get to tattoo one person at a time and only the serious folks are gonna come in in the first place. Nobody is gonna get a tiny little star printed on their wrist in the middle of this.
English: They just have to make a couple extra steps, which like you’re saying, if it’s a true impulse thing. I mean you’re gonna be a little bit less likely to follow through if you have to call ahead and go ahead and send artwork or whatever else.
Brandon: It’s good that you got more creative, more the creative artsy style tattoos in ’cause I imagine that not only is that more fun, it probably brings in more money per person too, making it potentially a financial blessing as well.
Christopher: Yeah. Yeah, I think it just depends on how you kinda work the books, I guess, and if you’re getting a bunch of small things in and that’s how you wanna operate, I think that people can be… Those can end up being very…
English: Successful tattooers.
Christopher: Successful and financially stable. But yeah, ultimately it’s kind of like where do I wanna get at the end of the day? And for me, doing those as my primary thing, just in general, it’s not satisfying. I like the challenge of… I mean, I don’t know, that’s kinda… I don’t really like the challenge but I know it’s good for me so I appreciate it and I appreciate being challenged and being pushed artistically ’cause at the end of the day, that’s what I want. That’s really all I want, is just to grow continually as a artist and be able to get the things that are in my head out on the paper and then on to skin.
English: I didn’t really have a personal major effect from the quarantine other than it screwing up my books for a couple of months while we had to close but because I was pretty much working by appointment anyway, it just other than required me to come in and work more days a week to facilitate getting my displaced clients in and we cancelled a couple of vacations to open up a couple weeks that were blocked off to get old clients back in. But outside of that, since was already on an appointment basis anyway, things have just kind of continued rolling now that we’re back and we’re very grateful to be back.
Brandon: Definitely very fortunate, the way that things have seemingly played out through a number of years for you guys. Timing has always seemed to be on your side and that’s a great thing.
English: Yeah. I mean, I think all you can do is put as much work in on the front end as you possibly can with anything in life and then you just have to be patient and diligent and take advantage of the opportunities when they arrive. I don’t know. I think both of us have… We’ve never been the type of people to say no to a good thing because it’s not an optimal thing. Very rarely in life is the perfect situation gonna fall in your lap. A lot of times it’s gonna require you to put in some extra work to bridge the gap and get yourself to where you wanna go. But you gotta start somewhere and that’s worth more than just sitting back and waiting for a perfect opportunity that may not be coming down the pipe.
Brandon: That’s a great way to look at it. I think that if more people looked at situations that way, I think a lot of people would end up a lot happier way down the line. I think that it’s a shame that more people don’t but it’s great for you guys in the sense of things have been working out. Getting into the actual nitty-gritty of tattooing, I’ve got a couple of questions. Christopher, I wanna start with you because you kind of touched on it a minute ago. When you’re… As an artist, when you’re trying to stay true to what you like to do stylistically, how do you find that balance between making the client happy and trying to give them a tattoo that meets the expectations that they’ve got versus, like you said, taking on something that is advancing you in the style that you want to move in?
Christopher: Oh, how do you balance it? Well, I struggle with that vocally. I struggle with that a lot in my head and really, I think there’s a couple of things, couple sides to it. One, like nowadays, there are so many people that, stylistically, are like divergent from one another, that are very unique. And like we were talking about Instagram earlier, you have the access to the artist and you can basically figure out for yourself what you like based on what you’ve seen and determine who you wanna go with that matches up what you like.
Christopher: So there’s that side of things which can embolden me to just kind of push what I wanna do stylistically. There’s that and then there’s ultimately, I don’t feel like I’m necessarily like a super versatile artist and so I struggle with that. And ultimately, I have to be confident that this is my hand, this is kinda what’s gonna come out of me, it is what it is. I hope they like it. So there is a risk that they won’t and there’s definitely been times when I’ve just put it out there and they come back and just be like, “I don’t want this. This isn’t what… This isn’t not quite aesthetically what I was going for.”
English: To clarify, that’s the drawing not the tattoo. [laughter]
Christopher: The drawing. Right, right.
Christopher: Yeah, yeah. No, we definitely have that opportunity to go over the things ahead of time ’cause we don’t blindfold our clients and just slap tats on them. People that come through they were like, “I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it when it went on. I don’t know what happened.”
English: These are people that have tattoos that are explaining to us “their experience”, getting said tattoo, not from us.
Christopher: “This is why it’s bad. I didn’t see it.” “What? What are you… “
Christopher: I don’t know. Anyway, people… Yeah. What were we talking about?
English: No. Same client expectation.
Pierson: Yeah, I’m sorry that…
Christopher: For sure, that’s… It’s a struggle because you try to imagine what they want but ultimately, you have to… You’re cycling through, “How do I put my voice into it? How do I maintain what the integrity of the idea that they want and also give them the best tattoo?” We’re concerned a lot about longevity and the lifespan of the thing. Not every tattooer is, but it’s certainly a value of mine that I’ve taken to tattooing. So, yeah. All of those things combined are kinda constantly at odds. I think I have to be selfish a lot of times, too just ultimately just be confident that this is the way I draw and…
English: And at Safe House, we’re also all very eager and willing to point you in the right direction if the artist you reach out to isn’t the right fit. I’ve had clients that have reached out, they’re like, “You tattooed my sister and I just love her tattoo and the experience was great and she just told me I had to go to you. And here’s this black and gray hyper-realistic dog that I want you to tattoo on me.” Whereas, I’m flattered that they were referred and that I’m so glad they had a great experience or their sister or brother, whomever had a great experience, the style of work that maybe they’re wanting is not something that I do or that I do to the highest caliber.
English: If I can name three people in town or in your nearby area that are going to give you a better tattoo than I’m able to, I am going to let you know their names and respectfully decline. And I may include at the end of said email or conversation like, “If you ever wanna do something more in this vein and show my body of work or tell them some areas of interest I have, I’d love to work with you in the future but… ” Ultimately, we want the client to have the best quality tattoo that they can walk away with so if it’s not us doing the tattoo, that’s something we’re okay with. And most of the time clients are very appreciative. They want the best for themselves too, so…
Pierson: Absolutely. It’s something that I definitely appreciate knowing that with you guys, if the time ever came that I pitched something to you, English, and you’d be like “You know what? I really don’t think that that’s something that I could do to the best of my ability.” Rather than just trying to take it on and be like “Yeah, I can do that for you.” ‘Cause I feel like that’s where you get into some murky waters. [chuckle]
Brandon: Yeah. It’s really important to be able to turn away clients sometimes. I’ve talked to a lot of people and some of the people I respect the most, some of the people who I found have the smartest business models have turned away a lot of people and they just keep a list, or something like that, of just people they can turn others to. It’s a losing game to try and do something well that you know you can’t.
English: There’s a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less that was recommended to me, I guess a couple of years ago now and it blew my mind in the best possible way, working toward your strengths and to strengthen the areas you want to grow in more. And I think it’s a hugely impactful read for absolutely anyone that’s trying to grow as a person or a businessman or an artist or whatever. Yeah. It touches a lot on that, specifically, and I’m so grateful that it was introduced to me.
Pierson: We’ll throw a link down in the description, link it to everybody so they can see it. When you guys are designing tattoos, there’s so much that obviously goes into it from research, to trying to match what the client wants with your image for it, to stenciling it on, to then tattooing and lining and shading. Is there an element of the process that’s particularly harder for you than the others in terms of making it go from an idea on to someone’s…
Christopher: I think the emailing is the hardest.
Brandon: Yeah, email is the worst.
Christopher: I don’t know. I think that when you’re in a person to person conversation, there’s room for um, ah, mm, you know and thinking and being able to cycle through how do I wanna get this out before I get it out? And then do that. There’s that time in writing too but I’m not gifted in that department and I rely heavily on English and her vocabulary. And it’s like, I come out with like “Here’s my thoughts. No tattoo bad. This no good.” It’s like a Cro-Magnon man.
Christopher: And those are the basic points. I’m like “English, make this sound poetic and then… “
English: You’re getting so much better at it. You aren’t giving yourself any credit. [chuckle]
Christopher: Yeah. So that’s a place that I’ve grown a lot, is emailing. That’s made me a better tattooer, ultimately, just being able to take care of clients. But the time it takes to get over myself and not worry so much about how I think the client is going to receive the information that I’m gonna give them. I think those things just really paralyze me in a lot of ways. And it’s getting over that hurdle and then being like… Like we were talking about earlier, “I’m confident in my ability to do this. This is what I… This is my product. This is what I will deliver for you. If you accept those terms and you wanna come alongside me and do this project, then by all means, I would love to be your guy.” It never sounds that cool, but… [chuckle] So, yeah, it’s a lot of just getting, growing a pair and then going in there and writing it kinda like that, and then hoping for the best.
English: Yeah, it’s kinda like once you and the client are on the same page and you feel like there’s a sort of shared vision there, then it’s like, “Whew. Okay, the ditch digging is done. Now we can move forward and create this beautiful thing together.”
Pierson: So it sounds like at large, one of the most challenging parts of it is that first initial step of getting it going and communicating with these people, and making sure you’re on the same page.
Christopher: Yeah, they’re… And the emails vary and the… There’s variables that change perhaps so frequently, and there are so many variables depending on what the person’s needs are. There’s so much subject matter to consider, the way it’s done, where it’s going on the body, what it’s supposed to mean to that person. And you have to cycle through all of that stuff and then try to have a voice in that, too.
English: I think one of the biggest challenges that I feel like I’ve been confronting over the past couple of years, and I feel like I’m starting to gain more confidence and see more growth in these areas recently, is just working on larger scale pieces. When you’re working on a sleeve, whether it’s on an arm or whether it’s on a leg, whatever, you’re drawing on a flat piece of paper. And for me, it’s not to scale. It’s not the same size as the length of their arm or the length of their leg. Some artist do do it that way, but you’re trying to conceptualize and view where everything is going to fall in space. And then your client comes in and sometimes you’re meeting them in person for the first time, and it’s like, “Oh, this person is a lot shorter than I thought. Okay, so I have less room to work in.” Or, “This person has a different shaped arm than I thought they did.” Maybe their biceps are really, really thin and I don’t have as much room as I thought. Or maybe it’s more of a triangular shape, the overall shape of their arm versus a cylinder that’s going about the same diameter up and down, or sorry, across the bicep and the lower forearm.
English: And so all of a sudden, all of the best preparation and planning… Some things gotta change and some adjustments have to be made. And so I think it’s being quick thinking enough and not being so tightly bound to the plan that you’ve enacted, being willing to make the right adjustments and to take the time and just be forthright and honest and say, “Okay, 80% of this design is gonna work. However, to make the other 20% work, I’m gonna have to Frankenstein the stencil. I’m gonna have to draw some things directly on. We might be drawing on you for an hour and a half before we setup my machines. But if we don’t get this step right, none of the other steps after it are gonna matter.” So it kinda takes some confidence. I was in my own head a lot of times in the beginning. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. This appointment was supposed to start 11:15 and it’s 1:15 now, and I still have 20 minutes of refining before we can start. This person must think I’m so unprofessional.” And then I come to realize later on it’s like, “No, I have to get this right. And they’re gonna be really frustrated if I just ran with it and it wasn’t the best prepared thing I could have produced. And they’ll have to live with that a lot longer than the fact that I might have started two hours later than they thought I was.” So yeah.
Pierson: Lots of moving pieces, and what makes it difficult, what makes it a good tattoo for you guys to do? Do you have a style or anything in particular that you like doing over others?
Christopher: Personally, I’m just kind of like right now, I just like tough guy stuff, like skulls and reapers and daggers and big cats and…
Christopher: Eagles. Eagles, lots of eagles. The more eagles the better, just flames and reapers and just all sorts of shit.
English: Death, death, stabbing, death. [chuckle]
Christopher: Yup, I just want it to look cool.
English: Yeah, yeah. I also like tough stuff, but it’s pretty tough. A little more finesse than Christopher’s. I don’t know. I love Christopher’s stuff. His stuff is so freaking expressive, and I get really inspired looking at it and it helps push my stuff to get a little more stylized. But yeah, neo traditional is the style I like working in. I love doing any classic tattoo imagery but just approaching it with more of refined reference. Back when American traditional was first becoming a style, a lot of the guys, they weren’t full-time tattooers. They were tradesmen, they were plumbers, they were electricians, they were barbers, they were all kinds of other things and not even necessarily artists. And when they were creating this library and this lexicon of imagery that we’re all super familiar with today, they weren’t necessarily seeing the real thing that they were drawing. I don’t know how many men in the 1920s have ever seen a panther in real life or even a photograph of a real panther.
English: And so they’re drawing this image that maybe they hadn’t seen before in person, they were probably drawing based off of cartoons, advertisements, illustrations in books, things like that. And so the kind of wonky, skewed version of those images that is so iconic for American traditional tattooing, that’s where it came from. It’s like you’ve got somebody doing an iteration of an iteration of an iteration, having never actually seen the real thing. So today, you’ve got Google, you’ve got zoos for crying out loud, you’ve got all kinds of other ways to access the actual thing you’re drawing. So I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, I love the magic of a panther. But when I’m putting together a panther for you, I’m gonna pull up what a real panther looks like so that just anatomically I can give you a little bit more of a refined product that’s a little more true to life but that still has the meat and bones that comes from it being the classic tattoo image, that’s what we love.
Pierson: You touched on something a second ago, and I wanna circle back to it because it’s a great transition into what it’s like to work with your significant other in the same environment, doing the same thing, designing together, drawing together. You guys have a very intertwined life, and I’m sure that that makes for an interesting dynamic at work.
Christopher: I’d say it works pretty well. We’re stoked on it.
English: Yeah. [chuckle]
Christopher: I would say the apprenticeship part of our story was probably the hardest because we were married before that, and we had a different kind of dynamic where I… Not that I was ever like, “Hey, I’m the boss. You do what I say.” But when I went into this apprenticeship situation, English was definitely the boss. And that was a lot of learning, getting around that, but yeah, just straight up doing what she said all the time sucked.
Christopher: I don’t know. I think we definitely lean on each other a lot for inspiration and help, and I don’t think I would have… I wouldn’t be anywhere near as good at, like flowers for instance. Not that I’m particularly great at them now, but I wouldn’t have even a basic understanding of where to begin, where to pull from. And if it wasn’t for English and just being able to come to her and her wealth of knowledge, and she’s already done a lot of work on the front end and I get to reap the benefits of that, ultimately. And we get to share that together, and it’s only helping us to grow faster together, so.
Christopher: But yeah, there’s definitely been times through… We’ve been married almost 10 years now, and so not everything has always been like, “Okay, here’s… This is optimal communication.” We had to get past, when we’re critiquing each other’s drawings, we’re dealing with, “This is what I think it should look like, or this is what my leaning is, stylistically. And I’m kind of judging your drawing based off of that, not off of is it correct? Is it… “
English: Is it good? Is it satisfying the requirements?
English: That was definitely a learned thing. That was something we learned during my apprenticeship, actually. ‘Cause Christopher wasn’t tattooing, but he’s always been an artist, always had a great eye. And Christopher mentioned him earlier, the guy he first got tattooed by, Zack Spurlock, and he gave a lot of information on what makes a good tattoo, and I feel like… We’ve both been tattooed by him. I feel like we’ve both learned a lot about good design and good application and things like that from him. And so when I would show Christopher, even with him not being a tattooer, potential designs or drawings or whatever, I really did trust and value his opinion because he did have a good eye and continues to to this day. But in the beginning, it was definitely like, “Well, I don’t think it should be positioned like that. I think it should be like, Waa!” In this crazy expressive pose or whatever, that’s very much a Christopher thing that it wasn’t… What I was showing wasn’t necessarily wrong. But we had to learn how to critique in a way that wasn’t so much us putting our own hand in the other person’s work, but how can we elevate the thing that you already have and make it an even stronger reflection of you and what the client’s after?
English: I still learn from Christopher. I love drawing next to him. I’ve seriously been inspired, just watching the confidence with which he commits himself to the way that he draws a thing. It’s like he… I was always the person that would pull up the actual picture of an eagle diving into a lake to get a fish or something. And I would fixate so much on the actual eagle and how it looked in its position and all of that, that the magic and the energy of that thing diving in would just slowly just seep right out. And I wouldn’t mean for it to, but that was the danger. And I would look at an eagle Christopher’s drawing, and it’s like, “That is not what the tail feather looks like exactly. Those feathers lay in a slightly different pattern, whatever. But damn, if that eagle’s not screeching and I can hear it. It has the energy and the power.” So yeah, watching him draw and seeing his confidence with which he approaches his subject matter has really just emboldened me, let my voice come through a bit more, let it be more resounding and not feel so married to and tied to the exact thing in nature because you aren’t getting a realistic thing from me anyway. So you’re getting a refined thing, but it can be refined with some style, so I’m learning that.
Pierson: I think you guys have one of the coolest working relationships of any two people that I have seen, and I love both of your work tremendously. I’ve now been tattooed by both of you, I can say. And with many more to come. That’s the only questions that I’ve got for you, Brandon. I’ve kinda led the way in terms of the questions, but do you have anything you wanna ask?
Brandon: Maybe a couple of things. Is there anything that people ask for in tattoos that’s just not possible, just not physically possible to do?
English: I think aging lines. Tattoos just in general, they have to be at a certain size so that they can maintain their integrity over time. A few years ago, there was a huge trend and a huge push towards these teeny tiny tattoos that were hyper-realistic and just as far as the way the skin ages and the pigment settles in the skin. As your skin ages and loses elasticity, basically where the pigment is sitting in the skin kind of… It’s almost like it’s falling through an expanded layer of mesh. And as that pigment settles down further and further in layers of skin and almost even gets into fatty tissue, basically all of those little particles collapse in on themselves and turn to mush. So I’d say there is an impossibility there for how small you can go with something. You need to design it large enough so that those changes that are natural and that are gonna happen over life appear as imperceptible as possible. That’s one limitation.
Christopher: Yeah, I think that based on what we’ve seen on Pinterest, you can absolutely apply a tattoo on a micro-scale, whether you should or not is a different question. And ultimately I think it does depend on the client. If they know the risk, they have to be willing to make that decision for themselves. And there are artists out there that are willing to do it and charge a crap ton of money to do it. By all means, go to those people for that stuff. But I think for me, and what I value and what I wanna see, I wanna see my tattoos last for as long as possible and so that is a governing factor.
English: Yup. Colored portraits, there is a very high level of application that can be done with them. And there are a few artists out there that are so schooled and focused on tonal value or tones and values and trying to use as much black as they can to ensure that the tattoo ages and holds up well. But I feel like the artist that can and do do that and deliver a tattoo that’s gonna look passively close to what it looked like 20 years prior when they applied it, I think they’re so few and far between that I’d say that really realistic color portraiture is also something that I am wary of as far as long-term aging. Tattoos have to have a certain amount of black to keep the shape. Black is… It’s made from carbon and the particle size is larger, so it doesn’t experience as much change in the skin, which is part of the reason why black outlines are so important. It acts like a fence essentially keeping all of the other things where it belongs inside. And tattoos without black line work deteriorate, wash out, can look like an out of focus photograph. So tattoos that are in styles like watercolor, you’ll see major changes to. Again, for those reasons, those aren’t tattoos that the two of us do personally. But again, you’ll see some fabulous tricks with day of photos taken all over the internet, but not necessarily gonna look anything like that in the 50-80 years following you getting it, that you’re actually gonna physically have it.
Brandon: Yeah, and that’s probably not a super fun conversation to have with potential clients, just telling them this is not gonna turn out the way you want it to 15 years from now.
English: Yeah, but I think it’s the best conversation to have on the front end. Don’t dance around it, just…
Brandon: Yeah, I mean, you gotta have the conversation. Yeah, you can’t avoid it.
English: And most of our clients are appreciative. And once they realize, “Okay, this person has my best interest at heart,” they’re oftentimes much more willing and trusting in moving forward and finding a solution that’s going to be the thing they want the tattoo to ultimately represent and embody in the end.
Brandon: Yeah. Okay, I guess I’ve got one last question, if you don’t have any others, Pierson.
Pierson: I have asked all of my questions.
Brandon: Alright, we gotta go with some variant to this every time, and I think… Is there anything that in the last few years you would just do differently?
Christopher: That’s gonna be a hard no for me.
English: Hard no? Hard no for you?
Brandon: No regrets?
Christopher: I think over the past few years, I don’t know. I don’t think you’re supposed to make major life changes, more than one at a time. [chuckle] I think that’s the rule. And so for me, I was kinda making several life changes. We were moving to Nashville. I was in the process of learning to tattoo, selling the house, and all this other stuff that was coming into play. And just switching from one career path to another was big enough on its own and we’re tacking on moving here, and there’s a lot of unknowns as we were deciding to go on this adventure together. But yeah, I feel like we’re very firm believers, and I definitely have seen God’s hand guiding us through a lot of the decisions we’ve made and He’s blessed us in where we’ve been so fortunate enough to end up in Safe House. ‘Cause ultimately we were moving from a place that really wasn’t nurturing to a creative kind of…
English: There was nowhere to grow.
Christopher: There was nowhere to really grow. There are definitely talented people there, but we were looking for a shop dynamic where all the other artists are on the same wavelength and eager to grow and be willing to take critique.
English: Give it.
Christopher: And also to give it. And that’s hard for a lot of people, but we have a community of people that are all willing to do that, and the clientele that is willing to get creative tattoos. And so, yeah, and it’s just been continual growth. I think, to be honest since being at Safe House, I can’t think of anything that I’m bummed out about or that I would like to do differently.
Brandon: It’s a really good thing.
English: On a personal level, I would probably say that the only thing I would change about my personal approach is I maybe wish I would have started narrowing in a little sooner than I did. I very much came from… It was a street shop environment, which… Sorry, for those of you that don’t know. That’s basically a shop where people would walk in and get tattoos right then and there. I did have the opportunity to do a lot of custom work there as well. But the environment that we came up in, I wasn’t allowed to say no to anything unless A, I physically couldn’t do it. I’m not a portrait artist, so I could say no to somebody asking me to do a portrait or B, if it absolutely wouldn’t age well and would fall apart. Those were my only two ways out. So coming from that kind of an environment, I very much had this, “How do I make this thing that’s not necessarily totally in my wheelhouse, work? How do I make it work? How do I be the yes person?” And then when I came to Safe House for the first time ever, our owner was like, “I want you guys to be learning and growing and pushing the things that you’re interested in. And you don’t have to say yes to everything. Don’t feel that pressure. A, we’ve either got enough artists to go around or B, we’ve got plenty of talented friends in town that we’re happy to help pass on and fill in gaps for if it’s not something that we can take on or are wanting to take on.” And I didn’t know what to do with that blessing.
English: I was like, “If I can do it,” like I sure would say yes. I felt a weird obligation to say yes. And again, this comes from that Essentialism book, but the line that was used in that book that really stuck with me and affected me drastically was, “You can do a little bit of everything and make a millimeter of progress in a million different directions, or you can focus and narrow in and pick the path you want to be on and really put all your time, effort, energy into that and into growing in the areas you’re hoping to experience growth.” It’s been really liberating. It’s been hard to do on the front end. The more you do it, the easier it gets to narrow in. I really do feel like I’ve seen a lot of growth in the past two years having done that, versus doing a ton of different styles. And even though you’re learning something in every experience, it may be three weeks before you do another tattoo in a black and gray realism style. So you’re trying to sort through three weeks worth of memories to pull the lessons you learned in this tattoo three weeks ago, and apply it to the new black and gray realism tattoo you’re about to do now. Not as beneficial as if you’re continuing to work the same muscles.
Brandon: Narrowing down is such a huge mental shift to have to make those. It’s okay to take your time and figure out what you really like first.
Pierson: Tattooing is such a complex field to begin with. It’s something that… Like you guys have harped on this whole time. It’s something that you wanna make sure you’re getting right from the get go, and you can deliver the best possible result to the client for both of y’all’s sake.
Pierson: Awesome. Well, guys, thank you so much for taking the time to come on. I love getting to talk to you every time we get the chance to. So if you like this podcast, leave us a five star review. Check us out on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google podcast, Stitcher, TuneIn and anywhere else you get podcasts. Thank you guys for joining us and we’ll see you guys in a few weeks.
Christopher: Yup. Appreciate that.
English: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Brandon: Alright, thank you for coming on.