Jamie King has only been inking people for 12 years, but he already sounds like an old-timer when he grouses about the fallout from the tattoo’s march to mainstream status, like the unskilled “scratchers” who have flocked to the industry and trendy tats that look better on a computer screen than they do on the body. But he’s also smart enough to recognize that more exposure means more business. He’ll get plenty of the former (and latter) at this August’s Seattle Tattoo Expo, the annual showcase of local artists, which also happens to be cohosted by the shop where he works, Hidden Hand Tattoo. Pro tip: If you go and you do run into him, don’t bother sharing that sweet geometric line art you cooked up in Photoshop. —Matthew Halverson
My parents were pretty cool and progressive, so they tried to do anything they could to encourage me artistically. And every single one of my friends was in my ear, telling me that I needed to be a tattoo artist.
A portfolio of drawings only goes so far. A lot of kids can draw. Big deal. You want to see a work ethic in someone. Don’t expect to walk into a shop and ask to be taught how to tattoo and not have people tell you to beat it. It’s like, “You can draw nice pictures. That’s great. Can you scrub a toilet?”
I knew a guy who owned a shop, and he knew I wanted to tattoo and that I was an okay kid. His counter guy at the time split, and I ran into him one night, and he’s like, “Hey man, do you want to answer the phone at my shop a couple days a week and mop the floor?” I was 19 and living at home, so I could just afford to drop everything and be at the tattoo shop all day.
I pretty much lived off tips. I made enough to get by and take the bus to work and buy lunch and save up a little bit for equipment, but it wasn’t really until I started making little bits of money tattooing after a year or so of learning that I was able to support myself.
Tattooing is primitive, man. It’s like you’re tapping into something that gives people—whether real or imagined—a sense of power and some confidence. Because essentially what you’re putting on them are icons and archetypes—like the panther or the dagger with the snake around it—that are simple but very powerful.
Sometimes people will get an idea in their head about how they want their tattoo to look, based on something they’ve seen on the Internet or a drawing their friend did who doesn’t do tattoos. You’re always working against that. So it’s about trying to get people to know that you want to give them the best tattoo that they can possibly get, even if it’s not exactly what they have in their mind.
Most of our muscles make an S curve on the body. And that’s a very simple, very dynamic shape. So if you look at a lot of tattoos, they’re drawn in an S curve pattern. You always try to keep that in mind, because it’s not just about sticking an image on someone. It’s about tailoring it to the body.
We tattoo a lot of moms. We tattoo a lot of tech guys. Probably a third of the guys I tattoo work for Amazon. There are tattooers who will roll their eyes about it: “All these kids getting sleeves now and getting their neck tattooed…” Whatever, man. It’s keeping us in business. And it’s changing the perception. Those days of a neck tattoo meaning that you’ve been to prison are gone. And we should be happy about that, you know?
It’s a very saturated market right now. People see these tattooers on TV, feel like they’re making all of this money and tattooing hot chicks all day and being rock stars and driving classic cars, so it’s attracted a lot of people who are in it because they want to make money and want to be cool and not because they really love tattoos and the tradition of it.
I don’t really care about being cool or being tough anymore. I’m more focused on having a career and doing good tattoos.
Yeah, I definitely judge tattoos when I see them. It’s art. It’s to be judged. It really serves no purpose other than visual stimulation.
The aging process is a big thing for me. The body droops and sags and tightens up and changes. And a tattoo is going to fade. The edges are going to blur. It’s not going to look as good in 10 or 15 or 20 years as it does on the day it’s put on.
Black gives tattoos longevity. We consider it the framework of a tattoo. If you look at these old guys from World War II with tattoos, what can you see? The black. Black holds in the skin far better than color does. And I use a lot of color, don’t get me wrong. But my tattoos aren’t held together by color. Black holds the tattoo together.
I will generally recognize tattoos I’ve done before I recognize the person. And the tattoo will sort of be the catalyst that makes me remember everything. The face will look familiar, but then I’ll see the tattoo and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s right. You were telling me that you just got a job at Harborview” or something like that. And then it’ll all come back.
Everyone gets the tattoo that they deserve.