Unless you cover it up with more ink or pay to have it lasered off, a tattoo will outlast relationships, passing fancies, even life philosophies. That’s not to discourage anyone from going under the needle–in a borough full of creative types, there are plenty of amazing artists who use ink as a medium and skin as a canvas. We spoke to three tattoo artists to find out how to go about getting a tattoo that is timeless and right for you–like wearing an original piece of art.
Four tattoo tips, from the pros.
Brad Stevens tattoos at NY Adorned. He’s been drawing since he was very young and went to FIT for graphic design, but only found his true artistic direction when he got serious about tattoos.
I tell my students at SVA, that designing for paper and designing for the body are two different things and I do both, so you have to trust me. –Stephanie Tamez
Lettering is one current tattoo trend that Stevens often warns against. “It fights the organic shape of the body, ages terribly, and loses its impact if you have to look at it every day,” he says. “When you take something like lettering and try to piece together a sleeve from it you start seeing how things don’t line up, which makes everything look wrong.” Even with those caveats, Stevens is happy to do lettering and other of-the-moment designs for customers who want them. “I do all the trendy tattoos all the time. I don’t even hate doing them–it’s part of my job and I like seeing people get what they want. ”
Right now, Stevens is inspired by folk art and traditional tattoos because they’re raw and basic and that translates well to skin. ”Traditional American and Japanese designs work great for tattoos because they are the product of years and years of trial and error,” he says. “The reason we associate tattoo imagery with tattoos is because it works the best on the human body.”
Adam Suerte, a Brooklyn born artist, is a graduate of Music and Art High School, and Rhode Island School of Design. His influences stretch from Aztec designs to the psychedelic art of the 60’s to his background in graffiti, as well as the Dutch Masters, underground comic books, Pop Art and impressionism. Suerte founded the artist collective Urban Folk Art studios, and in the late ’90s, he apprenticed in tattooing and is now the founder and co-owner of Brooklyn Tattoo.
In the same way that Stevens is drawn to folk art, Suerte is drawn to cityscapes, especially of Brooklyn. “South Brooklyn has been changing drastically through gentrification, and I like to capture the finer details before things change to the unrecognizable,” he says. “People come to me specifically for Brooklyn or urban themed tattoos. People want to memorialize where they grew up, or where they have come to make their home. Some people get Brooklyn-themed stuff when they are about to move away and want to take it with them, or when they have already moved away and are visiting. Tourists (or travelers) will get landmark images tattooed as souvenirs, much like the sailors who brought back tattoos from their travels, to mark where they’d traveled to. The Brooklyn Bridge (of course),The Williamsburg Savings Bank, the view from the Promenade, Prospect park, The Twin Towers, Sailors and Soldiers Arch (Grand Army Plaza) Coney Island, Manhattan Bridge, street signs with the cross streets of where people have lived, I’ve done them all several times. Then there are the less specific iconic symbols of living in a city, Subway cars, lampposts, Johnny pumps (fire hydrants), stoops, brownstones, project buildings, cobblestone streets.”
Suerte has noticed that celebrities have a huge influence on tattoo trends right now–his customers frequently ask him to replicate tattoos they’ve seen on the red carpet–Rihanna and The Rock in particular. He says that women come in for the stream of stars Rihanna has running down the back of her neck, or the word “love” tattooed on a finger, just like the singer. He cautions against the hand tattoo trend, saying that the skin exfoliates at a much faster rate on the hands, hastening fading, and it’s also hard to tell if the ink is going to hold. Hand and finger tattoos generally require touch-ups. Even so, when Suerte explains this to clients they are rarely deterred. “Celebrities get something and show it in the media, and people come running,” he says.
“Back in the 90’s, basketball player Marcus Camby got those huge Kanji on his arm and for years people were coming in for Chinese characters,” Suerte remembers. “I basically learned how to tattoo doing Chinese characters. People just seem to want to connect with celebrities.”
Suerte refuses do to any tattoos that are racist or hateful–yes every now and then he gets requests. He also backs away from names when they aren’t blood relatives (children or parents, basically). He covers up names of exes constantly and suggests that clients find something that represents the relationship rather than a name. Most importantly, he will never copy other artist’s tattoos–clients sometimes bring in photos of work that they’ve printed from the internet. If you see a design you love, he suggests bring in a variety of inspiration photos, sketches and images so that he can take that idea and create something original for you. Trust your artist.
After working at NY Adorned for more than a decade, Stephanie Tamez (tattooing at right) recently became a co-owner of Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg. Growing up in San Antonio, Tex., Tamez associated tattoos with gangs and other scenes she didn’t want any part in. After going to art school though, and moving to San Francisco to work as a graphic designer for Tower Records, she felt drawn to the art of tattooing.
“When I started, I did a lot of black and gray because I was doing a lot of black and gray portraits at Tower Records,” she explains. “I was doing a lot of photorealism. I became known for that. Then I did a lot of typography naturally because of my graphic design experience. But I wanted to expand and do more intricate things.”
Now that she’s been a tattoo artist for 30 years, Tamez has a reputation that attracts a lot of very discerning clients to her chair. “I get a lot of top graphic designers, fashion designers, people from France who come in and let me do their designs, but also want control like most people do when they come in with pictures of what they want,” says Tamez. “I have to tell them, and I tell my students at SVA, that designing for paper and designing for the body are two different things and I do both, so you have to trust me. It’s hard to talk to people who don’t know tattoos about tattoos.”
Tamez says that she doesn’t believe in trends, and always thinks of the tattoo she is working on at the moment as her most important tattoo to date. “I don’t think it’s about trends,” she says. “Tattooing is more like an evolution or an assemblage.”