What it takes: Getting behind the gun

Denise Wright

Tattoo artist Ryan Fishley tattoos freshman exploratory major Ryan Tempesta’s arm yesterday at Defiance Tattoos in downtown Kent. Dana Beveridge | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

For some people, picking out a tattoo can take months; for others, it may only take a matter of minutes. Regardless of how the final design is selected, a great deal of work goes into the actual process of putting the piece together.

The employees at Defiance Tattoos on Main Street said this time of year is their slowest season, so one particular afternoon in early November was a little slow – until Chuck Falk, a Kent State alum who’s a regular, came in with a friend.

Upon entering the shop, the two animatedly shake hands with the three employees there – co-owner and tattoo artist Steve May, co-owner and piercer Robert Bohn and tattoo artist Ryan Fishley. They say this industry is all about being close-knit.

The two shop-goers sit down on the couch nearest the counter.

“So, what are you getting?” Steve asks Chuck.

“I’m getting that,” Chuck replies, pointing to one of the many designs posted on the walls. “I don’t know; do whatever you want. Do you want to finish up my chest or do something else? It’s up to you.”

The two continue to bounce ideas off each other – Steve seems intent on using one of his drawings of the Grim Reaper, but Chuck seems hesitant to commit to anything.

“What do you think?” he asks Steve.

“I think I’ve shown you the coolest stuff I’ve drawn . ever. And you don’t want it. That’s what I think. Let me go look to see what’s cool for fake hardcore kids,” Steve jokes.

Ultimately, Chuck decides to go with a piece on each hand – a rose with the word “mom” in a banner on the left and a crown with “dad” in the banner on the right.

Steve heads upstairs, sits down in front of a drawing table and begins sketching the “mom” design with a red pencil. He explains that sketching designs in blue or red first makes the lines cleaner and the design a little crisper after going over it in black.

“It doesn’t really matter what you use; the equipment and the process can be different between shops,” he said. “I think it’s whatever works best for you.”

Because Steve specializes in American traditional art, which includes things like roses, swallows and banners, he is able to freehand Chuck’s “mom” design easily. As he stares intently at the design and touches his pencil to the paper to perfect a line in the banner, he explains that it’s usually helpful to use a reference to “pull the lines” from, which involves putting tracing paper over a printout and tracing the hard lines. He opts to use a reference for the crown drawing, adding jewels and diamonds to the original design.

About 50 minutes and a few raw sketches later, Steve has the final designs for Chuck’s hand tattoos. He runs them through a machine that prints the images out on carbon copy-like paper, making the sketches transferrable onto the skin. This process is standard for every customer.

He grabs his iPod, puts it on the dock in his station and begins setting up. He tapes down a cloth to his table, which he will later use to place all his materials on.

For now, he tears off a piece of Saran wrap and places it over the small power source box and then puts blue plastic over the cord. He spends the next ten minutes getting his equipment, sanitizers and ink ready.

To finish off, he pulls out three metal tattoo machines and a packaged needle. He pulls a cushioned metal post over and tapes a cloth to it. He sets up a chair and calls Chuck upstairs.

Chuck sits down in Steve’s station and rolls up his sleeve, placing his hand on the post. Steve uses his now-gloved hands to clean Chuck’s with the soap and then proceeds to shave both his hands.

He applies stencil lotion to Chuck’s hands and gently places the stencils on their corresponding hands. Chuck looks in the mirror, clenches both fists and says he’s happy with the placement of the rose design. After a few more placements, he decides the crown looks right, too.

Steve grabs his gun, which he has since prepared and attached to the power source cord, uses a finger to apply petroleum jelly to Chuck’s right hand, then dips the needle tip into the ink. He presses both hands firm against the design, touches the tip to the upper line of the “dad” banner. A loud buzzing fills the air as he begins his latest work of art.

Breaking into the business

Artists Steve May and Ryan Fishley agreed that one of the best ways to become a tattoo artist comes through networking and being a customer at a shop.

Ryan said he became integrated into the Defiance network while he was taking classes at Kent State; Steve even did his tattoo sleeve. After dropping his classes and going through a few odd jobs, he showed Steve his drawings and ultimately, began an apprenticeship at Defiance.

A tattoo apprenticeship requires cleaning and janitorial work, talking to customers and, of course, watching the entire process.

Steve said he also requires apprentices to read and understand tattoo history.

“For me, I feel it’s important,” he said. “Certainly, it’s one of the first things anyone who apprentices for me has to do.”

Steve also stressed that being a tattoo artist requires more than just raw artistic talent.

“A lot of people think that they want to get into it, but most of them probably shouldn’t,” he said. “It’s far different than drawing or painting, and it’s not as easy as people think it is.”

Contact features reporter Denise Wright at [email protected].