Tattooists are the rockstars of the art world, using needles as paintbrushes to transform the human body into a canvas. For some tattooing is a work-hard, play-hard lifestyle; for others it’s a way to do what they love to support their families. The good ones never stop striving to perfect their trade and develop an edge in an extremely competitive industry. Four East Dallas artists give us a glimpse into the tattoo community in our neighborhood.
Twenty-four years ago Adrian Evans took his sketchbook into Tiggers in Deep Ellum. He was hired on the spot and began tattooing that night with no professional experience. Later he bought Elm Street Tattoo along with East Dallas tattoo artist Oliver Peck. After selling his part, he opened Liberty Tattoo on Henderson and ran it until it closed. He bounced around some shops in North Dallas for a while before settling at Death and Glory on Lower Greenville, which is where he has worked for eight years.
How have you seen the industry evolve over the years?
I’ve seen a lot of trends. People are doing this heavy, clunky style, which has taken it back to early, early 1900s. So it has gotten a lot more immature in that sense, but if done properly it still looks good. Another trend I see a lot is the color realism.
As a whole, the amount of reference and information that people have at their fingertips nowadays with the Internet helps people learn a lot faster and develop style a lot quicker. When we were up-and-coming, it took us 10 years to get where these kids are getting in five years. The overall talent and art of the industry has gotten a lot more refined, and there are a lot more teachers, and we didn’t have that. Especially in Dallas, we didn’t really have any people who were willing to teach us until the mid-90s. That’s when everything kind of started to evolve.
It seems like people look at tattoos as more artistic now. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah that’s a huge part of how the industry has changed. Before it was bikers and gang members. It was a taboo thing. Now it’s much more accepted with TV shows and everything. So I think the acceptability, even in the workplace, has changed. You see corporate people with visible tattoos all the time now, which was just unheard of back then.
Do you see tattooing as more an art or a craft?
I think it’s a balance of both. It can be mechanical, but you’re also creating. So sometimes you don’t feel like you have much input, and other times you feel like there are no mechanics at all and it’s all creativity.
Do you remember the first tattoo you got?
The first professional tattoo? My first non-professional tattoo was a girl’s name that I hand-tattooed onto my arm. I think I was in sixth grade. It was on this arm (the left forearm), and it didn’t work out. My first professional tattoo was a silly little sun that I got when I was 14.
What do you think are the most common tattoos?
Script is really popular right now, and the sacred geometry stuff – infinity signs, triangles, circles, etc.
Are there any high-profile people you’ve tattooed that might surprise people?
I tattooed the assistant DA of a small town near Austin. You’d never know she has tattoos and she has an almost full body suit now. I also know a lawyer who you’d never know he has a tattoo when he’s in his suit, but he has tattoos all down his back and chest and legs.
Do all tattoos have to mean something?
Not at all. Some people just get things that look good, that they like. Some people like to decorate themselves like they decorate their walls. Not everything you put on your walls has to mean something. A lot of people try to put too much meaning into things.
What’s the most unusual tattoo you’ve done for someone at Death and Glory?
Not really anything here. Most of the crowd we get here is a lot different than the crowd we used to get in Deep Ellum. It’s not that drunk, party crowd. It’s more professional.
Are there any experiences that stand out as remarkably rewarding?
I’ve covered up scars for breast cancer, and that was … I think they’re so brave, first of all. With all the pressure in society about how you look, especially in Dallas because it’s so pretentious. I can’t imagine going through that as a woman, so to give something to someone so that they can actually be proud to wear a bathing suit, that was huge. I’ve done it for ovarian cancer scars as well. It’s pretty uplifting to know that you’ve helped someone out like that.
I did one on a woman that was Japanese flowers, and I did another that was filigree — a sort of Victorian design. I did nipples on a woman as well. For a couple of them it was their first tattoos. They got them because they were tired of seeing scars. They wanted to look at something that was pretty. It was for themselves.
Milan Mone is a newbie in the tattoo industry. Originally from Oklahoma — the last state to legalize tattooing — Mone left a secure marketing job to become a tattoo artist. She has been working as an apprentice for a year and a half under Gerald Garcia who owns Last Angels Tattoos on Lowest Greenville.
Who are the most surprising people who get tattoos?
The business professionals who don’t just have little tattoos here or there but are actually covered. People who are making six-figures a year. I don’t get them, but the owner [Gerald Garcia] gets some big names. He’s tattooed a lot of athletes.
What was your first tattoo?
As soon as I turned 18, I got Kanji [Japanese symbols] on the front sides of my shoulders. Later one of my friends translated it, and she said, ‘Yeah those are right, but they’re incomplete thoughts. Where’s the rest of it?’ But I just said, ‘Well, I’m glad they’re not curse words or anything.’ When you’re 18 you should not get a tattoo. It’s like, ‘Why did I get that?’ I had it on my mind that that’s what I wanted and so I got it. That’s what was popular at the time. I thought it was really angsty and cool because I got ‘creation’ and ‘destruction.’
I’m originally from Oklahoma. At the time tattooing was illegal in Oklahoma. Oklahoma was the last state to make it legal, so any tattoos you wanted you had to drive to Texas.
Wow, I didn’t know that! What was that like?
Yeah, I mean unless you wanted a tattoo in someone’s house you had to drive across the border. [On Nov. 1, 2006 Oklahoma lifted the ban that had been in effect since 1963, according to ok.gov.] I think they just finally wised up and realized they were losing money by forcing natives to drive to other states.
Do you remember the first time you tattooed someone?
Yes. It was very nerve-wracking. I was sweating the whole time. We use stencils, but I kept wiping it away and having to redraw it. It came out so bad, but he loved it. He absolutely loved it. I actually saw it a few months ago and was like, ‘I can’t believe I did that. I owe you a badass tattoo someday.’ He’s a friend of mine, and he knew it was my first time, and so he was like, ‘You have to start somewhere.’ This was years before I got to an actual tattoo shop, which is pretty common.
Have you ever messed up someone’s tattoo? What do you do in that situation?
Yes and no. I draw up a rendering of the tattoo and show it to the clients, and there have been times when I have strayed away from that rendering, not on purpose. Then I have to go with it and make it all uniform. So you have to be able to fix it and make it look clean and professional.
You know how people say, ‘Once you get one tattoo, it’s like an addiction?’ How true do you think that statement is?
Oh, it’s absolutely true. It goes back to collection tattoos. You almost forget how painful a certain tattoo was, and then come up with other ideas and realize it wasn’t as bad as you thought.
Any good stories?
We get everything you can think of. Earlier today my co-worker was talking about these 14-year-old kids that came in and wanted to get tattoos on their hands. They were totally serious. They wanted a ‘Rafael’ tattoo, and then when we looked it up it was a Ralph Lauren symbol.
What do you do if drunk people come in?
That happens a lot. If we recognize it we turn them away. Sometimes you don’t recognize it or it isn’t until they’re already in the chair when it kicks in. But we’re pretty good about turning people away because it comes back on us. Also, alcohol thins out the blood, so it’s going to push out the ink and be counterproductive.
What’s the weirdest thing that has inspired a tattoo?
I have a Hello Kitty tattoo, and ‘curly hair don’t care’ on my hands, which was inspired by Lil Wayne’s ‘long hair don’t care.’
What do you think is the greatest misconception of tattoo artists?
That we’re lazy or that we all live this rockstar lifestyle. That we don’t want to build a ‘real’ career. Some of the hardest working people I know are in this industry. I don’t think a lot of people know the hard work that goes into becoming a tattoo artist. They think you can just go out and buy the equipment and then become a tattoo artist. The TV shows make it look so easy.
White Rock Lake neighbor Char McGaughy, who is the owner of Gold Dust Tattoos & Fine Art on Lowest Greenville, managed to wrangle her way into the tattoo industry, even though it’s largely a “man’s world,” she says. She has won awards for her creative flair and photorealism work. When she’s not tattooing, drawing or painting, she’s running or cycling at White Rock Lake or relishing a pizza at Cigars on Gaston.
Who gets tattoos?
I used to think only a certain type of person gets tattoos, but I tattoo from 18-year-olds to 70-year-olds who want to get a tattoo before they die. I have a client who’s a doctor at Presby, and you would never guess that he’s heavily tattooed. Another guy who’s on the radio — super clean cut, straight-laced. When he came in I didn’t know what he wanted. Now he’s a regular client.
Since you deal with so many people, do you have any good stories?
Crazy things happen in a tattoo shop. I don’t know if it’s because we’re kind of social outcasts and so people think crazy behavior is acceptable in a tattoo shop, but some crazy things happen. Like people come in and get completely naked to get an arm tattoo or a leg tattoo. Or people get strange tattoos in strange places.
Do you remember the first time you tattooed someone?
Yeah. It’s not like paper. If you mess up, you can’t erase it and start all over. The guy I learned from, he was an award-winning, very talented artist, and so he was watching. He guided me obviously, but I still felt like, ‘I should know more. I should be able to do this better.’ All I did was like a solid black symbol, but it’s still pretty stressful. It’s a three-dimensional, living, breathing canvas.
Did that go away?
People get tattoos that mean stuff, so it can be pretty emotional. I like that side of it … because no matter where you go or where you come from, you will always remember me. Tattooing is very intimate. We spend hours together. We share stories and talk about our lives. Every time you look at that tattoo, you’re going to remember that experience.
What’s the tattoo community in East Dallas like?
It’s a small community, so we all know each other, but I wouldn’t say that we’re tight-knit. Unfortunately it’s very competitive. Dallas is saturated with tattoo shops — especially right where we are. We hold an art night once a month where we close early, order food, drink beer and paint. We invite artists from other studios, and a lot of them come. So we’re trying.
We’re really working hard to clean up the Dallas tattoo scene and get rid of what we call the ‘scratchers’ or ‘kitchen magicians.’ You know the self-taught ‘I just want to make $20 today’ kind of guys.
What was your first tattoo you got on yourself?
My first tattoo was when I was 13. I did it on myself with a homemade machine. I was a bored adolescent. It was my name — because apparently I was going to forget it.
Do you have a tattoo that has significance to you?
I have two portraits that mean a lot to me because they’re family, but I think this Shel Silverstein drawing that’s based on his poem called, ‘Hug O’ War.’ It means a lot to me because of that book. I’ve read it since I was a kid. It reminds me of the past and the present.
What tattoos do you hate?
Whatever the image is, I don’t want to tattoo your face. It’s a job-stopper. You’ll always be that guy or girl with a tattoo on your face. And hands. I don’t tattoo hands unless you’ve got your arms completely covered. Also names. I think it’s ridiculous. It doesn’t show your love any more than just saying it, and you’re permanently marking your body. Nine times out of 10 people get a name tattoo to try to fix a problem in a relationship or something and so it never works. So then they end up with a name tattoo that we have to cover.
What do you think is the greatest misconception of tattoo artists?
People think we’re rich — that we just sit around and get rich. We’re not. The whole ‘starving artist’ thing is true. Or people think we’re all criminals or drug addicts.
What do you think about the reality TV shows that feature tattoo artists?
They’re a blessing and a curse. They’ve taken some of the stigma away about what people think tattoos are. You’re seeing people do these amazing tattoos, and you can’t deny that it’s art. But it also gives people false expectations. People come in and think they can get a full sleeve in like a day.
Although he’s covered in tattoos, neighbor Allen Falkner spends his time at Suffer City in East Dallas removing them. Falkner is best known for doing suspension, an activity in which people hang from ceilings using nothing but metal hooks through their skin. (Because why not?) He also rubs elbows with many well-known people in the tattoo community. In fact Erik Sprague, better known as “The Lizardman,” officiated Falkner’s wedding.
What’s it like as a heavily tattooed person to do tattoo removal?
There are pros and cons either way. Some people walk in and look at me and think, ‘I don’t know about this guy.’ On the flip side, I think I’m breaking down a lot of barriers. When you walk into a hospital, it can be a very frightening situation. I try to go a different route because I cater to the tattoo crowd.
Can you tell me a little about the process?
The process is pretty straightforward. You use a laser. The laser fires at the skin and breaks apart the particles so that the body is able to absorb the ink over time. That’s the very short version. There’s a lot more involved.
What are some of the variables that make a tattoo easier or harder to remove?
The older the tattoo the easier it is to remove. Black ink is the easiest color to remove, or when the tattoo is not done well and there’s not as much ink density in it, like homemade tattoos or prison tattoos. The lighter your skin is the easier it is to remove the tattoo. On the flip side, really light colors are hard to remove because they reflect the laser. Also people who are physically healthy are going to see better results. The list goes on and on. Every person and every tattoo is different.
I’ve heard tattoo removal is really painful.
Working in the tattooing and piercing industry was a whole lot nicer because even though it hurts, as soon as it’s done they get to look in the mirror, and they’re happy about it. That’s not the case with tattoo removal. It doesn’t feel good, and then afterwards it doesn’t look like it changed very much. It takes multiple treatments to remove the tattoos. Tattooing isn’t as painful, but it lasts for three or four hours. Tattoo removal is more painful, but it’s extremely fast.
What is the most painful place to have a tattoo removed?
It varies from person to person. In general the inside of the arm does not feel good. Around the hip, especially the closer you get to the abdominal area.
What are the most popular tattoos you remove?
Names and wedding rings, by far.
Who usually gets names removed?
Women almost always want the name removed. Men usually want it covered up. I think it’s because of the social stigma. If you have someone’s name on your arm and then you get a big tattoo, if you’re a man there’s no social stigma. If you’re a woman there is. I also think there’s a difference in perception. Men are like, ‘I’ll cover it up and it’s gone.’ Women are like, ‘I covered it up, and it’s still there. I know it’s still there, and I want to remove it.’
Any good stories?
I do get that occasional person who gets amazing results and is super happy, and then it totally changes their lives. Like I’ve had kids come in who were complete gangbangers, and then they come back a few years later and they have good jobs and have managed to totally turn their lives around.
I do a free tattoo removal program for minors for tattoos on the hands, neck and face. I work with another program with adults as well, but the youth one I do on my own. They’re mostly referred word-of-mouth, but I also work with gang units, with the state and several different agencies. I’ve had people bring in kids in full chains.
When did you start doing that?
Pretty much from day one, back in 2007.
I’m a big believer in community service and giving back. When I was first starting off I didn’t have much in the way of clientele anyways. It’s also a part of my backstory. I was a troubled youth. It was all my own making, of course, running with a bad crowd and the whole deal. The reason I remove them off the hands, neck and face is because those are what we call ‘job-stoppers.’ Those are the stigma tattoos, and it limits what you can do in society. So it’s my way of helping people out. Also, gang tattoos are generally homemade tattoos that are easy to remove.
What’s the worst tattoo you’ve seen?
I almost always see terrible tattoos, but I have one that’s a part of my portfolio that was a portrait. The kid in the portrait was a freckled red-headed kid, and I swear the portrait looked just like Alfalfa.
Do you have any high-profile clients?
Not really, but I have removed tattoos by really famous tattoo artists. I hate that a little bit, especially when it’s a really beautiful piece.
If there were a type of tattoo that you could erase from the face of the planet, what would it be?
I remove ICP [Insane Clown Posse] tattoos — the hatchetman. It’s an outline of a little man running with a hatchet. Every time I remove a hatchetman symbol I always think another angel gets its wings.
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