Timmy Tatts

A Conversation

When was it that you first started tattooing?

I started putting needle and ink to skin probably about ’87 something like that. We were kids so we would just do the hand poke style. We had arms full of that stuff. We liked it. We had it in our mind that it wasn’t just crap. We tried to make all the lines real straight and tried to learn about it, and eventually we’d did makeshift machines and then we had arms full of stuff that wasn’t shaded in, just lines, because we didn’t figure out how to do shading or anything like that.

We were kids. We didn’t know what we were doing. In our heads we just wanted to be cool and have tattoos, and of course at that time, you go into a tattoo shop when you’re 16 and they’re going to tell you to get lost. That’s just how it was back then. And even if you came of age where you were like 18 or something like that, like you’re not going to just go in and say, "Hey, I’m interested in tattooing." You’d get thrown out. It just wasn’t like the same way as it is now, where a shop will advertise that they’ll teach you on their sign out front.

It wasn’t like today were like you could go on the internet. They didn’t have internet back then. You couldn’t just go on and say I want to learn about mixing ink, and then you mix your ink. Or anything you wanted you could just buy on the internet. It was not like that. But by 24 I had electric machines. I had a buddy who had a shop and I started tattooing and eventually got a little better. I ended up in another shop. By that time I’m learning needles and then it was little bit here, little bit there. It wasn’t like how people say today, I haven't been taught anything. You had to like begin with somebody.

We were in with nobody so it was long hard struggle but I just wanted it. I wanted that so I made that happen. That all was my determination. Eventually, one guy helps me out. Says this is the needles you should be using to do this and this. Here’s how a machine should run. That was great. Got me over a hump of like 10 years. Nothing was just handed out. It was hard to even get anything but I don’t know...I’m either like really stupid or very determined or both. I don’t know, but I just stuck to it.

At this point I can finally almost enjoy what I’m doing. Not that I learned everything, because what kept me going was that you never learn everything.

When and what compelled you to get into traditional tattoos?

I love them. They are tattoos. To me, I mean that’s where the fun is. They look like tattoos to me. That’s what a tattoo is. I mean, I understand that any mark in the skin is considered a tattoo but to me this is where it’s at, like it’s just fun and I’m a history buff, so to me that’s what resonates with me. Everybody’s got their own thing that they get into or whatever, so that’s what I’m into. I love tracking down the history. To me, tattooing is kind of like an oral tradition of its history and its actions.

A traditional tattoo is a traditional tattoo. You can’t just like make something up and say it’s traditional just because you have a solid outline. I like the real deal.

How did you learn rules to traditional tattooing?

A lot of studying and a lot of practice. It was just something I was very interested in. I’m a little bit older than some people would think, so when I was coming up, that was an era where you saw what I consider tattoos. Korean war stuff, World War II stuff. Now, you don’t see that stuff so much anymore because lot of those guys are long gone, so I just liked the way things looked. It's impressive once you start seeing like the other tattooers that came before.

Now, of course I’ve done most any kind of style that works as a tattoo and, well, when I first started out things that didn’t work as a tattoo which I found out later why but because I’m a street shop guy. That’s what I did so you got to be well rounded as a tattooer. You’re better off being able to do anything than only being a one trick pony. It just so happens that this is what I love; this kind of style. So this is what I like to do. Not to say I can’t do something else but I count this a blessing when I get to do this. And you know, you learn about stuff like this. You talk to old people, talk to the older tattooers.

They’re the ones that have been doing it the longest. Don’t be afraid, a lot of them are nice. Maybe some aren’t, but it’s all about how you come off. So don’t be a jerk, and say hello.

I can certainly tell when I look at a traditional tattoo that whoever put that on whether they knew what they were doing or not. A lot different errors of applying a tattoo.

I understand that now they got colors, and if they had all them good colors that they have now back then, that they would use those colors. I get that, but like I don’t bring a tank to a civil war reenactment.

There’s an era where they use the blues and the purples, or there’s an era where they didn’t. There’s an era where it's just black and red. So, it’s like the nostalgia of it all. I understand that now they got colors, and if they had all them good colors that they have now back then that they would use those colors. I get that, but like I don’t bring a tank to a civil war reenactment. You know what I’m saying? So, I’m just trying to like be true to a style. Sometimes I like making something a little different, making it with bright colors or newer things, if the job allows for that, or if the style allows for that. I like that. I’m not a guy that hates blue but I’ll use it where it’s necessary depending on the style.

I like the way Texas Bob’s tattoos look. I like Ed Smith. He painted stuff. I like Coleman, naturally. I like Huck’s stuff, it’s that one tattoo of what the Fu Manchu thing. That’s just an amazing tattoo. Hands down just an amazing thing, aged well, looks great.

What do you do when you’re not building machines or tattooing?

In my downtime to keep my sanity and keep me going, I paint tattoo designs. Maybe someone will get it tattooed, but even if they don’t, at least I got to paint some stuff. That’s how I pass my time.

When did you start painting flash color?

I didn’t paint flash. Well, I tried to do some flash I guess around ’98 or something like that but I don’t really know much about it. Mostly it was like color pencil style. I knew it wasn’t so good. Then it wasn’t until like I moved to Florida that I started really painting it and then I just never stopped.

I think it’s helped me a lot, like I don’t have to think anymore about like oh, what color am I going to put here or things like that when I tattoo, so I can just tattoo. I already know because I worked everything out a million times before when I painted it. So, it’s been helpful for that purpose, but also I just really just enjoy it.

I mean, anything you do you’re going to get good at it eventually, if you have the right mindset to do it.

Are you replicating other designs that you came across, or is it things that you’re doing that are completely original?

A lot of times, it all depends on my mood because I’ll make stuff. I’ll get something funny in my head and then I’ll amuse myself by painting that, and then thinking how funny it would be if someone got it. I’m a funny man. It’s true. But I think really the labor is that I’m scared. It’s hard to find old designs and people for the most part don’t really care, so I do reproduce some old stuff. At least I have that already painted and ready to go.

You can have a copy of something but it isn’t the same feeling, plus you get to keep that vibe going of that old stuff. Keeps putting it back out there. If someone gets an old design, I’m happier, I mean I’m just me. If they got like something I invented, well that’s cool but what really gets me going is if I can put something on that hadn’t seen skin in like 100 years. That’s what keeps me going. So, that’s why I like doing it and sometimes the old ones, they’re just the perfect tattoo, perfect simple tattoo. If you hang shit on your walls, you’re going to tattoo shit. If you hang what you like, you’re going to enjoy your job if someone picks that out.

How do you recomend young tattooers learn more about this history?

You want to learn something about something not of this era, you go to the source, the old timers. Go get a tattoo from them. Maybe they’ll talk about something like that. Do yourself a favor, get a tattoo. That’s how you learn about things of the past. There’s people out there, the older generation, and they were taught by an older generation than them and then you’re linked, because there’s your living link, and that’s how you learn anything. You’re not going to be able to like sit down and read a book on it.

You spent a lot of time with Bowery Stan, right?

Yeah, I moved to Florida and had a shop down there and I was at this tattoo convention. I lived in this town called Margay, and I was at a tattoo convention down there tattooing and I had some Zeiss design, so I was tattooing like Davy Jones’ Locker from a Zeiss design on somebody. Being that I was into more historical based tattooing I knew who Stan was. I made sure to know who everybody was. They were just like almost mythical legends.

So I'm tattooing and I hear a voice behind me…I was on a corner booth and it was a punk rock girl with a Mohawk so everyone’s taking pictures and everything. It didn’t phase me. I just kind of zoned that stuff out, but then I hear a voice say oh you’re keeping that old time religion alive and I turn around and it was Stan. So, the first thing I could think of is “Stan, can you tattoo me?” which he agreed to, and I was very happy about that. He said he hadn’t tattooed in like 3 years, and so he sat down and tattooed my leg and we got to talking.

Found out that he only lived like 5 minutes from my house. I got to talk with him. We would hang out at this deli down there. I’d meet up with him or something. We’d talk and then he’d start coming down to the shop, and then another convention came up I said “Stan, why aren’t you tattooing? Come on. People would want your tattoos. It’s crazy that you’re not tattooing. Come on.” So, he agreed. We did another convention down there and that was good. And at first when we started out, we would maybe get a couple of tattoos but at that point for him, it was good. He was getting some income, and so it took a while, like a couple of years, maybe even four years before it started to really pick up. I would be frustrated before that because to me I would think this is Stan, Bowery Stan, the last of the Mohicans. Why isn’t anybody lined up here?

Then I did what I could to promote him, but also at that time you understand that there wasn’t really like an interest the way there is today. Today maybe there’s more of an interest in that kind of tattooing, or like tattooing as what it really is or really was. But it started to pick up some momentum. Then I think with a lot of these magazine articles coming out, that helped him a lot, because now he doesn’t stop. Now, I see him tattooing at a convention non-stop, and it’s crazy to see that man work. He’s 80 years old and he’s just working non-stop which is awesome for me to see that, because I saw how it was at first.

It makes a fellow feel good too. Hey, people are really still interested in what I’m doing. It keeps him going and keeps me going because aside from being a legend and how he is with me he’s like a regular guy. He was really good to me. He’d give me advice. He’s really truly concerned about me. He’s a friend, a really good friend. I enjoyed the fact I can go to a convention and I have to like deal with like people partying and this and that like we’ll wake up early we’ll go to bed after the show, and we get our sleep so we’re on the ball, on point, nothing messing us up. So we’re on the same wavelength there. We help each other.

That was a great thing for me to have him come into my life and tell me about things, and this and that so I would say that would be most pivotal point in my whole adventure here of tattooing to have Stan come and help me out like that. So, that’s the story on Stan.

Stan also helped introduce me to a lot of other people that I wouldn’t probably not have met or known about, which also was great. Crazy Eddie was his friend and knowing Eddie is a special treat, and that’s nice. That was cool. When I was young, we’d see Eddie’s shop but we would never go in that shop. We were kids and then to have that come like a full circle thing, where now it’s like we’re friends with Eddie.

I’m a lucky guy. It’s how I look at it, and it’s about time, because like most of life before that I was not very lucky, so things came around and I feel good about that.

I threw everything I had into something, and maybe someone saw something in that, and then I got lucky, and so that was cool. Now, I just keep doing what I’m doing. You can let a lot of things get you down, like when you have to do writing all the time for a week and you didn’t even get to do a picture. We could sit here and complain about a lot of things, but in the end I’m still lucky. At least I’m here doing something rather than doing nothing somewhere else.

What was your best score?

The best score ever in my whole life…this is like the stuff that dreams are made of. If you’re crazy like how I’m crazy about something, I went to an antique store and there was a trunk full of tattoo stuff and I tell my brother. We ride out there, we buy it, and it turned out to be, with the sales receipt from the Bowery, Charlie Wagner's stuff. It was rom a circus tattooer’s collection, they would tattoo on a circus tour. So we went around back and I’m looking at the machines in there, and I’m just like I’m not even believing what I was seeing.

It was unheard of. Half of Charlie Wagner’s stuff was thrown out when he died. So, to find like the amount that I did and in the condition that it was in was like the most unbelievable thing that could ever happen. We couldn’t even believe that when we bought the stuff. We had to pull over in the car to look at it all again. It was like a dream, like it wasn’t even real. We were high as hell from that experience, just our heads were in clouds

Every time I look at it, I still can’t believe it, and then I get to tattoo some of this. That makes it even better, because those things haven’t seen the light of day since 1917. I mean 1917 I barely remember that year (laughs).

That’s what’s up with the tattoo machines and the old history stuff. Even scraps like I mean I got like sales receipts from Percy Waters to pigment companies.

To somebody it’s worthless but to me it's beautiful.

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