Tattoo artists and their tattoos: Local artists on what life is like behind the needle
Just above the long scar on Bill Peoples’ upper right arm is the image of a man keeled over and hurling up the contents of his stomach. Above the scar is a tattoo of a man holding a shotgun in the direction of the viewer, a woman spinning around a pole, and above that is the name of the strip club Peoples worked at for more than nine years in Baltimore.
The scar is, in fact, handiwork sliced into Peoples’ skin by the puking man whose depiction is inked onto his arm – the two forever linked by an evening of strippers, heavy drinking, and a blade that sliced through Peoples’ biker jacket like butter.
We don’t blink when we see artists covered from the neck down, or sometimes head to toe, when we walk into a tattoo shop. In fact, it’d be weird if they weren’t.
We wanted to get a little more than, shall we say, skin deep, and find out more than just the images tattoo artists are inked with. We wanted to find out the stories behind their tattoos – whether it be a loved one long since passed, an ode to a favorite car, or a misbehaving best man at a bachelor party gone wrong.
Animas Tattoo & Body Piercing640 Main Ave., Suite 200, DurangoIt was about to be a long night for Bill Peoples, but he didn’t know it yet.
Amidst the blaring of Led Zeppelin at Animas Tattoo & Body Piercing, Peoples – co-owner of the downtown Durango shop – told us a story about the infamous wild night when he got the scar on his arm, which later led to his most interesting tattoo.
He was working as a bouncer for a strip club at the time, and that evening, he was escorting the women to several parties, one of which was a bachelor party. Things started off normally, but quickly turned sour after the best man suddenly got handsy with one of the dancers’ orifices. The dancer, understandably pissed off at the unruly audience member, treated him to the back of her high heel, which was shoved into his neck. Peoples grabbed the perpetrator, hauled him to the door, and then tossed him outside. The man began puking, and Peoples returned to oversee the party where the dancers had “turned it up to an 11.”
After a few more songs, they wrapped it up and quickly made their way back to their ride, where Peoples’ partner was waiting with the shotgun he’d dug up after he’d seen Peoples toss the best man out.
As Peoples made his way to the car, his partner made a face that clearly indicated something was happening behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, Peoples saw the very inebriated man he had thrown out of the party.
“I felt the back of my jacket move, but I didn’t know what had happened. We got in the van because he just fell on his face and f*cking started puking again, because he was a drunk piece of shit. We walked off and got in the truck, and we were a half-mile up the road when (one of the dancers) in the back seat goes, ‘You got a rip in your jacket.’”
Sure enough, the man had torn a clean cut through Peoples’ thick cowhide biker jacket, with the blade slicing deep into his arm.
“I’m driving and I look over just as she sticks her finger through the slice in my jacket. ... I pull over, pull the jacket off and they’re like, ‘OH MY GOD!’”
Peoples believes the assailant must have had a straight razor or box cutter to be able to slice through his jacket to the skin. He had four more shows he had to go to, though, before he could get to a doctor. So, like a badass, he tied his shirt around the gaping hole in his arm and made it clear at the rest of the shows that there was to be no more bullshit.
“We didn’t have anymore problems that night, but it was a long night,” he said.
He later got 13 stitches across his arm – the beginning of what would become the most intense story of a tattoo we’ve ever heard. Peoples had the puking man and his buddy with a shotgun tattooed around the scar once it healed.
For Flip Martinez, the other tattoo artist at Animas Tattoo, ink serves as a detailed log of one’s life.
“They are more like a diary of your life. ... I can tell you where I was when I got all the individual ones.”
There isn’t one tattoo on him that he regrets, including the sketchy ones from his early days.
“Some of the first ones I got probably weren’t in the most sterile environment because it was out of a house. It was a guy that was straight out of a penitentiary, so he was still using the old Bic pen and just that motor. It never got infected and I never got any weird diseases or anything. I’m sure it’s lucky because, you know, it’s not a proper sterile procedure.”
Whether it was a bad tattoo or a terrible idea, they all mean something to Martinez, and are an account of important moments or people in his life. He has several memorial tattoos: a skull from a friend’s leather jacket after he died by suicide, the names Martinez and Gomez on his neck for his family, a tattoo for his mom, and so on.
One of his favorites is a small, inconspicuous snail on his hand that guitarist Brent Hinds from the band Mastodon gave him after a long night of drinking.
“We were in Albuquerque, me and a friend of mine. After we saw him in a show ... We went back to the hotel room to tattoo him. There was a lot of whiskey involved ... and I was supposed to tattoo this deer on him and he was like, ‘You know, I feel kind of bad because I don’t really feel like getting tattooed now (because it was like 3:30/4 in the morning) but I do want this little thing on me.’ So he drew out this weird little snail and then I tattooed it on him and then he tattooed it on me and another friend. I was like, ‘So what’s the meaning behind this?’ And he goes, ‘So when your life is hectic and going kind of crazy, it’s just a reminder to take it slow.’”
Black Mountain Tattoo43 E Main Street, CortezWhen we first asked Robert Smith about his tattoos, one of the first things he told us is how he once had the face of Jesus inked into his arm. It has since been covered up by the Statue of Liberty, as Smith joked that he had no idea what Jesus looked like, and that he essentially just had some random guy’s face on his arm.
The first tattoo he ever got was a tribal design on his back when he was 15 years old.
“I got that, then it was a little bit after that I started tattooing. I fell into it, kind of. My uncle had some equipment that he came across. Just started working on friends,” he said.
Today, the owner of Black Mountain Tattoo – who has owned the shop since 2005 – has a vast array of tattoos: a bubble gum machine on his arm for his son nicknamed Bubba, a Japanese wishing jewel on his leg, and the Cadillac logo on his forearm (his favorite car). He once tattooed the outline of a panther on himself before using it as an excuse to practice the art of cover-ups.
“We do a lot of cover-ups. A LOT of cover-ups. There’s a lot of people out of home tattooers right now. So yeah, we do quite a few,” he said.
One of the first tattoos he ever did was a cross on his ex-wife’s ankle. After that, he started tattooing his dad, who was one of the most willing canvases for Smith to practice on. While he prides himself on being versatile on his designs, he’s most drawn to the American traditional style, which is evident in the drawings and posters hanging on the walls in his downtown Cortez shop.
As far as tattoos that he’s done that he feels iffy about, well, you’re always developing as an artist, he said.
“As a tattooer, there’s always stressful moments in your career. Even though the client might be super pumped, there’s stuff as an artist you see and you think, ‘Oh, could have done something else.’ You’re always growing, too. I mean, you look at a tattoo I did two years ago, and if I did the same tattoo now I’d probably do something different with it.”
Graceful Eye Tattoo666 E College Drive, #2, DurangoNot unlike the name of his shop – Graceful Eye – and his shop address number – 666 – Joshua Barela’s tattoos cover far ends of the spectrum.
“I don’t know how it happens, but it’s a part of me, I guess,” Barela said.
On his neck are the pearly gates of heaven, crowned with three crosses in honor of his deceased grandparents. On his arm is a group of long-faced demons, presumably screaming from the fiery pits of hell.
“I had a girlfriend leave me one time when I walked home with this (the demons). I shit you not. We were best friends and we didn’t fight over nothing. We were a good couple. I got this and she told me I needed Jesus,” he said.
Barela estimates that he’s about 80 percent covered in tattoos, and has a couple of small pieces on his face.
“I feel like I get tattooed every time there’s a moment in my life, emotionally, I guess. It’s kind of a release. ... Just trying to feel alive,” he said.
He’s got a dragon, Asian symbols, skulls, birds, playing card symbols, the bone structure on his hands (which he told us was the most painful of his tattoos), and upside down portraits on his legs that he does for practice. On his hand is a cover up of a sacred heart and some clouds that he got long ago.
“It was for a girl. She was toxic so I put a gas mask over it,” he said.
Barela – who has been tattooing for 14 years – is extremely detailed in his work, showing us an up-close tattoo of a chameleon that, had we not known was a tattoo, we might have thought was real.
“I try to tell people I like to work at least a minimum of six hours. I try not work under six hours, just because it takes a long time to build something up in layers, to get something structured enough to make sense. And then from there, you can do more layers and just bring it to be more powerful. But it takes a lot to get it to that stage,” he said.
Durango Tattoo Company146 Sawyer Drive, DurangoDoug Patrum’s favorite tattoo is an unfinished piece that goes all the way up his leg – a cobra ready to strike, surrounded by lightning and flying birds. Patrum, the owner of Durango Tattoo Company, doesn’t go after tattoos that derive great meaning. He just wants his to look cool, like his cobra.
“I wouldn’t say so much meaningful. I think a tattoo just has to look good. A lot of people get tattoos with a meaning behind them, you know, milestones. ... And then there are people like me who think they got to look cool. So, it’s mostly imagery, and you can put stories to anything after you have them,” Patrum said.
Patrum has been tattooing for about 20 years now, and got into the craft after getting his first tattoo at the age of 19. He was immediately drawn to the atmosphere and started practicing on himself.
“(I’m) pretty self-taught, meaning just trial and error. Tons of crap. Just about everything I have is a cover-up in some way or another. ... It was mostly scratch pad stuff. Me figuring out how to use the equipment. Just like any medium, you have to figure out how the tool interacts with the canvas. ... It’s hard to put a fine point on, which one was the crappiest but they were what they were,” he said.
These days, he lives by the borrowed Chinese proverb: “Man who tattoos self has fool for client.”
Many of those tattoos from the early days are now covered up – they’re a distant memory for Patrum. He’s got an ink machine on his forearm in honor of his 13th anniversary of tattooing, tribal tattoos with eyes watching from within the black ink, skulls, and a tenor clef tattooed onto his finger as a wedding ring.
“I think my coolest tattoo is the one I’m designing now that I’m going to have the guy and the girl that work here do for me. It’s pretty involved to take up all of the skin that I don’t have tattooed already. ... All the unclaimed territory,” he said.
Skin Incorporated Tattoo and Body Piercing2143 Main Ave., DurangoLetters spelling “self made” are inked into Matt Blachley’s hands, and it’s fitting. He got his first tattoo, which he still has, when he was 14, and he hasn’t looked back since.
The California native has been living in Durango for ten years now, and has been tattooing for 18 years.
On the day we visit Blachley’s shop, he was working on a large cover-up for a customer – a service he feels morally obligated to do when people come to him for help.
“People come to you when you have a certain skill set. I always try and pride myself on cover-ups and just working with people,” he said.
Blachley’s skin is flecked with tattoos, though the last time he had any artwork done was about five years ago.
Among his trove is Johnny Cash on his arm giving the world the finger (his favorite); references to California – the state he grew up in; brass knuckles for the mixed martial arts he did growing up; and a tattoo gun on his right hand, which is wrapped in dollar bills because “it’s my money maker.” For his love of Norse mythology, he got Thor’s hammers on his thighs, and another tattoo on his kneecap, which is an eyeball.
When asked whether the knee tattoo hurt, he said: “Nah, my neck was the worst one.”
He turned his head to reveal the markings there. On one side is a lip with safety pins in it.
“I had this artist – he drew a really cool piece. He didn’t do quite do as good on the tattoo as he did on the drawing. ... It was just cool and it fit the neck really well,” he said.
He also has the words “sick boy” scrawled into his neck – a reference to the punk band Social Distortion.
These days, Blachley owns a small shop in Durango, where he works as the only tattoo artist; he likes it just fine that way.
“I’m just over all that drama. You have to worry about the quality that everyone is putting out on every tattoo, and you’re the one that’s responsible for that. I know what I do,” he said.