“Scratchers,” both the outcasts and the heart of the tattoo subculture are our very own untouchables. They make up a large percentage of the tattoo world and all together do millions of tattoos, but they’re widely maligned and rarely spoken of by the so called “elite” — BME included — that publish magazines and websites. Of course this is the perfect formula for misunderstanding, and I thought maybe we were missing out on some interesting stories.
My friend Jae, a home tattoo artist putting out work currently of dubious quality (sorry Jae!), was willing to put himself up on the block and candidly talk to us about his little piece of the tattoo world, and I thank him for that.
Please note: In no way am I trying to encourage home tattooing or tattooing before you’re ready to do good work. I’m presenting Jae here not for his tattooing per se, because I like him, enjoyed hearing his story, and think many will relate to him as a person.
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BME: Were you are artist as a kid?
Well, I wouldn’t exactly say I was an artist, but as a kid I always loved to draw. I used to watch my “father” draw and wished that I was able to draw as well as him. He was always in and out of prison so I got to sit there and mess with his art. Sometimes I would trace it and hang it on my wall, and after a couple of years I was able to look at something and draw it free hand, but when I tried to create my own art it looked as though I had no kind of talent at all. I guess it did come a little later because now I can create my own art and it actually looks alright…
BME: That’s actually a really nice story — so you learned to draw and became inspired about tattoos because they symbolized your father?
Yeah, my father has inspired me in a lot of ways, mostly by his art. He tattooed in prison but that’s all he ever told me. He didn’t like talking about prison too much, except for the fights he’d get into and the dirty work he put in.
BME: I guess you grew up around tattoos?
I’ve been around body art since I was a kid. I used to watch my father tattoo and pierce all of his friends and their girlfriends. I was always so captivated by tattooing and wanted to try it so bad that one day I tried to make a tattoo quill. I got some India ink and tried to tattoo Batman on my hand but that didn’t work out so well. The first time I poked my skin the ink was so thick it wouldn’t go in… It kinda just sat on my skin, and then my mom walked in my room and beat the hell out of me, hahaha… So about a year and a half ago I finally decided to buy a tattoo kit and I’ve been tattooing since.
BME: Haha, yeah, my mom wasn’t too happy either when she discovered that I was poking tattoos into myself in my bedroom as a kid. My father didn’t mind though — how did yours react?
Well, my father was in prison when he found out about the whole tattoo thing, so he didn’t really care too much about what I was doing — I think mainly because he couldn’t do anything from behind bars so he didn’t really say anything about it. That was pretty much the last time I saw him because when he got out of prison he disappeared.
BME: What was the first tattoo you ever put on someone else?
My first tattoo was a heart that I put on my wife’s wrist. Right now it’s just a really thick outline — it’s about the size of a dime. It took me like half an hour to lay the ink in because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! She whined the whole time, hahaha, and then she decided that I needed one too, so she tattooed me as well. It really isn’t so much ffun when the shoe is on the other foot! She likes to watch me squirm, but she’s really good at what she does as long as she’s not mad at me!
BME: Yeah, I remember filling in my first tattoos and how long it took, not knowing how to do it. How many tattoos have you done in all now?
I’m not to sure how many tattoos I’ve done so far but I’m gonna guess anyway… probably about twenty-five.
BME: What kind of tattoo equipment do you use and why? Where did you get it?
I use a Gold-Slinger for my line-work and a Wasp tattoo machine for shading, and the metered power supply that came in my kit, and a Tread-Lite foot switch and clip cord. I also have a machine that a friend traded me for ink work. I’m not to sure what kind of machine it is but it’s pretty smooth running. I got most of my equipment from Superior Tattoo Equipment. It’s a little tattoo supply shop down the street from my house.
BME: How do you control sterility and cross contamination?
I usually cover my machines with baggies and wrap my surface with industrial saran wrap. I use disposable needle tubes and dispose of my needles in a sharps container, and I use medical wipes that kill everything from HIV to the common cold, and I use gloves. In some of the pictures I’m not doing all of these things because they were taken before I learned how to prevent bloodborne pathogens and cross contamination.
BME: So in short, solving the problem by using disposable gear rather than an autoclave?
Yes, I figured it would be the easiest way to do it. I don’t have to worry about not properly sterilizing something and making an enemy out of one of my friends!
BME: What are your favorite sorts of tattoos to do?
Pretty much anything that’s big — a tattoo that I can really get down with and throw my own little things into, to kinda make it my own… but little tattoos are fun too. I would really like to find someone that would let me go hog wild on their skin because I feel like I really learn more about myself when I’m tattooing a piece of art that I created myself… I pour a little piece of myself into it.
BME: Do you like shows like “Miami Ink”?
Honestly, I’ve never seen “Miami Ink” — I’m not much of a TV person, but I hear good things about it.
I think that the popularity of tattoos is a good thing because people are opening up and accepting different ways of being. We live on a planet that is so diverse and beautiful — to shun someone else’s beliefs and way of life or personal expressions is so sad and closed-minded. I feel that everyone should embrace life and not just live it.
BME: Would you actually like to tattoo for a living?
Sometimes I think about it, and I’d love to find more clients, but then I remember that the clients that I do have have been with me since the beginning — mess-ups and all, and I can give them my all and not just another tattoo. I love to tattoo and I don’t want it to turn into just another job — I want to do it because I love it, not because I have to pay bills. I’ve got a day job for that!
BME: I definitely appreciate doing it just for the love of tattooing, and I like how it’s a part of your friendships as well.
Yeah, in a big way it helps us bond and all of that good stuff, and it also makes us trust one another more — it brings us closer to each other. I guess it also gives us something productive to do with our time instead of running around all wild and getting into trouble. I’ve managed to stay out of “the county lock-up” since I’ve started tattooing!
I am trying to push myself to my limits by creating my own art and discovering exactly what I’m capable of doing with my creativity. I’ve been looking at a lot of other peoples styles and trying to use their art for inspiration.
BME: Do you draw or paint as well, or do you prefer to work on skin?
I draw a lot, but I love to work on skin — it’s so much more challenging when you can’t mess up. You don’t want someone walking around with a snake on their arm that looks like a penis or something!
BME: Assuming you keep tattooing, how do you think you’ll feel about these early tattoos you’re doing now?
Well, I’m not too sure — that’s a hard one! I think that they’re okay for a beginner, and I know I need some improvement, but I also know that when I’m in my prime I’m gonna look at them and ask myself, “did I really do that?” Hahaha…
BME: Haha, no doubt. Free cover-ups in the future for all your current “victims”? Would you describe yourself as a “scratcher” right now?
A “scratcher”? Well, I’m not to sure what that is but I know I’m a “digger”.
BME: Sorry, “scratcher” is a negative term for someone who’s doing tattoos that aren’t the greatest… I think that’s probably how most people who are used to high-end work will respond.
Oh. Well, in that case, I think I’m somewhat of a scratcher, but then again I’m still a beginner! I feel that no matter how good your work is there’s always room for improvement, and that’s something I strive for. I want to be the best that I can be — improvement is always a good thing, whether you were taught by the best of the best or if you’re self-taught like me.
BME: I tattooed for a while and some of my pieces were pretty lacking technically, so I definitely don’t mean this in an insulting way — how do you feel you work compares to other work out there?
Oh, no, I understand… I feel that my work is okay, and I know that if I got a chance to pull out all of the stops — and cigarette breaks — I could really create a piece of art that would leave people in awe. For now though, I’m probably gonna have to beg a few people to let me fix up some of my previous artwork, or lack thereof…
If I had my wish, I would like to go to art school and learn as much as I can, and apply all that I’ve learned to tattooing, and maybe open up my own studio. I’d love to teach people who want to learn the art of tattooing to tattoo, because it kinda sucks to learn the hard way… but at the same time it’s an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
BME: What do the people who’ve gotten work by you so far think of it?
Okay — I’m not gonna lie. I’ve done some really bad work… Some work that those poor unlucky bastards are gonna regret! I didn’t take their money because I figured they had already paid enough, hahaha… Okay, that’s not funny… But seriously, most of my clients love my work.
BME: If you could ask a high-end artist for advice, what would you ask about?
Honestly, I’d love to know anything I need to do to improve my work — what should I do differently? What haven’t I been doing that I should? How do I shade from one color to another? How do I get more detail? What’s the best way to do a cover-up? How do I do realism and do portraits?
BME: Sounds like there’s a long way to go — good luck, have fun, and thanks for agreeing to talk about this publicly!