Love Hate Tattoo
1360 Washington Ave.
Chris Garver is a reluctant rock star of the tattoo world. Being celebrated in tattooing’s inner circle is one thing but being a reality star was another, so he’s tried to skirt the limelight since Miami Ink. Although little has been heard from the man in the flat cap, he has much to share. On his blog, he regularly posts new tattoos and art, from his dragons and irezumi work to black-and-gray pieces and a simple Superman logo tattoo that he somehow made pop. Even the big, beautiful, intricate pictures on his site are accompanied only by a spare line or two of explication. Graciously, Garver gave INKED some of his time and artwork—and more insight into his life than ever before.
INKED: You’ve credited music and skating with your introduction to tattooing. How did they influence you early on?
Chris Garver: Well, I got into skateboarding around 1980, and by ’82 me and my friends were reading Thrasher magazine and reading punk rock band reviews. By the time I was 12 I was going to see punk rock shows. I was seeing acts like the Clash, Suicidal Tendencies. I guess I got lucky in that I grew up around all that stuff. By the time I was 14 I was checking out the New York hardcore scene like Agnostic Front and the Cro-Mags, and they were heavily tattooed. Most of my friends at the time were a couple years older, so they started getting tattooed and I would go with them. I remember the whole experience and it was great. I was like, That’s what I want to do.
How did you start tattooing?
I got started when I was about 17, and after an apprenticeship that didn’t quite work out I was sort of tattooing on my own. I was working out of my house and things started to come together. I remember this one kid, he wanted me to tattoo a whole dragon sleeve on him, it came out pretty good considering how long I’d been tattooing. Anyway, it wound up getting the attention of Jonathan Shaw and Filip Leu from Fun City Tattoo. They ran into this kid at a convention. That’s when I started working for Jonathan, around 1991.
You worked with him at Fun City? Well, Jonathan decided to open up a street shop on St. Mark’s [Place, in New York City]. It was somewhat of a street shop because, at the time, tattooing was illegal. The first Fun City was actually in Jonathan’s apartment. This was his second shop. I guess technically it was Fun City II. It was pretty underground, it didn’t say “Tattoo” on the front of the building or anything. There was no sign, but it was the closest you could get to having a visible walk-in shop in New York City at the time.
What did it look like? How did people know it was a shop?
It didn’t look like anything, really. It was basically a studio apartment that we’d converted. People would hear about it and they’d have to call from a pay phone down the block. We’d ask them what they looked like and then our shop assistant would go down to the corner and get them.
What was it like to tattoo after it was first legalized?
That first year was pretty bad, you know? Some of these guys were just scratchers and they were popping up everywhere. All of a sudden it was a free-for-all in New York. Every head shop had a tattooer working there and nobody gave a shit what kind of skill level these guys had. I don’t think it did much good for tattooing, and all it meant for the city was that they could collect business license revenue. I remember taking the licensing exam—I was shocked. It was an open-book, multiple-choice test. Basically, if you knew how to read you could become a tattoo artist.
After New York you moved to Miami. What brought you there?
I used to just come down to Miami for the winter. Then I guess I started liking it and wound up moving there for a few years. Then I’d get bored, move back to New York, then get bored and move back to Miami. It isn’t really a big tattoo town, and there aren’t many old shops. There isn’t much of an art scene down here.
Why do you think they decided to film Miami Ink there?
I’m not sure why they chose Miami. I can think of a million other places to do it. There had already been so many reality shows about the city that I think we seemed like a fresh idea. To tell the truth, I don’t understand people that make television. I don’t see what their vision is.
How did you wind up tattooing in Japan?
I’d been to Japan a few times; I started visiting there in 1999 and after a few trips I was asked to work at Three Tides for six months.
You do a lot of Japanese-style tattoos. Is that something that you had always done or did Japan bring it out of you?
I actually went out there expecting to do mostly Western designs. I didn’t think anyone over there would want to get a Japanese piece from me. But it wound up being a lot like the scene over here. I would do about 50 percent Japanese and the other half would be Americana and realistic stuff. It’s just like how Americans like to get Japanese designs, and find that style exotic and exciting—the Japanese feel the same way about our eagles and panthers and all that kind of stuff.
Where does your fascination with dragons come from?
Ever since I was a little kid—even before I thought about tattooing—I was always fascinated by them. Every human culture has its own version of what a dragon is. I love tattooing dragons because they are powerful images, and there’s so many ways you can draw them. You can give each one a different personality. I never get tired of it.
Is there a different artistic process in tattooing Japanese style than, say, traditional?
I’ve talked to some guys that were tattooing during World War II and basically, to them, any tattoo that takes more than 15 to 20 minutes is shit, no matter what. I mean, there’s some great traditional stuff now, but then there’s not. Some of it seems a little anachronistic to me. But then again, I tattoo a ton of Japanese imagery but I’m not a Japanese tattooer. I’m a commercial artist.
Is there still a stigma attached to tattoos in Japan?
It’s seriously rebellious to get tattooed in Japan. When I was over there looking for an apartment I couldn’t wear a short-sleeve shirt. Even coming or going, if my landlord saw my tattoos, I would have gotten thrown out. In certain areas with a little more subculture, you can get away with showing your tattoos, but if you were to go to a more conservative part of town it’s almost disrespectful to have them showing.
Are attitudes about the art form in Japan changing?
It seemed like they were, but the last time that I went over most of the people I knew with tattoos were covering them up. They didn’t want to scare anybody. A lot of people would perceive a person with tattoos as intimidating. So it’s out of respect but it’s also about not wanting to be bothered. Covering them up isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some people just like to keep them to themselves—their tattoos aren’t for the public.
You took part of the first tattoo convention in Singapore. How did that happen?
I think it had a lot to do with the popularity of Miami Ink. When I came out there they really wanted to get the public interested, and I basically wound up doing every TV and radio interview you could imagine. Because it was Singapore’s first convention, it was really big. I thought it was great because it was the first time that the country had ever seen a tattoo convention, and they had a bunch of great tattoo artists from all over the world. What was interesting for me was seeing what people were doing in that part of the world, since I hadn’t been over there.
You travel a lot. How has it affected your work?
One of the great things about traveling is that you’re always running into someone that you tattooed. I’ve run into people that I’ve done color portraits on 20 years ago when no one was doing them, and it’s such a popular thing now. Over the years I’ve done a bunch of experimental work. I remember that when I started tattooing people would bring me the weirdest stuff to tattoo, like a bunch of fantasy illustration books and anything that wasn’t tattoo design. I’ll run into some of those people now and check out the work and try to remember what kind of ink I used and see how everything has held up over time. There are some tattoos that I’ve done early on that I’m super happy with, and some look like crap. I guess I’m one of those people that would try to give somebody whatever they wanted, even if it was a wrong. I’ve definitely learned how to say no a little better.
How has moving around so much changed your perspective?
One of the best things about travel, about moving around, is that for me it slows down time. I could never be one of those guys that grew up in his hometown, stayed in his hometown, got a job, and then retired—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Becoming a tattooer was something that let me travel, which opens your eyes to the world. It made me a better person.
What are some of your favorite places to go?
New York—and I love Japan. If I’m partying and stuff I like Tokyo. Osaka’s pretty fun. For a more cultural setting, Kyoto is really awesome. I like Italy, Spain. I tattooed in Amsterdam for about a month around 2005 at the Hanky Panky shop, which was a great experience. They were good people and it was fun—one of the highlights of my career.
When it comes to social media, would you agree that you’re a bit introverted?
I don’t mind social media as long as it’s one-way. I guess I’m not very social. I’m not hard to find, but sometimes social media can be like a drunk guy at a bar talking about some sleeve he has planned for 10 years down the line. I’d rather call or text somebody. I have an assistant now. I never thought I’d have one, and it’s his job to filter through everything, and it makes my life a lot easier.
How important is formal training for a tattoo artist?
I’d never had an apprentice, but I have had people that I’ve helped with drawing. I’ve been tattooing for 22 years and never taught anybody how to tattoo, so it makes me laugh when I see someone who’s been tattooing three or four years teaching someone else how to tattoo. They probably don’t know what they’re doing, probably don’t know how to make needles or put a machine together—let alone make their own machine. You can end up cutting your own throat because eventually they’re going to open up a shop across the street from you.
And then your name is attached to them and their work.
True. I couldn’t tell you how many people over the years have said that they’ve apprenticed under me, and it makes me laugh because I’ve never had one. I’ve had a few people that tried to be my apprentice but ended up quitting.
So you’re a tough boss?
I’m not tough but I give them assignments, and if they don’t do them then I quit teaching them. If you want to be an apprentice for somebody and have them teach you how to make a living for yourself—for the rest of your life—you should just do what they ask you to do. There’s a reason for it. It’s not like I’d tell an apprentice to fight a guy or wash my car. I might say, “Hey, draw this thing 50 times.” Or, “Make 100 outliners.” And then when they do it, [I’d] tell them to do it again. It’s important to be well-rounded in what you’re doing. You should know how to make a machine or to make your own ink from powder, and because of that, some guys never get off the drawing board.
If you did have an apprentice, is there a concept to the art you feel has been overlooked that you would try to instill?
You need to have respect for the art and what you’re doing. There’s a discipline to it aside from buying all of the equipment and tattooing people. You need to learn how to act in a tattoo shop, how to treat your customers—just normal stuff that people don’t know, like keeping trade secrets. You have these people on Tattoo School that think that they’re going to learn how to tattoo in two weeks and make money. It’s despicable, but I’m pretty much guilty of the same thing, it’s just on a smaller scale.
So there is no way that a tattooer can just come out of the gate and be amazing, even if they are extremely talented?
The younger you start, the better. A lot of the best tattoo artists started when they were, like, 13. A lot of times you’ll see guys with a lot of tattoos who are getting older and they think, “Maybe I’ll start tattooing.” It’s just not that simple.
What makes a great tattoo artist?
The best artists that I know are just really cool people. They don’t have some enormous ego where they want everyone to kiss their ass. I have a bunch of friends that are fantastic tattoo artists, but I don’t really care about that too much. It’s not that I don’t appreciate their work, it’s just that they don’t need to be validated. You get to a certain point where you don’t even want to talk about tattooing anymore. When I was 25 years old I could just talk about tattooing for hours and hours with other tattoo artists. Now I like it when I hang out with other tattoo artists and it doesn’t even come up.