“BACK IN THE DAY SOME OF THE CONVENTIONS DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A TRASH CAN AND ELECTRIC OUTLET AT THE BOOTH. I SAW THINGS THAT WERE LACKING. I WANTED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, SOMETHING MORE ENTERTAINING AND MORE ARTISTICALLY VISUAL.” — Durb Morrison
The tattooer, hell-raiser, and organizer of the most anticipated annual tattoo convention talks about what goes on behind the booths.
Red Tree Tattoo Gallery
1002 N. 4th Street,
THERE ARE MANY in the tattoo industry who claim to be “the hardest-working artist in the business,” but Durb Morrison is too busy for such posturing. Instead, he lets his countless tattoo endeavors speak for him. Over the past 23 years, Morrison has run multiple successful studios; he produces Hell City, one of the biggest and best tattoo conventions in the country; he manufactures True Tubes and runs an innovative tattoo supply company; he organizes large-scale art shows; and he holds regular painting nights at his Red Tree Tattoo Gallery in Columbus, OH. Plus, he puts on a great tattoo. In this interview, Morrison talks about how he went from punk to entrepreneur and stayed on top of the tattoo game throughout the years.
INKED: You started off as a punk teenager who tattooed with a homemade machine, and became a renowned tattooist who also manufactures innovative tattooing supplies. A lot has changed over the years.
DURB MORRISON: Definitely. I was a skateboarding punk rock kid. At that time, with skateboarding, there was a lot of artwork rotating around it, and a lot of that art had a traditional tattoo foundation to it. There were also some really heavily covered skateboarders, even back then, who I looked up to. When I think back, I can see how I was naturally attracted to certain things, and how I’m supposed to be exactly where I am today. But I never really set out to be a tattoo artist. I had done a lot of art classes in school, and naturally did a lot of painting, so I had the art in my blood and on my mind. Right around when I was 14, that’s when my friends and I started hand-poking little tattoos on places we could cover up, like our ankles, so we wouldn’t get in trouble. When I was 17, I started getting professional tattoos, going to shops, and hanging out with heavily tattooed people. Around that time, a guy who saw that I had the art skills down taught me how to make one of those homemade machines. That was the catalyst for everything because not only did I have a tattoo machine, but I had friends who were willing to let me do my artwork on them.
Back then, did you have any idea tattooing was something you’d do for a living? It started really as recreational. I didn’t take it as seriously when I was just getting into it. It was punk. It was a rebellious art form. We’re talking 24 or 25 years ago. But after I started getting going with it and tattooing more people and seeing the effect it had on them—how they really loved their tattoos—it drove me to continue tattooing and dive into it artistically. I started studying it, looking at all the magazines, driving hours to hang out at certain studios and watch the tattooing. Also, there was the inspiration of the community behind it. There was just so much personality. It made me want to be a tattoo artist and dedicate my life to it.
How did you get started professionally? I started sending my friends who I tattooed to this guy, Tim Miller in Columbus, OH, to show him the tattoos I had done. He was a guy who we all had gotten tattoos from. One day, he said he wanted me to come up and speak with him, and I did. I was kind of nervous, thinking, Oh shit. I went to his studio and he pretty much said he’d like me to come work there. At that point, I’m the youngest fucking kid that he’s probably even asked to tattoo, but he saw some potential. The first day I worked there, he said, “You’re not going to tattoo for at least six weeks. You have to stop and do things at the studio like scrub tubes.” But things got very busy that first day, so he then says, “You want to do one?” I said, “Fuck yeah, I do.” After I did it, he looked at it and said, “That’s really nice. Wanna do another one?” I ended up doing six tattoos that day, and I made more money than I had working out of my apartment. I worked at his studio for a year and then hit the road. That was one of the best learning experiences—to get out there and work around a lot of artists who are a higher caliber than you. It motivates you and makes you realize that you have a lot to learn.
Where did you go? I went to California, then ended up going down to Biloxi, MS, and tattooed for a gentleman named Sailor Moses, an old-school legendary artist who passed. He was an old-timer who really knew his shit. I thought I knew a lot of shit when I got there, but he really kind of put me in my place.
Sailor Moses probably gave you quite a history lesson as well. He did. There were always these old-schoolers that used to come around there. I was educated on the lifestyle, the history, and the people who had really made an impact on tattooing. It was crucial because I don’t think I really would’ve understood everything behind what I was doing without it.
You met Sailor Moses at Sturgis, the motorcycle rally, right? Yeah, I think it was around 1992 when I met him there. When me and Dean Deakyne had hit the road, our first stop was Sturgis.
Tattooing all those bikers at Sturgis must have been pretty hard-core. It was wild. Imagine you’re 19 and new to tattooing, and the next thing you know you’re at Sturgis tattooing crazy bikers. That’s where I met Brian Everett, Mike Siderio, all these old-schoolers. Being exposed to that level of tattooing and all the crazy biker shit—it was otherworldly. During bike week, the stores kind of move all their stuff to make room to rent their space to other businesses and make more money, so all these tattooists rent them out and set up shop there for a week. That’s where I met Moses, and he invited me to Biloxi. That’s another fun part of tattooing, that it can take you so many places, and you meet so many people who you could never forget. To have that strong a community is the best.
It’s interesting that you mention community. Many artists today say that the community feel is gone because of the mainstreaming of the art form. What do you think about that? If people say there’s no community, it’s because they don’t put themselves out there and be a part of it. They just sit in their shops, complain, and separate themselves from it. I feel very strongly about the community, and because I’ve been a part of it for so long, I wanted to give back. For example, by doing the Hell City conventions, we’ve brought people together, we’ve created relationships. People have even got married at Hell City. It definitely has a community feel in a creative environment.
People have gotten married at your conventions? We’ve had three or four couples get married at the conventions. We had one couple get married on the main stage on a Sunday in the morning before the show even got started. They had met at Hell City and two years later got married here. It was a match made in hell! [Laughs.]
When you started the Columbus Hell City convention in 2002, how did you set out to make it different? I got the idea of doing Hell City by working so many conventions myself back in the day. Some of them didn’t even have a trash can and electric outlet at the booth when the show opened. I saw things that were lacking and what needed more focus. I wanted to do something different, something more entertaining and more artistically visual—not just a bunch of booths. We have big screens, banners, backdrops, and the stage looks good. I handpick all the artists out of so many who apply, and the caliber is very high. There are seminars and opportunities to learn. We say that Hell City is for tattoo artists, collectors, and enthusiasts. Somebody can have just one tattoo, and be enthused about it, and they can feel welcome. We even have Heck City, a place where kids who come to the convention with their parents will have a positive experience and respect for tattooing when they get older. We make it fun. Tattooing is fun. The people are fun. Why wouldn’t a convention be fun?
“BY DOING THE HELL CITY CONVENTIONS, WE’VE BROUGHT PEOPLE TOGETHER, WE’VE CREATED RELATIONSHIPS. ONE COUPLE GOT MARRIED ON THE MAIN STAGE AT HELL CITY. IT WAS A MATCH MADE IN HELL!” —Durb Morrison
You’ve been in the business 23 years—what have been some of the highlights of your career? That’s a tough one. Well, one is when I started my own studio, Stained Skin, back in 1994, after returning to Columbus from Sailor Moses and traveling. I felt like I had left to gather information and techniques and brought them back to apply through my studio. Then there are my first covers and magazine interviews back in the day—those are major milestones in a tattoo career. And then there’s Hell City. I can’t even recall all the good things that have happened because everything in tattooing has been positive throughout my life.
You’re still getting magazine coverage after all this time—like this conversation right now. What do you do to keep on top? To stay relevant, oh yeah, that’s the one thing tattooers want. We want to stay active in the industry we’ve spent so much time in. I feel that, with the conventions and True Tubes … we’re reinventing the tools artists use. Everything I’ve done—outside of me sitting on my ass and actually tattooing—has encompassed tattooing. With True Tubes, we’ve innovated disposable tubes; we came out with a steel-tip disposable and ErgoSquish, a disposable that can be adjusted. I feel that’s another way to give back to the community.
You also opened up a new studio as well. Yes, the Red Tree Tattoo Gallery. I had had Stained Skin for a long time, and then I opened up a second studio back in my hometown, Newark, OH, which is an hour away. The shops became really successful, with a lot of great artists, but it got to a point where I was running both shops and Hell City, and I had too many irons in the fire. Something had to give. So I sold both busy studios, and I designed a private studio to keep tattooing on my own, which allowed me to grow Hell City. After a while, you start to miss the studio environment, the camaraderie with other artists and just shooting the shit. Once Hell City grew and was running smoothly, I then wanted to do a shop again, but not another street shop. The whole format for the Red Tree Tattoo Gallery is an appointment-only, full custom studio and art gallery with really good tattoo artists who each have their own style. The top floor is all tattooing. There are five tattoo artists and an art gallery. The downstairs is like Hell City headquarters for organizing the conventions, but also half of the downstairs is True Tubes, where we handle orders and things like that. What we’ve also been doing lately with the shop is having paint nights. It started out just painting ourselves and then it grew. We’ve had a lot of tattoo artists from other shops come to our paint nights. There were 25 people painting last time.
Between tattooing, running a studio, the conventions, the products, and having a personal life, how do you balance your time? It’s a careful balance. The key to doing everything is to be extremely organized. I’m proactive, not reactive. I don’t try to cram everything in. Three weeks after Hell City ends, I start working on the next one, so I pace myself. Now, do I go ape-shit crazy sometimes? I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to do it all always with a smile on your face.
You’re lucky to have a strong wife. Alissa is awesome. She understands and she can deal with me when things are stressful. It’s weird; she almost never gets in a bad mood. So when I get in a bad mood, she’ll just point out a whole other view of the situation and also remind me that people would kill to be in the position I’m in. I could never find another girl like her, who could deal with everything and be as creative and offer a lot of advice. She also has her own thing, shooting for Suicide Girls. She’s their Midwest staff photographer.
To help relax, do you do yoga or meditation or something like that? I don’t have that much time these days, but I have done some martial arts. Now
I just exercise to stay fit. When you feel good, things just flow.
Tattooing does really take its toll on the body. It does. I have what’s called meralgia paresthetica. It’s a compression of my femoral nerve in my left leg from tattooing wearing tight belts and leaning over my clients so that my belt has compressed the nerve. I get numbness in my leg, burning sensations, and cramps. That’s the one thing that will probably lead to my retirement as far as sitting and tattooing every day. It’s also what has motivated me to do other things outside of actually doing a tattoo. The next generation needs to be aware of this. As tattooists, we shove crappy food in our faces; we sit there hunched over and twist to one side; we have eyesight, hearing, and spine issues. You don’t really think about it until you have an issue. So I recently gave a seminar at the Paradise Tattoo Gathering called “The Longevity of the Tattoo Artist,” which talked about yoga, stretches, and everyday preventative measures tattoo artists can take. Like, if your client has to use the restroom, get up and stretch for a second, and focus on yourself for a moment. Tattoo artists focus on everything but themselves, so this was a way to say, “Pay attention to yourself.”
With your type of schedule, you have to be especially mindful of that. People always say to me, “Dude, you’re so fucking busy.” But I’m not going to be forever. There will be a finish line, and at that point, I can look back and know that I put forth every amount of energy I had into every project I did, and it actually made a difference.