1035 Garnet Ave.
San Diego, CA
3039 Adams Ave., 2nd floor
San Diego, CA
With more than 30 years of tattooing under his belt, Fip Buchanan is one of the most experienced artists in southern California—an old-style tattooer with no boundaries whose repertoire ranges from Japanese to realistic to traditional pieces. After a fateful first experience with tattoos in 1979, he decided to dedicate his life to creating unique art pieces on skin. He cofounded Avalon Tattoo in Pacific Beach, San Diego, and then opened Avalon Tattoo II in North Park, San Diego. Buchanan is humble artisan with the demeanor of a workmanlike tattooer.
INKED: How did you start tattooing? Did you have any mentors?
FIP BUCHANAN: I started in Altoona, PA, in 1979. I was interested in tattooing already, and while working as a sales clerk at a lumberyard, I met a couple of people with fresh tattoos. At that time, there were no tattoo shops in Altoona. I asked who did the tattoos and they both told me Mike Luckett. Within a month or so I was getting tattooed at my kitchen table by none other than Mike Luckett! I asked him if he was willing to help me learn to tattoo, and he was. He ended up loaning me his equipment, and soon I was tattooing out of my house. I probably did about 50 tattoos over a three-year period, and then I moved to Pittsburgh to go to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. While there, I met a local tattooist named Red Schuster, who helped me out a lot. He had already been tattooing for about 10 years and knew way more than I did about it. He had a van equipped for tattooing and had been tattooing at local county fairs. I ended up doing that with him in the sum- mer of 1983 and 1984, along with Duke Miller. Duke helped me a good bit too. The fairs were my boot camp, and those two guys were like my drill sergeants. I became good friends with them, and we had lots of fun together. It was all a great experience for me.
Did you have other influences?
My main tattoo influence would be Ed Hardy, for sure. Other than him, Jack Rudy and Bob Roberts also had a big impact on me. When I met Red Schuster, he had photo albums of pictures he took at some of the early tattoo conventions of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the work of those guys blew me away! It really made me aware of what you could do with tattooing. I met them all years later and am actually good friends with Jack Rudy and Ed Hardy, and got to work for both of them. I got tattooed by Jack in 1985, and I learned from him by observation, and also by asking questions. In 1987 I was tattooed by Bob Roberts, and paid careful attention while he was tattooing me and picked up some things that way. In 1991 I was tattooed by Ed Hardy for the first time and that was a real experience. He is so intense when he works—it’s obvious he goes to another place. It’s simply amazing to watch him work.
Which are your biggest influences in figurative art?
I was always a big fan of underground comics of the late ’60s, and also the poster art of the period. Favorite artists of that period would be Greg Irons, Rick Griffin, S. Clay Wilson, and [Alton] Kelley and [Stanley] Mouse. I also love van Gogh, Rembrandt, and da Vinci, although I don’t think they impact my tattooing much, if at all. As far as contemporary artists, I like Eric White, Owen Smith, and Glenn Barr.
What came first, the pencil or the tattoo machine?
I’ve been drawing since I was 2 years old, so that definitely came before tattooing! My mother never throws anything away, and I still have drawings from when I was a little kid. She’s a good artist, and is still doing art at age 86. She was for sure my initial reason for starting to draw.
Do you think that drawing skills are essential to be a good tattooist?
Yes, of course it’s essential to have good drawing skills to be a good tattooist, now more than ever. Clients never come in and pick a design off the wall anymore. In fact, we don’t even have any flash in our shop, except in the restroom. It’s important to know how to manage tattoo machines and inks as well. You have to know your medium, whether it’s tattooing or painting, to be able to do anything worthwhile with it. Tattooing presents unique challenges too, because of variations in skin. It’s a bit different on everyone, and even varies by body part. There’s also the “talking canvas” aspect of it, which you’ll never have in any other medium. I do enjoy meeting and talking to people, though, so that’s very rarely a problem for me.
How would you describe your style?
I do a lot of kind of Asian work that someone recently said had a “pop art” feel to it. Another artist friend of mine said it seemed very southern California, although he’s from Canada and I’m pretty sure he was just joking with me. I do realize my take on Japanese tattooing is not nearly as traditional as many other current tattooists, and to me, that’s a good thing. There’s a ton of great Japanese-style tattooing going on now by lots of artists, but the only problem is that it often looks the same. The artist’s stamp isn’t on it. My take on it may not be as authentic as others, but at least it looks like I did it, you know? Other than that, I like doing portraits in black and gray and all sorts of other tattoos. The variety keeps it interesting to me; my clients push me to try new things. I think my tattoo style is pretty traditionally based, as far as using linework, black shading, and color all in a strong way, whether I’m doing an American eagle or flowers across a woman’s back.
Tell us about the guys you work with.
Mike Stobbe is a good all-around tattooist and has been with Avalon since 1990. Dave Warshaw has been with me since 1999 and specializes in hyper- detailed black-and-gray work. He loves doing weird little creatures of his own design and also does really cool ballpoint pen drawings on wood. He also plays in a popular local band called the Creepy Creeps. They play music that’s a cross between surf and haunted house music, and they have a wild stage show. Denny Besnard is originally from France, has been with the Avalon team since 2005, and is an amazing Japanese-style tattooer. I’ve never seen a faster tattooist than Denny either! Alessio Ricci is from Florence, Italy, where he worked with the master Maurizio Fiorini. He has been with Avalon since 2007. He is a very precise tattooist who does beautiful traditional American and Japanese-style tattoos. Chris Cockrill has been with us since 2009 and does a wide range of styles—he can draw anything. He always does tons of cool watercolor paintings. We all have vastly different personalities and art styles, but somehow as a group it works. It’s a delicate balance, though. We’ve tried a few people who just didn’t work out—the balance was upset. But maybe that’s just a nice way to say they were jerks anyway.
You used to be a regular guest at Ed Hardy’s Tattoo city in San Francisco. How was it working alongside him?
I really enjoyed working at Tattoo City. Ed Hardy is an amazing tattooist and a really wonderful person in general. He’s super intelligent, witty, and pretty damn funny too. Any time he was in the shop it had a totally different energy—very positive, and it always kept me on my toes. I hope that the younger generation realizes what an impact he had on the whole tattoo scene, beginning in the early ’70s. There’s a movie out now called Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World that features some of his epic work from the ’70s and ’80s that is still quite impressive today. His concepts and design sense are amazing.
What’s the oddest request you’ve had from a client?
A prepared-for-cooking chicken body with a chimpanzee head on it. The guy I tattooed it on said the chimp was the first chimp in space, and he always liked the picture. The chimp had this weird grimace-smile that was priceless. And he worked at the poultry department at a grocery store at the time, hence the chicken body. Pure genius!
What do you like to do on your days off?
I enjoy hiking, going for a nice meal, playing guitar, watching movies, and of course, doing art.
Do you travel a lot? Do you like going to conventions? I like to travel and see new places. I went to China last year—that was a lot of fun. I’ve been to Japan, Europe, Canada, and Mexico. There are still plenty of places I’d like to see. I don’t do that many conventions because I really prefer tattooing in my own shop, my own environment. I like being in my comfort zone; it’s just so much easier. But I did recently tattoo at the Queen Mary Ink-N-Iron Convention on a couple of friends—I prepared all the art- work in advance—and that was fun. I do enjoy meeting new people and spending time with old friends at conventions, though. It’s always interesting.
Have you seen any changes in the tattoo industry that concern you?
There’s been a big improvement in the artwork overall, which is a good thing. There are so many people tattooing now that there are still way more mediocre—and just plain bad—tattooists than good ones. And there are just so many people doing it now. When I moved to San Diego in 1987, there were about six shops. Now there are about 160. That’s the way it goes. What are you going to do?
What do you think of the tattoo reality shows?
I am not a big fan of all these tattoo reality shows because quite often they present an unrealistic idea of how long a tattoo will take. On the other hand, I think that helps people get more prepared for the whole tattooing experience and [see] that a tattoo artist isn’t someone to be afraid of. In that respect I think it has expanded the number of people who are getting tattooed. Of course, it has also increased the number of tattoo shops because everyone thinks what a fun and lucrative career it is. Tattooing is still fun, but not nearly as lucrative as it used to be, due to the quantity of tattoo shops now. I’m thankful that I’m so well established; it really hasn’t affected me much. I’m still as busy as I want to be.
What would you say to an aspiring tattooist?
I think people wanting to tattoo should seek out a proper apprenticeship and realize anything worth- while takes time. Be willing to take the time to do it properly. This occupation needs to be your passion to succeed in it. It consumes your life, so don’t go into it half-heartedly. If you are only vaguely interested in it or are only into it because you think it’s cool and you’ll make a ton of money at it, you better figure out what your true passion is. To succeed as a tattooist, tattooing has to be your passion.