This tattooer’s creations don’t belong in any genre’s box—they belong in museums.
Kirk Alley gained his first taste of stardom as the bassist for glam rock band Dirty White Boy. Whether or not you recognize the name of the band, you’ve probably heard of Alley if you’re part of the tattoo community, as he has become a rock star for his vibrant and imaginative creations with the tattoo machine.
It’s talent that led him into tattooing, but it’s pride that allowed him to excel in the field. With an amazing point of view on color and an artistic eye that crosses over thematic tropes, Alley creates big-scale pieces that are otherworldly. Although the artist creates his masterpieces at a private L.A. studio, unlike a reclusive rocker, he’s willing to share his e-mail address—after you make your way through this interview.
INKED: How did your tattoo journey begin?
KIRK ALLEY: Well, after many years in the music business as a bass player and having some really good success, I found myself in the midst of a huge change in the rock music scene, and L.A. bands were put on the back burner, even bands that were signed to major labels, as my band was. So the money stopped coming in, and just in the nick of time I got a call from a tattoo shop owner who had seen a lot of my artwork, and I was asked to come and be his apprentice. The fee for him teaching me was that I was to draw a set of 10 sheets of flash and give them to him to use as he pleased—and of course he did. I found my designs hanging up on Hollywood tourist racks as temporary, lick-on-type tattoos! But yeah, that’s how I got my start over 20 years ago.
Would you consider him your mentor? I’ve really never had a mentor in tattooing.
I wish I did. My apprenticeship was a very uninspiring event and only lasted about two months. It was a very unkempt shop and the teacher was really not up to standard in art or cleanliness. So I mainly did my research online and in magazines for inspiration and for how to improve my technique by looking at tattoo artists that I aspired to be like and admired—the ones that kicked my butt!
To name a few: Mike DeVries—I go to his studio and talk shop with him once in a while—Joshua Carlton, Dmitriy Samohin, Nikko Hurtado, and Rich Pineda. As for painting, I tend to look to the old masters for technique and to surrealists for the out-of-the-box thinking. I like to try to paint like Caravaggio—I’m not nearly successful—and to tell stories with my work like Salvador Dalí and Tim Burton.
Do you think understanding painting techniques helps one to become a good tattooist?
That’s a good question. I thought of myself as a very mediocre painter way back when, so I went through periods of painting and would then give it up for years at time. A few years ago, I decided to give it another shot and work until I felt I had gained the necessary skills in oil painting that just might work. I painted every day for around 14 months and managed to put together over 43 pieces, as it became an addiction. I wound up selling all but eight of those paintings and got into some very prestigious gallery group shows, which turned into a successful venture back into the art world.
Why did you slow down?
I got a little burnt out painting after that and took a month break, but now I’m back. So with all the time I’ve spent at the easel, I found my tattoo work taking on a whole new look. My painting had crossed over into my tattooing and I really didn’t notice until I had been painting for a while. So yeah, I think that working in other mediums besides skin, whether it be painting, graphite or charcoal drawing, or any other medium, improves my work immensely. Most of the best tattoo artists started as painters or commercial artists, and that’s why tattooing has become nothing less than fine art on skin, depending on the artist’s skill in other mediums.
Your tattoo style is intriguing. How would you describe it?
I don’t know if I really have a style. I’m the type of tattoo artist that will take on just about anything. I don’t specialize in portraits or color or black-and-gray work. I like to be challenged by my clients’ ideas. My portfolio is diverse. I like to try most of the ideas I am approached with. I do think I have a bit of an eccentric style in what I choose to do. I like to do surrealistic, fantasy, portrait, colorful, out-of-the-box type of work. I like to stray from the norm. It’s fun, and a lot of people don’t get it since it’s not your average skull tattoo or Day of the Dead girl. That costs me my popularity, but I’m okay with it because my clients know what I specialize in as far as technique, and they come to me for that. They’re not looking for mainstream tattoo work. They think for themselves, and I think along with them. I give them a result that is out of the ordinary and possibly not always accepted or understood by the public. I’ve even had tattoo magazines refuse to publish my work, saying that they just don’t get it.
Who inked you for the first time?
My first tattoo was a cartoon-style cat dressed in rags, like an alley cat, that I drew up, and Greg James of Sunset Strip Tattoo did it for me. I was hooked immediately.
And your most recent?
My last tattoo was done last night, actually. I got two. One was a traditional version old-school-style design of a lamp I have in my house that’s a replica of the sexy leg lamp from the movie A Christmas Story done by Juan Patiño, husband and apprentice to my good friend Julie Becker. After it was completed, Julie finished a tattoo she’d done on me a year ago of a tattoo machine I’ve had for nearly my entire career.
Where are you these days?
I work at a private studio nestled in the hills of Los Angeles, CA. It’s a place where people can come and feel taken care of one on one, with awesome views of the city and mountains. It’s a very old building not unlike a restored Victorian home. It’s a lot like an oddities museum, and some have compared it to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. There are so many artifacts and visuals galore to look at, but it still has a very warm and welcoming feeling.
Do you miss working in street shops?
I haven’t worked in a street shop, except for when I travel and do guest spots here and there. But in this city—which is where I was born, raised, and still consider my favorite place to live—I prefer to work alone in a private studio and not deal with anyone showing up who hasn’t been invited. After doing it this way for over 15 years, I’ve been able to screen, choose, and collaborate with the coolest people. I have a very nice relationship with my clients. Oh, and I don’t mean that in a cocky way—they have to choose me too, you know?
And you can work at your own pace.
Well, actually, I do have a plan to semi-retire from tattooing, meaning slowing it down quite a bit and tattooing at a much slower pace. I’d like to eventually be even more particular than I am now—if that’s even possible—and only work on designs and ideas that gratify and challenge me in every way possible. I really want to make a slow, steady transition over to painting full-time and tattooing part-time. I have this fantasy of moving to Key West in FL, where the water is sapphire blue and the weather as hot and steamy as possible! I want to live a very simple life at some point, and I really don’t think it’s all that far off in my future. A man can dream—and artists never really retire!
How has being in the music industry changed your life?
The main element music—and having some success in it—taught me that I really didn’t have to be a nine-to-fiver or work my ass off for someone else. I really became used to the fact that I could work for myself and that no matter what happened I’d be able to choose new paths and use them without worrying or ever looking back to the days when I worked my ass off for someone else’s company. I want my time to be mine and no one else’s, because time is not on our side.
What do you play while tattooing?
I listen to so many genres of music. There’s too many to list, but I tend to lean toward a lot of classic rock, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd—all the classics. One of my favorites is still Tool, and Perfect Circle and Puscifer—basically anything Maynard Keenan sings on. I also have a weakness for Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr., and lots of odds-and-ends songs from my playlist are from who knows where.
Have you stayed connected to the music scene via tattooing?
As far as tattooing musicians, I haven’t tattooed a ton of well-known musicians aside from Slash, Earl Slick, and Mark Lanegan, who’s an amazing, sultry singer.
Any odd requests from them or any of your other clients?
Well, I turned a woman’s private parts into a peach once—is that weird enough for you guys?
We haven’t seen you on the convention circuit. Does it still intrigue you?
I mostly do local conventions, since I like to set up a pretty fancy booth and that’s impossible to do while traveling. But I will be headed to Europe this year for conventions in Italy and England, with guest spots in between, including Rome, Florence, Barcelona, and London. It’ll be nice to go back since I haven’t been to Europe since I used to tour there in my music days.
Have you seen any changes in the tattoo industry that concern you?
Not really. I like how it’s become such a huge part of our culture. I know so many tattooists that have been at it a long time who loathe the “new tattoo industry,” but I have no qualms with it at all. Even with tattooing you have to evolve or we’d still be doing cave drawings! The conventions are more fun and attract big bands and huge crowds. The popularity of tattooing has brought in a lot of talented artists that would never have even thought of tattooing 15 years ago, and I’ve learned so much from this new wave of young guns, so to speak.
Do you have any advice for young tattoo artists?
Yeah, but it’s very simple: No matter how good you get or how popular, keep your ego in check and remember there’s always more to learn in art. Also, watch your posture when working!
Kirk Alley works in a private shop in downtown Los Angeles. For appointments call 213-400-8377 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.