Oliver Peck has the hottest tattoo gun in Texas. Out of Elm Street Tattoo, on the outskirts of Dallas, the master artist creates traditional American designs with a twist, adding his own flair here and there and sometimes incorporating colors that weren’t available when traditional tattoos were just called tattoos. Peck is perhaps the most-traveled tattooist ever; he’s constantly visiting new cities on his own or as the resident artist on the Vans Warped Tour.
As of late, Peck has also taken over control of True Tattoo in Los Angeles and will be one of the esteemed judges on Spike TV’s tattoo reality competition show, Ink Master. “When I started tattooing it was something I didn’t even know I could make money doing,” he says. “Now, every couple of years there is something going on in my life that I didn’t think was possible. I am always trying pushing to do more and to never be satisfied.”
INKED: How did you become a tattoo artist?
OLIVER PECK: I was always an artist. I was always drawing on everything—my leg, my pants, school desks. I drew mostly ergonomic shapes, kind of attempts at Salvador Dalí-esque triptychs. Sometimes it was figures of humans mixed in with some weird line-work crap that my drug-induced mind was thinking of at the time.
In my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, the only people with tattoos were the bikers and the punk rockers, the type of people who looked like they just got out of prison. As soon as I saw tattoos, that was the just the next step after drawing on myself. I started tattooing by hand-poking myself. And then, over the years, that grew and I made some homemade tattoo equipment; then I bought some crappy tattoo equipment; then I worked at a crappy tattoo shop; and then I got the opportunity to actually learn how to tattoo and start over from scratch. Richard Stell offered me a job to come learn at Paradise Tattoo Dallas in the early ’90s, and that’s when it really started. I learned how to put on good outlines, where to put shapes, use of colors, and different needle groupings rather than me scribbling artsy bullshit on them.
That’s where you picked up your traditional style of work?
I was definitely brought up in the Texas tattoo scene. In the early ’90s, Texas style wasn’t really comic-booky, it wasn’t really graffiti, it wasn’t really traditional—but it was a mesh of big, bold lines, lots of bright colors, lots of heavy black, and large coverage of the body. The tattoos fully encompassed the skin and were crazy. We’d take something like a Rat Fink, then make its eyes bug out and have it shitting green ooze all over the place. Texas tattooing was about taking something normal and making it out of whack.
Do you feel that is still the style?
I would say that when I first started tattooing and traveling 20 years ago, regional styles and cities themselves were very unique. There used to be a really unique Texas tattoo style, especially with Stell, Chris Trevino, Dave Lum, Mike Malone, and Bob Roberts. Now everything looks the same. With the advancement of technology, styles spread all over the world, but each place is losing its individual flavor and just becoming one big international scene. The whole tattoo style of Europe was totally different; Japanese style was totally different; American style was totally different. There are probably more people doing Japanese tattoos in America than there are in Japan. It is just crazy that we are growing and advancing, but at the same time we are losing small aspects of what we came from.
And this stems from the internet, easier travel, and the overall shift toward openness in the tattoo scene?
Yes, all of that. Now there is a young kid who can be tattooing in Texas and his main influence is a tattooer from London. You used to grow up influenced by the guy down the street, and that created more diversity.
You also mentioned that cities in general are becoming more homogenous.
You used to go to Chicago and get pizza and it was amazing. Now there’s five Chicago pizza restaurants in every city. The first time I went to Chicago I was blown away by how amazing it was, but now every place seems the same. Every city has the same stores, the same restaurants, and the same people. It is a bummer to me. People in America want that same goddamn flavor of Starbucks coffee every morning, so if they wake up in Cincinnati they want it to taste the same as it did yesterday in Tucson. Really? Nothing has a unique signature anymore. And me, being a lover of vintage, I’d like to see Las Vegas in the ’60s or New York in the ’30s, but even remnants of those eras are dead now because we are nationalized. Now I think the whole world is going to become one big metropolitan area that is crowded with too many people who want the same exact Abercrombie T-shirt.
Do you, as one of the most prolific traveling tattooers, feel that your style has been compromised by international influence?
I definitely soak up influence everywhere, but I haven’t really made any drastic changes in my style of art. There may be flairs here and there, but I don’t so much travel to pick up a new look but rather to share my own style. Whether I’m in Italy or Arkansas people want the same thing from me.
Other than your love of vintage style, why did you choose to concentrate on the American traditional style of tattooing?
It is just the best. It is solid, it is bold, it is clean. If you got a tattoo 30 years ago, right now it still looks good, and it’s got history, it’s got art, and it’s got culture.
Do you think there is enough range in traditional tattooing?
If people come to me because they’ve seen other tattoos that I did and they want that same tattoo, that makes me happy because they are stoked on my work. I do try to change it a little so that everybody gets something different, but a lot of people do just get the same tattoo over and over. People just want that cool traditional tattoo, and I just love that. The perfect tattoo is a skull and a snake. If someone comes to me and doesn’t have a skull and a snake I give them a skull and a snake.
So you’re like a musician who doesn’t mind playing his hits day in, day out?
I don’t want to do nothing but a skull and snake ever, but I don’t want to never do a skull and snake again. I don’t want to say that I did too many skulls and snakes and that I’m not going to do that anymore—though I will say I have done too many wolves howling at the moon and I don’t want to do those anymore.
Are there parallels between rock stars and tattooers?
There are similarities, but rock stars technically don’t have the work-for-a-living ethic, and I think most good tattooers have a heavy work-all-day ethic. There’s always at least one member of the band who works while the rest just play music.
What has it been like being the touring tattooer on the Vans Warped Tour?
I love just being on the road and doing nothing but cool tats all summer long. There are a lot of good bands, a lot of shitty bands, some shitty bands are cool people and some cool bands are shitty people. But you take the good with the bad. The key element is that the kids in these bands are on the tour all summer long trapped in this traveling circus, but they only play music for 30 minutes a day so the rest of the day they are just doing nothing, and going to get a tattoo is a perfect distraction.
Did you get to live the rock star life?
It depends on what you mean. I’ve been on the road living on tour buses, waking up in a new city and meeting new people every day. It is a crazy travel-vacation-work-party experience. Every day is like a bachelor party. You can party 60 days straight if you wanted to, and a lot of people do. But I had to tattoo every day.
Will you be touring this year?
I will be affiliated somehow, I’m just not sure in what commitment yet. And right now I’m working on a new Vans shoe.
What else is new in your world?
I am the new owner of True Tattoo in Los Angeles. I had been working there five years—anywhere from one week a month to once every couple of months—and recently Clay Decker didn’t want to own it anymore, he wanted to live a carefree life. I ended up taking it over. We have talented tattooers like Small Paul Stottler, Little Dave Parker, Dougie Mittz, Chris Blanchard, Tyson Arndt, Karen Costleigh, and Sal Trevino. I’m splitting time between there and my shop in Deep Ellum, Texas—Elm Street Tattoo—which I’ve co-owned with Dean Williams for 15 years.
And you have your duties as judge of Ink Master.
I’m very excited about that. I hope people have time to watch it. In the genre of [reality competition] shows, tattooing fits the model better than other ideas, like cooking. There’s a lot of challenge: The contestants are creating something more substantial than a bean sprout something. Not to devalue chefs, but there is a lot more interaction in Ink Master. You have the person getting a tattoo who needs to be made happy, you have an artist with time constraints and challenges on designs, you have the competition between the artists, you have the dramatic reveal of what goes on, and you have the reality aspect of people living together and trying to battle it out while remaining friends. It’s competition TV taken to the limit—and a lot of real good tattoos will get done.
How do you feel about your judging partners, Chris Nunez and Dave Navarro?
We go through these tattoos giving our pros and cons and let people know why we are making our decisions—it is a tough deal. Nunez and I have been friends for 15 years; he is well-traveled and knows all styles. There are 100 people out there who could judge, but I think we did a good job. We gave honest opinions and honest critiques and just called out the points that needed to be called out. Dave Navarro is a badass fucking dude who does an excellent job driving the show as a host. A lot of people in the tattoo community may be leery about some rock star trying to give his voice on tattoos, but that’s not the point. He is a charismatic good guy who leads this whole show through, so I am pretty stoked on him.
How do you think the tattoo community will receive the show?
I think the tattoo industry is probably going to hate on it because it is tattoo TV. There’s been so much bad tattoo TV already, and just the idea of another tattoo show gives people a sour taste in their mouths. But at least this one is about tattooing. As far as the general public, it’s going to be interesting. Hopefully they’ll like seeing and learning about tattooing as opposed to having a dramatic show based at a tattoo shop. Other [programs] show tattoos here and there but don’t show a lot of tattooing; Ink Master is driven by pressure of tattooing, not the drama that goes on between tattoos.
On that thought, do you still talk to your ex-wife Kat Von D?
I do not.
It was odd to see you quoted in In Touch magazine.
[Laughs.] They just called me and I answered some questions. Why not? Since then dozens of those same magazines called me and I said I already answered those questions—it’s always the same bullshit.
And now you are going to be on a TV show, like she is.
It is what it is. She also has a million dollars, and I don’t. But she can have it. I’d rather be happy.
Is it odd to you that relationships can be so public?
I think that it is just silly. There is a demand for it, so there it is. There wouldn’t be a Starbucks on every corner if no one wanted it. There wouldn’t be a story about Jennifer Aniston’s haircut every week if nobody wanted to read it.
Speaking of hair, what’s up with your mustache?
Ah, man, it had to go. I’m clean-shaven. Eventually you get tired of chewing on it every time you eat a sandwich. And it was cool when it was funny, but when people started to take it seriously it lost a little bit of its flavor.
Like some tattoos?
You can’t shave off tattoos. Stick to traditional tattoos.