Red Letter 1
1510 E. 8th Ave.
Artists: Angelo Nales, Jeff Srsic, Lucky Mathews, Phil HoltIf you’re into neon signs and lots of flash on the walls, then there are plenty of tattoo shops to c”hoose from on the streets of Florida. But when Phil Holt opened RedLetter1 in 2003, he wanted something different for both his customers and himself. “When I first opened, I had just gotten back from Mick’s shop in Zurich, Switzerland,” Holt explains from Skull & Sword in San Francisco, where he is finishing up a stint. “He didn’t have street shop flash all over the walls and not everything was tattoo-oriented. He had a library and a place to chill out, too, so it was really comfortable. That’s how I wanted to set up.”
Holt found his comfortable space on the second floor of an old factory in Tampa, FL, that has stood for more than a century. The hardwood floors, retro elevators, and exposed brick walls provide a great vibe, and there’s even space in the back for a metal shop with mills and lathes so artists can build their own machines. More importantly, the space includes lots of room to hang art. “I spend a lot of time painting,” Holt says. “I’ve done a bunch of exhibits and now the studio has spiraled into a full-blown gallery.” Holt regularly displays his own paintings, which uphold a dark but vivid style similar to his tattoo work, and the shop also features work from other talented artists. The next exhibition on the schedule is a collection of Holt’s oil paintings, as well as pieces from California-based tattooers Henry Lewis and Edu Cerro.
Even with all of the art on the walls, the main focus is still tattooing and the small group of talented guys that make up the RedLetter1 team. “Originally the place was just my private studio, but as I kept getting busier, I brought in other artists to use it as their own private spaces.” The first person to come into the fold was Angelo Nales, who had worked with Holt in Chicago and Cleveland. In the following years, veterans Jeff Srsic from Virginia and Tampa local Lucky Matthews would come on board, bringing decades of combined experience and, luckily, no drama.
“There’s not a lot of bullshit to deal with at the shop,” Holt explains. “We’re always critiquing each other’s work and bouncing ideas off of one another. Everyone gets involved in every drawing. When you work like that there’s not a lot of time for bullshit.”
Because everything is done on a custom basis and pored over by a team of seasoned pros Red Letter1 has established a customer base that remains incredibly loyal. According to Holt, by the time a customer has done a few sittings he usually has become a friend. “Our clientele is die-hard and most of them are never leaving. A lot of times we hear that being in the shop is like being in someone’s house.”
But even with the intense creative process and schedule full enough to crash the average Blackberry, the shop still subscribes to the “no tattoo too small” mantra. “Almost every tattoo we do requires lots of planning and multiple sittings, so when someone walks in and wants something that’s only going to take an hour or two, it’s fun.”
There are times when the fun stops, though, especially when conversation turns toward a reality show TV show about a certain other Florida shop. “I don’t watch TV, but I hate the tattoobased TV shows, mainly because sometimes it’s all clients want to talk about,” Holt laughs. “One time my mom asked me if I knew Chris Garver. My mom shouldn’t know who that is.”
Since the shop opened, Holt has spent time in Ohio, Chicago, San Jose, and San Francisco, but now he’s ready to return to his own shop and spend some quality time in the space he loves. “If we ever lost our building we would have a really hard time finding another place we liked as much,” says Holt. “But whether it’s drawing, painting, or tattooing, I just want to be in a studio where artists can make art.”