“I like following the rules—not in most outlets in life—but when it comes to tattoos I do.” — RICHARD STELL
2921 S. Harvard Ave.
When I started out we had never heard the term ‘American Traditional,’” says legendary artist Richard Stell. “That’s just what a tattoo was.” As styles changed throughout the years, Stell says he would try out all of them to see what they were about. And after all of the experimentation, he always returned to the style he first fell in love with. “I think it’s important to give a tattoo that authentic feel,” Stell says. “The thing about traditional tattoos is that when you pull it off and it looks authentic—it’s something to be proud of right there. It feels good.” Over the years Stell has maintained his traditional approach to tattooing and has passed down a similar respect for tradition to artists such as Oliver Peck.
Today, nearing an age when most people would be thinking about wrapping up their careers, Stell has decided to take on the new challenge of opening up a shop in Tulsa, OK. Tattooing was illegal in Oklahoma until 2006, so it may be a bit treacherous opening a shop on uncharted territory. But Stell welcomes this challenge with the same humor that he seems to use in all situations. “I think it will work good—either that, or it’ll be the biggest rotten pork chop of my life,” Stell says with a laugh. As long as he sticks to the traditional approach that has made him such a respected artist, the new shop will surely be a success.
INKED: What year did you start tattooing professionally?
RICHARD STELL: I started screwing around with it in the late ’70s. I really started working out of a shop proper in the early ’80s. I even gave up a couple of times—I wasn’t sure that I could make a living doing this. I didn’t like working working. I worked in oil fields and refineries, shrimp boats, and all that stuff. It wasn’t any fun.
While it may be more fun than working on a shrimp boat, tattooing still feels like a job at times, right?
Nah, it still never seems like work.
What drew you to the American Traditional style of tattooing?
It looked like a tattoo. I’ll be honest—you can still do those as a painting or something and it still looks like a tattoo. I’d rather do that than something that looks like an illustration. When I was getting into it, black-and-gray was really coming into its own. the guy who brought me in was a Mexican guy, so they were doing a lot of that. It made me really see the difference. What I wanted to do was the American traditional style that was kind of going out at the time—it wasn’t as popular. We didn’t really call it black-and-gray back then; it was jailhouse style and everybody wanted that.The prison guys would come back with that stuff. they were getting it out of necessity, from guitar strings, and all they had to work with was black ink. It turned into the tough style, which was kind of funny to me. the tough style was this fine line—delicate and almost feminine-looking stuff—since they had limited needles and no color at all. It turned into the tough-guy style. Strange, huh?
Have you been tempted to try other styles over the years?
Man, I tried it all! I remember that first TattooTime that Ed Hardy put out was the tribal issue. I actually had some tribal stuff, and I couldn’t give that stuff away. years later, like 10, that’s all I was doing. people were getting big zebra stripes all over their arms. I did that. I’ve done some black-and-gray, which I enjoy too. And we didn’t call it new-school when it came around either—it was just the new modern thing. There was that period when everything was bolder and brighter. I’ve done a bit of everything. I didn’t really mess much with Japanese until lately. I didn’t have expertise with it, and there were plenty of people doing a really great job with it. Now I really enjoy that too, because it takes a lot more discipline than anything else does—a lot of bold lines, contrast shading.
When you are working in different styles, do you feel it’s a necessity to put your own touch on things?
No. If it’s traditional like that, it should just be passing it on. you can’t re-create it. you can’t reinvent it. people try it all the time and usually it ends up lacking in something. that’s right there in the word itself, tradition. It’s doing things the way they were done before. A lot of people try and make it their own, but you can’t call that traditional. based in traditional? Maybe. It just becomes contemporary.
Do you ever feel like adhering to tradition stifles your creativity?
I think it’s important to give a tattoo that authentic feel. I have plenty of other outlets for my creativity. I can paint, and stuff where I can do whatever I want where there are no rules. I like following the rules—not in most outlets in life—but when it comes to tattoos I do. the thing about traditional tattoos is that when you pull it off, and it looks authentic, it’s something to be proud of right there. It feels good. there are a lot of people that want to put their personality into it, well, fine for them. I don’t need to express myself in that way.
While you have found a style that suits you, and you have been doing it for many years, is it still possible for you to learn new things?
You have got to keep learning. there are so many ways to do one picture. Most of them are wrong [laughs] but you have got to make those mistakes to learn them—just hope that you make those mistakes on paper first and not on skin. you can throw those away. the best you can do with skin is just deny that you made a mistake and then you are just lying to yourself. Lying to yourself is rampant based on how many comb-overs there are in this world.
Lately you have been having some health problems and you have been struggling to find health insurance. What’s going on?
Yeah, we’ve been trying to get insurance. I’ve got a double hernia going that needs to be operated on. That came from working in the shop. Complications from diabetes and just getting older, that’s life. you spend a lot of time feeling like you’re bulletproof, but it turns out life ain’t that way.
You’ve had some complications with your eyes—are you worried that will cause your eyesight to fail? As an artist that could be a big fear.
Well, I can see. The only problem is fatigue. If I get too tired my eyesight gets a little swimmy. I’ve had some bleeding behind the eyes and that made me really snap back and start taking care of myself. … Damn, man, don’t bummer me out like that.
But the lifestyle of a tattoo artist can be cool and carefree. you get to travel and do what you love while making a living. but there are those downsides, like not having the stability of other jobs that might provide health insurance. Do you ever regret the life you chose?
It’s discipline. It’s all up to you. I am not the poster child for discipline, by any means. For a while I worked at a factory where I had to punch a time clock and follow a dress code. I worked in a refinery where there was a guy to check if you had shaved right when you came in the gate, in case you had to throw on a respirator. If you hadn’t shaved they gave you a bic and you had to go to the water fountain. Not a lot of laughing and smiling going on in that environment, just a lot of moaning and whining for a very small check. When I was working in the oil field I was also tattooing at night for a little while. It was pretty tiring but I was really young so I did it. My pop told me to keep my job in the oil field so that I would have insurance. I saw a guy get his fingers cut off one time. I saw a guy die. I thought, So that’s why you need the insurance here. Once I started making more money at night than I was all day at the oil field, that’s when I figured that I would just take my chances with the tattooing.
It’s at least a lot safer work environment.
I’ve never seen anyone get their fingers cut off tattooing. Not while tattooing, anyway. [Laughs.] I’ve heard of people getting their fingers chopped off because of tattooing, but not while tattooing.
Over the years tattoo culture has changed a great deal and become more accepted.
You think? [Laughs.] there was no “tattoo culture” back then. All we had was the National tattoo Convention. When I started out there was one convention a year. Now they have become expos. It’s like gun shows: “Come on down Sunday if you want good deals, folks!”
How do you feel about all of the changes the industry has gone through?
I’m not one to bitch about it. It’s interesting to see how much it has grown; I never would have foreseen this. When I started tattooing I knew two people with tattoos: my dad and the guy who did his tattoos. My generation wasn’t interested in it. It was something that their dads had from the war. It used to be a cycle where every other generation liked it. you either got them because your parents didn’t have them, or you avoided them because your parents had them. Now I’ve tattooed whole families. Kids, parents, grandkids, whatever. Who cares? I remember when there was one book in the bookstore with tattoos in it. I saw this movie where a guy got a tattoo on his lip. It was called Jabberwalk [This Is America], and it was all about weird shit in America, at the drive-in. It just stuck in my head. My grandpa used to say, “Richard is always into the weird shit.” I lived in a little country town where nothing ever happened. I was attracted to anything strange or out of the ordinary. Everyone in my family was always petrified of snakes, so I became really interested in snakes.
Do you ever think that all of the ways tattoo styles have changed is bad for tattooing as a whole?
Some of the things those kids do with the realism, I admire it. I don’t have the desire to do it—I’ve found what I like to do and I’m going to stick to that. I don’t hate them for it. I want to see what it’s going to look like in 20 years, but there is no way to find out other than waiting 20 years. We’re going to have to wait and see. Some of it looks like it’s going to work, but it all depends on the adeptness of the hand that’s applying it. you see a lot of people trying to illustrate what they see, but they aren’t really getting it in there good. Going back to how it’s weird how tattooing became popular, look at all the things that have become popular. I got chased off of one of my girlfriend’s porches by her daddy because I was riding a motorcycle and I had tattoos. Now I imagine that if her daddy is still alive he probably has a little tattoo and is riding a Harley Softail and enjoying his retirement.
You mentioned earlier how the popularity of tattooing used to skip generations. Do you feel like there is any way that tattoos will go back underground?
No, not now. I think that on a philosophical level I’ve always believed that the more people there are, and the smaller the world gets, that everyone wants to be an individual. tattooing seems to be one way to do it. Even if they have the same tattoos, they feel like they’re different. people have always decorated their bodies one way or another. Whether it is clothing, doing weird shit with their hair, or getting a big ol’ tittie job or something like that. Look at how many people have face tattoos now. You see that a lot. In the old days people with face tattoos wouldn’t be let into tattoo conventions because the press was there. We were trying not to give us a bad name, or a worser name. There’s a nice southern word for you, worser.
It’s really hard to imagine that someone would be turned away from a tattoo convention for having a face tattoo now.
Having a tattoo certainly doesn’t close as many doors as it used to. You can get a job now. It used to be that you couldn’t get a job if you had forearm tattoos. People like them, people are drawn to them, and they are drawn on them. Little kids want to get tattoos now because it’s what they see everywhere.
It would have also been hard to imagine tattooing being the basis of a television show a while back, yet you recently appeared as a guest judge on Ink Master. Tell us a bit about that.
That’s all I’ve been talking about since that show came out! It was fun being on it. Oliver worked for me 20 years ago and he’s like one of my bastard sons. So it was a lot of fun doing it with him. other than that, those kids suck! There were so many people to choose from and they’ve got those sucky-ass kids on there.
Tell us a little bit about the shop that you are about to open in Tulsa.
We’ve been working on this place that used to be a massage parlor and whorehouse for years and years. It’s been fun dealing with that, trying to build a place when people knock on the door wanting a rub and a tug. It’s been there for so long that even when there are no signs on the windows anymore, people keep coming. It was funny at first, but by now it’s like, “Get out of here! We don’t do that no more!”
It’s funny the first couple of times, but not so much after that.
Exactly. It happens four, five times a day. Middle of the night, first thing in the morning, whenever. Right down the street there’s two more of them. When we went to sign the lease they still had the old sign up; the place was called Miss Saigon. We figured that there was no way these people would turn us down. you get a lot of that in tattooing. When you go to open a tattoo shop you’ll hear, “No, get out of here.” but here we’re helping them move up a little in the world. there’s nothing wrong with whoring. I mean, God bless whoring—it’s good, honest work. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to change the stigma of the location. the first day we started renovating the shop the news showed up to do a story about prostitution. I said, “Come on, fellas, give us a break. We’re having trouble as it is. you don’t need to put it on TV what this place used to be.”
Do you know when the shop is going to be up and running?
At this time it is officially “sometime in the future.” We’re busting our asses as hard as we can. It’s right on the cusp of going from “really difficult” to “rolling downhill.” Every shop that I’ve built before started off as an empty box and we filled it. I’ve never built a place where we had to tear it all down to start over again. We had to get rid of all these rooms and re-create it. the thing about this old building is that everything we have planned seems to go wrong. there will be pipes in a wall when we thought there weren’t any, so we have to rethink it. once we get it all done we get to start jumping through hoops with the Oklahoma Health Department. It’s a really difficult state to open a shop in.
What makes opening a shop in Oklahoma so difficult?
Tattooing has only been legal there for six years and they are still trying to figure it out. Back in Texas I worked with the health board and helped make some of the laws there. I think Jennifer and I are going to try and help out the state here. What they seem to be doing is kind of backward here, in that they are punishing people who are trying to do it right and being really hard on them.
What compelled you to open a shop in an area where it is so difficult to navigate the laws?
I didn’t want to open a shop with anyone that I knew because that’s a sure way to lose a friend. And I didn’t want to go someplace where I had a friend established already. I didn’t want to, for lack of a better word, compete with them. I don’t think it’s competitive, but you don’t want to go into their town and open up a shop. When I looked at Tulsa, I didn’t know anybody, and nobody was doing what I’m doing. I think the oldest guy there is 35, and they aren’t doing traditional. So I’ll be a niche. there’s no real history there, so I can make up some history. I think it will work good. Either that or it’ll be the biggest rotten pork chop of my life. It’s just going to be me and Jen, maybe some guests every once in a while. It’s not like we’re going to be taking away some kid’s college money by showing up there. I can only do so much, and it’s a nice place to live, it’s a nice town. Maybe it’s a kind of semi-retirement for me. the rent is easy and I’m not going to have to bust my ass while doing that mobile tattooer game. If I don’t have that much to do I’ll have a lot of time to paint, and that’s a good thing.