L.A. native Robert Atkinson went from airbrushing T-shirts at theme parks and fairs to outfitting tattoo collectors with body suits tailored in such a way to make the artwork appear organic on the body, as if the client had been born with his powerful Japanese-inspired art on them. Here he talks about how he went from tattooing tribal armbands to crafting his signature large-scale work, and muses about custom cars, the state of the industry, and how to make tattoos hurt less.Inked: At what point in your life did you really get into tattooing?
ROBERT ATKINSON: Around 1990, I started getting interested in what was happening in tattooing. Magazines were coming out like Outlaw Biker Tattoo [Revue] and Tattoo Revue, showing work from artists like Guy Aitchison, Eddy Deutsche, and of course Ed Hardy and his Tattoo Time series. I thought, Wow, look at what these guys are doing! Real artists doing things on skin that I hadn’t seen before. It really attracted me. I remember in one of them Jonathan Shaw had an interview with the Leu Family. I was so fascinated by the whole thing: how they were living and what they were doing. I’ll never forget a quote from Felix Leu about how he didn’t want a boss man dicking him around, and that always sat in my head.
When did you first pick up a tattoo machine?
In 1992 I had four friends chip in and buy me my first tattoo kit, a Spaulding & Rogers starter kit. I don’t like to promote that, really, but at that time things were different. I remember going to the local tattoo shop and telling them I wanted to tattoo and they said, “Get the fuck outta here. Don’t even think about opening a tattoo shop in this town or we’ll blow the fucking windows off.” So I was tattooing on my own for a couple years, tattooing everyone I knew. I also traveled between here and Seattle a lot at the time, airbrushing T-shirts at fairs. I met people along the way and tattooed them, but I didn’t think of it as a career, just something I was doing at the time.
And when did you start on your career?
I started tattooing professionally in 1994. I had moved down here to South Bay and met a guy who knew a guy who owned a shop on Melrose. I ended up getting a job there. I was pretty nervous. I had never done a stencil tattoo; I was always drawing them on with a pen. I worked there for a few years, and then I met Henning Jorgensen [of Royal Tattoo in Denmark] around 1996. I wrote him a letter and told him that I always dreamed of going to Europe. When he was back in L.A. he invited me to come over to his shop, and six weeks later I had a one-way ticket to Denmark. It was cool.
We’re sure you learned a lot in your experience working with Henning.
I learned how much I didn’t know. [Laughs.] Where I was working on Melrose, it wasn’t a super-busy place but it was perfect for where I was at. I did a few tattoos a day, mostly small. When I got to Henning’s place, it was so busy. I had anywhere from 10 to 15 tattoos a day.
What kind of tattoos were you doing then?
I had a real knack for drawing tribal designs from studying Jonathan Shaw’s and Leo Zulueta’s stuff. The tribal thing was huge in Denmark at the time, and I was good at drawing it. After three or four months, I was drawing full arms in tribal. Everyone had seen that From Dusk Till Dawn movie and wanted that work all the way up to their necks. Guys getting their first tattoo wanted a full black sleeve of tribal because of that movie.
When did you get into the large-scale Japanese work you’re known for?
I was always really attracted to it from the Tattoo Time books and all the Hardy work from the ’70s and ’80s—the crazy, westernized Oriental stuff, not a Japanese imitation, but his own interpretation, a bit more psychedelic.
Did working with Henning also influence your Japanese work?
Oh yeah. Henning was killing it. This was about 15 years ago and he was doing shit no one was doing in Scandinavia. Henning’s work is always big and clear and bold and beautiful. It’s remarkable, actually. He doesn’t overdo it and his designs hold up over time.
Any other tattoo influences?
Filip Leu is one of my biggest tattoo heroes. I went to Filip’s in Switzerland to get tattooed; he did a big cobra on my leg. That changed everything for me. I watched him work all day and got a better understanding of doing things on a larger scale; how to lay things out on the body to fit in a way that looks natural. From Filip, I learned how to really see things, and I’m still learning. So that’s when it all started for me to go toward the more Japanese style in tattooing.
What’s your approach to Japanese tattooing? What do you bring to it? Can I think about it for two days? Huh. I would say, first, that my work is not really Japanese tattooing but mostly Japanese subjects—Japanese imagery on some level. I don’t want to do something I’m not. I’m from Los Angeles, born and raised here, and I’m not trying to do a tattoo that looks like a Japanese guy did it.
Where do you draw inspiration, then?
The Hokusai Sketch-Books have been a huge influence for me. It’s sort of been my bible, a springboard for me in the beginning. But nowadays I try not to be too influenced. After years of doing similar imagery over and over, I try not to do the same thing.
How do you keep it fresh?
My clients keep me on my toes. I will break out photos of what I’ve done so I don’t repeat myself too much. You can tell it’s from the same hand but I don’t want my clients to think their work is similar to another client’s. I try to keep mixing things up and use new combinations of a very small vocabulary of imagery. I believe in the “less is more” thing. I try to do things in a way that you will know what it is from 10 feet away. Your clients seem to trust you with a lot of their skin. You’ve done a lot of huge back pieces.
I’ve done about 35 to 40 back pieces in the past eight years. Large-scale tattoo work is a luxury, for sure. Any time you see someone with large work you know they paid for it. It’s like wearing a Rolex or driving a nice car. It’s luxury lifestyle shit, but it’s not something you can just go buy. You have to deal with a motherfucker like me, show up for your appointments, pay a bunch of money, and get it done.
And it hurts.
It hurts in more ways than one—it’s painful and it’s expensive.
There are a number of tattoo artists these days offering numbing creams and sprays that make the tattoo process hurt less. Do you offer those to your clients?
I keep a thing of spray for a few guys—not for someone who’s going to sit for two hours, but for someone who will come in from out of town and wants to sit there and get four to five hours done. It makes it easier on him and easier for me. If people come in after wrapping themselves in Emla cream [to numb the area], I’m cool with it, but I’m not gonna say, “I have this cream and for 50 bucks extra I’ll numb you up.” I used it myself for the last sitting I had with Filip and it fucking helped, man.
Don’t you think you lose some badass cred by taking away some of the hurt?
At the end of the day, no one is giving out trophies for being tough. In the beginning I was like, “Oh no, fuck that shit.” Then, at one point, I lined 18 backs in one year and all these guys were going to a spa to get numbed up before coming in, and they would lay as stiff as a board and get four hours out of that shit. So I started to think it wasn’t so bad because they weren’t moving around or pissing and moaning that they need to get up every 10 minutes. It’s just another tool for big work, especially if you’re looking at a 20-plus-hour ordeal.
You also have a lot of large-scale black-and-gray work in your portfolio.
I love to do black and gray and have a bit of Jack Rudy influence in my work. I’m in southern California and I see a lot of people with color tattoos and it seems to just go; it doesn’t hold up well under the sun. Black-and-gray just gets better as it ages. You use the skin tone and it has a more natural look on the body. It’s my favorite work and it’s twice as fast to do.
Where are you working these days?
After two and a half years at Victory Studios, I’m moving on to work with Chris Paez and Alex Garcia at Dolorosa Tattoo on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. I’ll still keep working five to six days a week.
I heard that you have some merchandising deals in the works too.
I have an old friend who owns a big company in San Diego that prints shirts, and she has a couple of her own lines as well. We’ve been talking about doing something over the past couple of years but just started to get it together now. So I’ve been working on about 12 designs and we’ll see how it goes.
Are you still customizing Vans shoes?
I’m still doing the shoes. More recently, I did a pair for Horiyoshi III and he sent me an original painting and hand-painted thank-you letter. That was really cool.
How did the shoe thing get started?
One day, my sister came over with a pair of white Vans on, and I grabbed some Sharpies and started messing around on them. It was really fun. Next thing you know, I was doing more and trying different formulas to get the result I wanted with different pens and materials. I started posting pictures of the shoes back in the MySpace days, and people were ordering them from all over the world. It was really crazy. I’d just be smoking so much fucking weed all night and doing shoes after I tattooed all day. I’ve done over 200 pairs of shoes.
Would you ever encourage your kids to have a career in tattooing?
I don’t think so. I’ll let my kids make their own choices, but it’s not something I necessarily want my kids to do. I think the industry is oversaturated. Everybody knows a tattoo shop and artist. People are comparing prices. I just see so many garbage tattoos these days—way more bad tattoos than good tattoos, done by people who don’t know anything about it. I don’t know if it’s the TV shows, or people coming in and seeing our lifestyle and wanting that. It’s attractive. It attracted me at some point. But it was a way, way smaller industry back then. I bet you anything that 90 percent of those tattooing in the last 10 years don’t have a clue about making needles or mixing ink. It’s big business now, but unless you are coming to the table with some serious fucking art skills and great people skills, you’re never going to make a living. If you don’t have a reputation for making good tattoos, you won’t survive.
How long do you think you’ll be doing it for?
I have a good 10 years in me at least. Depends on the people: If they keep calling me for work, I’m ready to do it, and I really enjoy doing it. I don’t know how to do anything else so I might as well stick with it—people keep telling me I’m good at it.