Artists: Adam Hays
Red Rocket Tattoo NYC
78 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10018
What year did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing in 2002 in Texas.
How did you get into tattooing?
Tattooing fascinated me from a young age. It was something that I’d known I wanted to pursue since I was in middle school. I still have a heap of drawings from that time, of snakes and daggers and other tattoo imagery. After high school I moved around a bit within Texas and even went to L.A. for a while trying to find an apprenticeship. Eventually I moved back to Texas and found one in College Station.
What was your first shop experience like?
The shop that I apprenticed at was a straight-up street shop in a busy college town. My apprenticeship didn’t last long. They pretty much just told me which was the pointy end of the tattoo machine before I was shown my first client. I made a lot of mistakes. All tattoo artists do in their early days—usually the result of wanting to try something more elaborate and extensive without the knowledge to pull it off. Working at that shop was a good experience in that I did get a lot of practice—some days I’d do over a dozen tattoos. But it wasn’t really art-driven. I didn’t have anyone there to influence me or to learn from, so I wasn’t able to grow much. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC that my horizons got really broadened.
Do you have any special training?
I’ve never had any formal art training but I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid. I’ve always been interested in old trades, and I worked in quite a few of them: carpentry, woodwork, leather tooling, and metal engraving. I learned tricks doing that sort of thing that I apply in my tattooing all the time.
What conventions have you worked at? Have you won any awards? What are some of your best convention memories?
I love the London show and do it every year. Milan, Brighton, Toronto, and New York City are some other shows that I do annually. Then there are the conventions that I’ve done mostly as an excuse to visit a given destination. I did the South African tattoo convention in Cape Town a couple years ago, and it’s still one of my favorites. I made heaps of great connections and friends. This year I’m doing fewer shows and more guest spots at different shops abroad.
How do you describe your style?
I’d like to think I’m an illustrative traditional artist. I don’t focus on any one genre of tattooing, so long as the tattoos still look like tattoos. I’m not the guy that’s going to do hyperrealistic-looking, wet, shiny stuff on you. I like traditional tattoo imagery done in a more illustrative style, be it black-and-gray or color. I’m a strong believer in doing it all and doing it well. If a client comes in with a specific request and is willing to wait for an appointment, I’m not going to snub my nose at a genre or art style that he prefers. It’s ultimately their choice.
What inspires you as an artist?
I’ve always been a big nerd when it comes to comic books, and before I got into tattooing I thought one day I’d do that for a living. The comic book influence definitely plays into my style. New York City, where I live and work, is also a constantly changing source of inspiration.
What sets you apart from other artists?
I think one of the main things that sets me apart from other artists is my use of freehand. I’d say 75- to 80-percent of the stuff I tattoo these days is drawn directly on the body with markers rather than using stencils. Being able to draw things onto the skin directly allows you to work with the body’s natural curves and motion.
What other mediums do you work in?
Anything on paper I can usually work with. That’s my preference. Watercolors, liquid acrylic, pen and ink are my usual media. At one time I did a lot of leather tooling, and still do whenever I can.
How have you branched out from tattooing?
About two years ago I went in as a partner with Mike Bellamy, the original owner of my shop, Red Rocket Tattoo NYC. I had been the manager, and as a part owner relocated the studio to the corner of a busy street in midtown Manhattan. I got to fully remodel a gutted space and build our shop from scratch. So now as well as tattooing, I’m trying to wrap my head around being a business owner and being in charge of 8 to 10 other people. Also, I’ve always done a lot of commissioned paintings: convention posters—I’ve done London and Toronto—and artwork for charity events where I’m from in Texas. Lately, I’ve been pursuing options to collaborate with existing brands.
What tattoo artists do you admire most?
Guys like Phil Holt, who does great tattoos, owns a beautiful shop, runs a very successful pigment company, and finds time to spend with his kids. Though I don’t know him personally, from what I hear, Mike Rubendall does the same thing.