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.