Tattoo Santa Barbara
318 State St.
Santa Barbara, CA
Pat Fish is a veteran tattooist internationally renowned for her powerful and intricate Celtic knot-work tattoos. She is also known for being quite outspoken, calling bullshit on issues she believes harm the tattoo industry and collectors. In this interview, she raises some of those controversial issues, like potential dangers in some colored tattoo inks as well as the ethics of giving clients exactly what they want. Fish also shares some of the lessons she learned from her mentor, the legendary Cliff Raven, who changed her life—and how her pet mule has done the same.
INKED: You’re called the “Queen of Knots” and the “Queen of Celt” in the tattoo community. How did that get started?
Pat Fish: Lyle Tuttle gave me the name “Queen of Knots.” And the title “Celtic Queen of the West Coast” came from a Skin & Ink magazine article. When I started [to tattoo], I was 30 years old. You can really do what you want ’til you turn 30, but at that point, you better specialize and choose a profession, something that you are. I put myself through college doing research interviewing, and then I got hired by the local weekly newspaper to interview people. I did it for over a decade. But after a while, I got to where I didn’t want to be edited anymore, where they’d brutally cut my work to make room for more advertising. I finally just decided that I wanted to do art full-time. At that point, I thought that tattooing seemed to be the most legit way to do art. That’s when I went on my quest to find who I should learn from, and the rest is history. Now it’s almost 28 years.
Why tattooing? Simultaneously, I decided something else I really needed was to find out my true identity, because I was an orphan and lived all my life with a chip on my shoulder that somewhere, in some office, was the truth about where I came from. I put a private eye on to find out who I was, and it turns out that I’m Scottish. It just made sense to me that everyone else in the world has ethnic pride—has an identity—and here I was finding it out and at the same time learning to do this new skill. So I decided to specialize in Celtic art, bringing back that tattoo tradition of the Europeans.
Like what traditions? People think that the Europeans started getting tattooed when Captain Cook came back from Tahiti with tattooed sailors who had gotten souvenirs when they went and explored. That isn’t true. The Pictish people were known for their tattoos. It turns out that I’m a Campbell, and the clan Campbell are Picts. It’s an extremely small ethnic group. I thought it was something I should explore, and one of the ways to do that would be to bring back alive this tradition of the heavily tattooed Pictish people—to bring these designs back to life in skin. One of the better choices of my life was to learn to tattoo and then to specialize in this.
How did you come to meet your mentor, Cliff Raven? I only knew one person who even had a tattoo; this was in 1984. When I decided that I was going to learn to tattoo, a friend told me to study with the best. It really matters who you learn from. He said the best were Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven, and Ed Hardy was in Japan. Cliff Raven did my first tattoo and then taught me how, so it was very simple.
What was your initial experience with Raven like? Well, I called his house and Pierre answered and said he was already asleep. This is, like, 8 o’clock at night, and I thought, This isn’t the wild and crazy tattoo life that I imagined.
Pierre was his boyfriend, correct? Pierre was his husband for 27 years. One of the great romances I ever observed.
No one really talks about Raven being gay. No, he wanted it to be a secret. He was from a “need to know” generation. But he tattooed tons of gay men. He was doing all kinds of gay porno tattoos, but he didn’t advertise those out to the world.
So you call Raven— So Pierre says, “Why don’t you call at 7 in the morning, and you can talk to him.” Pretty different than my hours, oh my God. I mean, my studio opens at 2 p.m. I called the next morning and made the appointment. With all the hubris of youth, I took my portfolio of art from UCSB [University of California, Santa Barbara], and I went out there and got my first tattoo. He drew it directly on me. I just thought, Wow what a great guy! He really acted like he liked me. Then Cliff just agreed to teach me the craft. He had sold Sunset Strip Tattoo and was working from his bookstore in the desert, so I drove out there to study with him.
What are some of the great lessons Raven taught you? Cliff Raven taught me that there are three aspects to tattooing that are equal: art, craft, and morals. He was a great influence on my life. He treated people exactly like I try to treat my clients now, where we spend tons of time in advance of the tattoo, and go through all my archives of images. Depending on what they want, I’ll say, for example, “Go through this file of 300 Celtic bands and pull out the ones that appeal to you in some way.” If they pull out 10 designs that they like a whole lot, then we’ll go through them and I’ll say, “Well, you only wanted it two inches wide, so we have to veto these five.” And we just keep culling through until we get down to something I can then take and combine for something unique.