Your work has moved toward pointillism and other new directions, but still largely keeps to the traditional Celtic designs. Where are those influences coming from? Conventions?
Absolutely. When I worked at the NIX Tattoo Convention up in Toronto, I met both Colin Dale and Cory Ferguson, and I was stunned by their pointillism. All the time when I was at UCSB art school, I was using pointillism, using dots to do my shading. But I had never done it in tattooing. Why not? I don’t know. So I started exploring how to pull that into my style. Also, I had a pretty strong feeling that the governments of the E.U. and the U.S. were going to outlaw colored tattoo ink, but I was wrong. I figured, well, maybe it will just happen that I have to adapt my style so that black ink is all I’ll have, and it’s good enough. I can’t imagine why [colored ink] is still legal. It’s just wrong. It’s a hugely dangerous thing to have something that nobody knows what’s in it. There’s no oversight or MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheet] provided. Here we are hoping for the best and sticking it in our clients.
Don’t you think that there would be an epidemic, with so many color tattoos, if the inks were dangerous? I think the big risk is that there are so many more suppliers today than there were in the past. It used to be that you would get powder and put it with your own preferred suspension agent and there you go, you have your ink. Now there are, what, a hundred ink suppliers and [hardly any] of them have any MSDS, and even the really famous ones have ended up with fungus in a batch.
Beyond health issues, there are also moral issues to consider in tattooing. For example, there was a lot of buzz over a woman getting a huge “DRAKE” tattoo—in honor of the singer—on her forehead and whether the artist should have done it. What do you think about that? I interact with a lot of the older generation of tattoo artists and they say, “Somebody is going to do that tattoo. Why do you pretend that you care about that person? It’s money.” My attitude is that I’d rather have a client angry with me over a tattoo I didn’t do than something I did. I have morals, and I have to be responsible in this life for everything I do. If I really feel that it will make them a person who relies on welfare because now they made themselves into a freak and can’t get a job, then I need to step up and tell them no. I’ve had people come in and thank me later for not having done a tattoo that I refused to do. That’s a nice moment.
You have a lot of people flying into Santa Barbara from all over the world to get tattooed by you. But is Celtic work still as popular as it was, say, 10 years ago? I’ve been selling my designs online now at luckyfishart.com since 2001, and there was a point where people were buying a lot more Celtic stuff than they are now, but it’s hard to tell. Right now the trend is words. People will call me and go on and on about how much they love my designs and then just ask for two Gaelic words on their arm. Give me a break. For me, words age badly and look goofy. Unless they are really big, they don’t have a graphic quality to them. I usually decline to do it, which is hard to do in this economy.
What makes a good tattoo? I think tattoos should be an externalization of one’s aesthetics—a clue to what your internal life is like. With a lot of guys, it’s fair warning. If they have Satan all over them, then think twice about getting in bed with them! I would encourage people to think outside of what they perceive a tattoo looking like when they go to their source material. I like to tell my clients that anything that can be a pen-and-ink drawing can be a tattoo with the style that I do. People should be looking at real art and things that have stood the test of time or ended up at museums. Right now I’m doing something from the Chauvet Cave. It’s 35,000 years old. There’s a Werner Herzog movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams where he was allowed to go film inside it, and the horses, bison, rhinos, and woolly mammoths drawn on the walls of this cave are beyond belief. They are so alive and so fabulous. The last couple of nights I’ve been taking screen captures of the horses and rhinos so I’ll have stills to work from because someone from out here wants to get one of the horses. These are the oldest drawings we know of, and they are breathtaking.
So what do you do for fun? I hear that you ride a mule. Tell us about that. Well, in advance of turning 50, I started saying to myself, You got to make a change. You got to do something on your 50th birthday that is as important as what you did when you turned 30. I decided I needed to get more physical, and I wanted something to challenge my brain. Well, I always wanted a pony. [Laughs.] So I thought I’d get out there and buy myself a horse. I used to weigh twice as much as I do now, and you can’t weigh more than 220 pounds and even rent a horse. But I was committed to the idea of learning to ride. I wised up and got a mule because a mule can carry more weight. I rode the mule for six or eight months and realized that if I was going to be any good at this, I needed to cut my weight. I started eating less, and now I weigh half as much. I’ve been riding seven years now, and I’m getting to where I can ride pretty well. And it turns out I have a mule-compatible personality. You can force a horse, but you have to negotiate with a mule, and I like that.
Would you say that you’re an eccentric? Yes, I think that I am a genuine eccentric. My childhood was very differentiated from any kind of family or heritage. From the age of 2 or 3, I always thought of myself as being a separate person, separate from any kind of support system. I developed the personality that I have really young and didn’t accept many people trying to change me. I don’t do things in order to seem strange. With tattoos, I don’t do it so that people will notice me or to create a personality. I do it because I want to be an artist, to be a craftsperson. When I was a kid in high school, I had the really good fortune of meeting Ray Bradbury, the author. I was in my local chapter of Quill & Scroll, the high school journalism club, and it was the Ray Bradbury chapter, so every year he would do a little presentation. He said something that changed my life: “Inside yourself, you have an internal gyroscope, and it leans toward things that you love. And so you never have to have a stupid job; you never have to do something you don’t like because all you have to do is listen, and you will feel it humming and leaning you toward things. All you have to do is find a way to do that for money.” That rocked my world. I think about it a lot, all my life.