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.