“I like following the rules—not in most outlets in life— but when it comes to tattoos I do.” — RICHARD STELL
2921 S. Harvard Ave.
When I started out we had never heard the term ‘American Traditional,’” says legendary artist Richard Stell. “That’s just what a tattoo was.” As styles changed throughout the years, Stell says he would try out all of them to see what they were about. And after all of the experimentation, he always returned to the style he first fell in love with. “I think it’s important to give a tattoo that authentic feel,” Stell says. “The thing about traditional tattoos is that when you pull it off and it looks authentic—it’s something to be proud of right there. It feels good.” Over the years Stell has maintained his traditional approach to tattooing and has passed down a similar respect for tradition to artists such as Oliver Peck.
Today, nearing an age when most people would be thinking about wrapping up their careers, Stell has decided to take on the new challenge of opening up a shop in Tulsa, OK. Tattooing was illegal in Oklahoma until 2006, so it may be a bit treacherous opening a shop on uncharted territory. But Stell welcomes this challenge with the same humor that he seems to use in all situations. “I think it will work good—either that, or it’ll be the biggest rotten pork chop of my life,” Stell says with a laugh. As long as he sticks to the traditional approach that has made him such a respected artist, the new shop will surely be a success.
INKED: What year did you start tattooing professionally?
RICHARD STELL: I started screwing around with it in the late ’70s. I really started working out of a shop proper in the early ’80s. I even gave up a couple of times—I wasn’t sure that I could make a living doing this. I didn’t like working working. I worked in oil fields and refineries, shrimp boats, and all that stuff. It wasn’t any fun.
>> While it may be more fun than working on a shrimp boat, tattooing still feels like a job at times, right?
Nah, it still never seems like work.
>> What drew you to the American Traditional style of tattooing?
It looked like a tattoo. I’ll be honest—you can still do those as a painting or something and it still looks like a tattoo. I’d rather do that than something that looks like an illustration. When I was getting into it, black-and-gray was really coming into its own. the guy who brought me in was a Mexican guy, so they were doing a lot of that. It made me really see the difference. What I wanted to do was the American traditional style that was kind of going out at the time—it wasn’t as popular. We didn’t really call it black-and-gray back then; it was jailhouse style and everybody wanted that. the prison guys would come back with that stuff. they were getting it out of necessity, from guitar strings, and all they had to work with was black ink. It turned into the tough style, which was kind of funny to me. the tough style was this fine line— delicate and almost feminine-looking stuff—since they had limited needles and no color at all. It turned into the tough-guy style. Strange, huh?
>> Have you been tempted to try other styles over the years?
Man, I tried it all! I remember that first TattooTime that Ed hardy put out was the tribal issue. I actually had some tribal stuff, and I couldn’t give that stuff away. years later, like 10, that’s all I was doing. people were getting big zebra stripes all over their arms. I did that. I’ve done some black-and-gray, which I enjoy too. And we didn’t call it new-school when it came around either—it was just the new modern thing. there was that period when everything was bolder and brighter. I’ve done a bit of everything. I didn’t really mess much with Japanese until lately. I didn’t have expertise with it, and there were plenty of people doing a really great job with it. Now I really enjoy that too, because it takes a lot more discipline than anything else does—a lot of bold lines, contrast shading.
>> When you are working in different styles, do you feel it’s a necessity to put your own touch on things?
No. If it’s traditional like that, it should just be passing it on. you can’t re-create it. you can’t reinvent it. people try it all the time and usually it ends up lacking in something. that’s right there in the word itself, tradition. It’s doing things the way they were done before. A lot of people try and make it their own, but you can’t call that traditional. based in traditional? Maybe. It just becomes contemporary.