Tattoos are fascinating objects, often so deeply personal in meaning that they can be nearly incomprehensible to an outsider. This usually is not an issue: who needs to understand what's been permanently implanted into the skin of your own body other than you?
The guy tattooing it on you, that's the fuck who.
At the risk of lapsing into tautology, it's literally a tattooer's job to tattoo stuff on people. They can tell the difference between a good tattoo idea and a bad one, and a great tattooer can work with a client to elevate what might have been a regrettable decision into a beautiful, high-quality piece of living art that its wearer will be proud to show off for the rest of his or her life.
But some ideas are beyond saving. If that's the case, maybe a tattooer will try to talk the client out of it, or they'll just say "ah, screw it" and give the poor sucker what they're asking for.
The point is, lots and lots of people have really bad tattoos. And because I am a loyal and forthright representative of VICE, I set out on a mission to get tattoo artists to tell me about those really bad tattoos. In my quest for knowledge, I found out that often, tattooers feel like the worst tattoos are just unoriginal, or ones that the recipient is eventually going to have to get covered up. There's really no such thing as an objectively shitty tattoo, just shitty people with dumb ideas.
[Editor's Note: Because it'd be a dick move to ask the people we were interviewing to send us pictures of the bad tattoos they've seen and done, all of the images highlight their best work. If you think their work is cool, please get a tattoo from them.]
Craig Jackman, AMERICAN ELECTRIC Tattoo Company - Los Angeles, CA
VICE: What do you think of the current state of tattooing?
Craig Jackman: Tattooing is safe now—getting one is basically like getting a haircut. People come in every day and ask for the same thing. When I was first getting tattoos, I didn't want anything that anyone else had. There was an element of danger when you went into a tattoo shop. I remember going to a shop in Arizona that was doing branding and tattooing. There's nothing more disgusting than the smell of burning flesh.
The woman I just tattooed, she wanted some lettering, that's the big thing right now. I don't even know what it said—I don't actually read the words, I just trace them. At the moment the big thing is getting stuff on your ribs. It's always a quote from a poem or a line of just bollocks, always in script or typewriter font. At the shop, we keep all the lines and we stick 'em on the wall. We have a game where we try to write a song with the crap people get tattooed on them.
What's the most original request you've gotten?
I tattooed this guy who came in with a GI Joe doll. We tattooed the joints of the action figure on his arms and his hands, so it looked like he had doll arms. When we finished it, it looked fucking great. I really like the sense of humor in tattoos. It's great when you're doing a silly, clever thing. I like it when people put thought into their stupid ideas.
Ron Mor, The End Is Near - Brooklyn, NY
VICE: What do you consider a "strange" tattoo request?
Ron Mor: What we consider "strange" or "silly," we often find has to do with pop culture stuff. Recently, someone asked me to do a traditional portrait of a cat with the hair of Mary from There's Something about Mary.
Like, when Cameron Diaz has Ben Stiller's jizz in her hair?
Yeah. This tattoo was for an author, and in his book the first thing that happens is a cat gets jizzed on. So it's to commemorate his own book; it was significant for him. Most of the time tattoos have a significance for the wearer, but sometimes even that wearer can agree that it's a silly idea.
Have you ever turned anyone down?
I've actually not had to get to that point. Everything is significant for someone for their own reasons, so we try to steer people in the right direction so that their idea is well-designed. As long as the tattoo is well-designed, we're happy to work on any idea.
What are some other great ones?
One tattoo was a traditional pinup girl, but the pinup girl was Darth Vader. It was a really sexy Darth Vader. Another was the musician Meatloaf riding a motorcycle, but his head was a slice of pizza. There was a banner that said, "I would do anything for a slice of pizza, but I won't do that."
Which tattoo are you most proud of having given?
I did a scar coverup on an amazing woman. She'd had a double mastectomy, and then got breast implants and wanted her entire torso covered. We gave her a corset with a shield in the middle. In the shield there was an owl. It helped her move on from a very difficult time in her life. That's what I'm most honored to have given someone.
LALO YUNDA - Brooklyn, NY
VICE: Do you have any odd stories from your early days of tattooing?
Lalo: When I first moved to New York, I didn't know anybody here. I had no connections, nothing. I did tattoos in a really shitty shop from six in the afternoon to four in the morning. You can only imagine all the people that would come and get tattooed. I remember a dude walking in. He was this tiny, chubby Russian. He was a little bit drunk, and he wanted a six-pack tattooed on him. And I was like, "WHAT?" I think he had like $150 or $200 on him. I was thinking, $200 is not enough money, because I'm going to have to do shading (to make it look realistic), like he's an extra in 300.
But this shop being the kind of shop it was, there was always a guy who was willing to do whatever. So this other guy says, "No problem!" He took a fucking ballpen, drew one line going down the middle, three lines going across, and two lines on the top, like a grid. Then he traced over it. It took like 20 minutes, and it was in red. I was like, "No fucking way! This guy's going to murder you." The guy got up, and he was a bouncy little fucker! He was so excited. He was looking at himself in the mirror like he was so happy.
Lalo then put me on the horn with his girlfriend, Melody, who also does tattoos.
Melody Mitchell - Brooklyn, NY
VICE: Have you ever given any tattoos that were weirdly awesome?
Melody Mitchell: My friend, she wanted a tattoo of a blowup doll riding a unicorn down a rainbow. And she wanted it on the front of her shin. So I was like, "I'll draw it just for fun," but I really wasn't serious. But she saw it and was like, "I want it! Let's do it!" So now she's got a blowup doll riding a unicorn down a rainbow. And that sounds ridiculous but it's totally fucking awesome.
I have some more stories, but they're terrible.
The first shop I was in I was apprenticing so I didn't do the tattoo. I remember this girl walking in screaming, like, "Randy, I already know what you're going to say but you better give me this tattoo or I'll go somewhere else and get it!" He was like, "No, I'm not doing it. I'm not doing it." And I was like, "What are they talking about?" And she was like, "I want you to carve out this bitch's name and I want you to put my new girlfriend's name on me." And he was like, "No! I've already done this three fucking times. I'm not doing this to you again." They get in this whole argument. He finally covers up this girl's name, and it turns out it's the third name that he's covered up on her. And then, he's about to put the new girlfriend's name on her and she's like, "You want to give me a red, or pink, or something that's easy to cover up?" And he's like, "Why the fuck are you thinking about covering up this name already?"
Misha - Los Angeles, CA
VICE: What tattoos do you think are a bad idea?
Misha: I don't do names. I will do your child's name; I will do your mother's name. Anyone else, no. I specialize in cover-ups. A lot of the stories I hear have a lot more to do with what happened to get the client to me. People are always getting their partner's name, and then I'm always covering it up later on.
What have you had to cover up?
Property stuff—"Property of Joe." Quite often, I'm covering up other coverups. The worst one I've had to cover was a girl who halfway through her tattoo looked down and realized the guy was doing something other than what they'd agreed on.
Oh my god.
It's horrible! She asked the guy what he was doing and he said, "Oh, well that thing we drew up is not going to work." She was like, "You couldn't have told me?"
At this point, I was feeling pretty good about my tattooer interview abilities. I had gotten some weird stories, some funny ones, some wisdom, and some heartfelt testimonials as to the healing powers of ink. Then I ended up emailing a tattooer in New Orleans who, after talking to me about tattoos for 15 minutes, told me he didn't want to be included in this piece. (I will, however, say that he once tattooed a sloth wearing a pope outfit on someone, simply because that information is too incredible not to disclose.)
So, one tattoo artist short of my self-imposed quota for tattoo artist interviews, I called up my friend Sasha. Sasha and I used to work together, and while she isn't a tattoo artist per se, she's a notorious giver of stick-and-poke tats—she's stuck, and subsequently poked, members of White Lung, Joanna Gruesome, Chairlift, and "pretty much all of (New Jersey punk label) Partisan Records." She also tattooed Bill Murray's name on a member of the band Eagulls, who then met Bill Murray the next night. When Murray saw the tattoo, he wordlessly kissed it:
Anyways, I'm pretty sure that all this stuff makes Sasha the Kat Von D of DIY. Either way, she has lots of funny stories about inking people, and she is willing to be quoted in an article. And so, here are some of them:
Sasha, Non-Professional Tattooer - Bushwick
VICE: What was the first tattoo you ever gave?
Sasha Hecht: It was on my ex. It was our second date, we were both really drunk, so she had me tattoo "Born 2 Run" on her ass. Tattooing an ass is hard, because asses give a lot. The lines were a little deeper and darker than they should have been because I didn't know how hard to push down.
What's the strangest stick-and-poke story you've got?
The weirdest ones are ones done on myself. I remember at a festival two or three years ago, I asked some people for a ride and ended up riding in the trunk of their car. Unbeknownst to me, the people in the car were on mushrooms. We ended up getting lost on a road called "Motorkill Road," and then at a random motel. They all wanted tattoos, but we didn't have any supplies. Instead of a needle, we used the pin off the back of a button. You're supposed to use thread to hold the ink, but we didn't have any of that either. Instead, we used a piece of string from a dirty sock. When I went to sterilize everything with some alcohol, I realized the only thing we had was Four Loko. So there I was, on the floor of a motel room in the middle of fucking nowhere, jabbing an unsterile pin into my arm. It was supposed to be an "SOS," but it kind of looks like "505."
I feel like I've heard that you once tattooed a Social Security number on someone.
Yeah, I tattooed Terry Crews's Social Security number on a guy. I don't remember who it was actually on; I think it was a friend of a friend of a friend. I asked him how they knew his Social Security number, and he was like "Uh, it's complicated." That's probably the most confounding piece of information a person can have.
I'm just now remembering the best stick-and-poke I ever did. It was on you, you fucking idiot! Do you want me to tell that story?
It was at a party. I gave you the word "STARTED.," with a period, right next to your dick. You kept trying to put your pants back on, so we had to hide them. At some point you passed out, so I finished it while you were sleeping. I wrote a note saying, "By the way you asked for this, make sure you use lotion."
Thumbnail image via Flickr user Michael Faccio.
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