New York's Top Tattooers Drop Their Trousers and Show Us Their Early, Self-Done Tattoos

The industry consensus is that practicing on fake skin is bullshit. "You gotta fucking tattoo yourself," said John Reardon of Greenpoint Tattoo. "It's just something you gotta do."

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Apr 18 2015, 4:35am

Learning to tattoo takes skin. Yes, fake skin and other synthetic materials are available for artists to practice on, but the general opinion in the industry is that skin alternatives are bullshit. You can only really learn to tattoo by actually tattooing, and tattooers tend to begin with the most readily available skin they have—their legs. Some of New York's most prolific tattoo artists—who are, more often than not, covered head-to-toe in gorgeous tats—keep their early efforts in their pants, hidden from view. I spoke with tattoo artists from Saved Tattoo, New York Adorned, Greenpoint Tattoo Company, and Kings Avenue Tattoo to learn more about how they honed their technique and style by experimenting on themselves.

John Reardon, Owner of Greenpoint Tattoo Company

Self-done tattoos pictured: dragon, gray wash test strip. All photos by Graham Hiemstra

VICE: When did you get your first tattoo? And how soon after that did you first tattoo yourself?
John Reardon: I got my first homemade hack tattoo in maybe 11th grade. It was some stupid circle thing and some Black Flag bars. Then I got my first professional tattoo in January of my senior year, 1996. I was 18. Freshman year of college is when I did my first tattoo—an outline that fell out—and then sophomore year, I did the dragon.

What was the first tattoo you gave yourself?
I outlined a Celtic piece above my knee using pelican ink and the entire thing fell out. I grabbed the wrong pelican ink. Thank god my fucking leg didn't fall off. That was the first one and it really fucking stung down by the kneecap. But then that completely fell out and just left a scar, so a year later is when I did the dragon in that same spot.

I was at my parent's house and my dad came down and yelled at me because I was supposed to draw a similar dragon for him and I hadn't done it yet. I was sitting there tattooing myself and he was pissed. He was like, "Where the hell is mine?" Sorry, Dad. I eventually did it.

After tattooing yourself, how long did you wait until you took the machine to do someone else?
Oh, I gouged right in on people. The first tattoo I did was on my buddy's knee actually. Everyone came out of the woodwork to get tattooed. I didn't really need to tattoo myself—I had plenty of people to get tattooed. I just did it because I knew that I had to. I always needed the practice but, you know, you gotta fucking tattoo yourself. It's just something you gotta do.

Will Sheldon, Saved Tattoo

Self-done tattoos pictured: palm tree and pyramids, dagger, black snake, mouse character, hammerhead shark, globe with script, butterfly, multiple hand pokes

VICE: When did you get your first tattoo? And how soon after that did you first tattoo yourself?
Will Sheldon: I started getting tattooed pretty regularly when I was 17, so five years ago. I got a tattoo machine in 2011.

What was the first tattoo you gave yourself?
The pyramid with the palm trees and the dagger, those were the first. I did them both in one day. I had a Sailor Jerry outline book and that design was in there, and I thought it could be a really simple, funny, fun tattoo to have.

Your legs actually inspired this story. Why did you do so many on yourself?
I was fucking up so many of my friends, so I thought I needed to fuck myself up, too. After I started seeing all these tattoos I was doing on my friends heal up and seeing how shitty they were, I was like, Oh my god. It became a thing where I had to just keep on doing them on myself and practicing. They are little reminders of how shitty I was, of me learning. It's great, you know. Having bad tattoos is part of it. Having something that reminds you of where you came from is good.

Frankie Caraccioli, Kings Avenue Tattoo

Self-done tattoos pictured: casket with web, star, boombox

VICE: What was the first tattoo you gave yourself?
Frankie Caraccioli: A star. I thought I'd do that one to practice straight lines. It seemed simple enough but it was too simple—every mistake was going to show. I should have gone with something sketchier, you know. Any bump or messed up line is going to show.

After tattooing yourself, how long did you wait until you took the machine to someone else?
It was the same night that I got the star actually—a tattoo machine tattoo party. I tattooed the star, then tattooed my buddy, then tattooed the boombox on my ankle right after.


Bart Bingham, New York Adorned

Self-done tattoos pictured: green rose, bic lighter, skull

VICE: When did you get your first tattoo? And how soon after that did you first tattoo yourself?
Bart Bingham: I tattooed myself before I was old enough to get a legal tattoo. I got my first legal tattoo when I was 18 and I did my first tattoo on myself at 16 or so. My friend James from high school worked at a tattoo shop and because I could draw I would always give him a hard time like, "Oh, that's easy, I could do that." And one day he just got fed up with me and set up a tattoo station and picked up a machine and stepped on the pedal. It went zzt zzt and he said, "That's how it works. Go ahead and tattoo yourself." So, I tattooed myself and it was a disaster. It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

After tattooing yourself, how long did you wait until you took the machine to someone else?
I was tattooing straight out of high school, at 17. I did a lot of bad tattoos for a long time. I probably tattooed from '93 until 2000 just doing crap on people until l got into a good shop and started learning how to tattoo.

I never planned on being a tattooer. I thought tattoos were silly. I still kind of think tattoos are silly. I was going to school, working full time, and living out of the back of my car, so I needed what I thought would be an easy second job.

So I just walked into a shop and told them I had been tattooing for years. I lied. This was back in '93. The world was a very different place then. There was no Instagram, people didn't have portfolios. They didn't give me the job off the bat, so I went to a friend's place and drew up the same stuff they had on the walls and went back to that tattoo shop and showed them what I had. Next thing you know, they hired me and I went to work tattooing the general public the next day with zero experience—no apprenticeship, no teaching. I couldn't ask for help because they were under the impression I knew what I was doing already. I just made it up as I went.

What's the story behind the sketchy Popsicle tattoo on your calf?
That's my favorite tattoo on my body, just because every time I look at it I remember what a great time I was having. It's such a ridiculous looking tattoo—it's a vampire popsicle. My friends and I were in a hotel room drunk, giving each other tattoos with the door open and this really cute girl walked by so I was like, "Hey you, come here. You wanna get in on this, you wanna do some tattoos?" And she was like, "hell yeah." She had never even held a tattoo machine before that. Somewhere I have pictures of my bloody leg with her no-gloved hand rubbing ink into my tattoo.

Follow Graham Hiemstra on Twitter.

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