Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week, I interviewed Dave Beckler, owner of The Great Divide Tattoo & Piercing. The interview is a little under twenty minutes.

[Interview and transcript edited for length]

This is Q&Art. I’m Russell Pirkle, and this week I’m interviewing David Beckler, owner and artist at The Great Divide Tattoo & Piercing.
I’m at The Great Divide now with Mr. Beckler. David, could you tell me a little bit about The Great Divide?

Well, The Great Divide is a store that my wife and I started in 1995. My wife and I are both college graduates that were not happy with what we were doing, and actually we wanted to have a business together so we could spend more time together. We had both been arists all of our lives, and as everybody know around here, you can’t sell a painting, you know. It’s hard to sell artwork. And so we decided to teach ourselves tattooing, and it really was just like converting from doing drawings and paintings to learning how to work with skin. I have been doing metalpoint or silverpoint artwork for many years. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. I can tell you about that in just a minute, but with that kind of artwork, you cannot make any mistakes. You can’t erase any lines. It’s kind of how tattooing is. It’s a style of art that you just cannot mess up. Once you put a line on that paper there’s no erasing it. Once you start shading and shadowing there’s no erasing. So you have to make sure that everything you’re doing is perfect and exact the first time, which makes it very tedious. Which, going back to metalpoint, that’s really my favorite style of artwork. Michelangelo and a lot of the old artists, before they had graphite and graphite pencils, had to use a stylus with this shaft of silver going through it or a shaft of brass or copper or gold. And as we all know, all those metals tarnish, and they tarnish certain colors. So what it is is almost like when you do a painting, and you gesso your canvas. You have a ground that is used to prime a piece of paper or masonite. And it’s rabbit glue with some basically powdered white pigment that you mix together, and it’s almost like a gluey paste. Well, you spread that accross your canvas. And when it dries, it kind of leaves a very very very finely rough surface, almost like the finest type of emory cloth you could feel, but because that stylus is made out of silver, let’s say, that’s what we’re going to do our basic drawing with, it actually grabs the end of that silver stylus so it scrapes onto that surface. It still feels like you’re using a pencil because it’s a really fine surface, but when you look at it under an eyeloop or something, you can see it’s very porous and very rough.

An interesting thing about tattoo, oftentimes someone comes in with something they’ve designed or maybe just an idea in their head. Could you tell me about that sort of collaborative process of either altering what they did into something that would work as a tattoo or . . .

Yes I can. And there is definitely a little process that you have to consider when you do a tattoo. As a tattoo artist, whether you’re doing a flower or writing somebody’s name or doing a lion, or whatever, you have to consider that over time, the line work part of a tattoo spreads. It will double and sometimes even triple in size over a long period of time. So let’s say if you were writing the name Dave. Well, let’s consider the cursive letter e at the end. The bottom of the line of that e curves up. It curves around. Then you have the top line that curves down. When both of those lines, twenty years from now, are spread that e is not going to look like an e anymore because they’re going to bleed together. So you have to consider the size that you need to do any kind of tattoo. And the first thing you do is you look to see where your lines are close together. Say you’re doing a celtic knot. Well, when you’re doing that celtic knot, you have to do that large enough so that ten or fifteen years from now, those lines are not going to bleed together. So you have to explain that to that customer, because a lot of times people don’t understand that. Most folks just think that the tattoo’s going to look great forever and not consider looking at other people who have older tattoos to see how they’re going to look. We try our best to educate our customers that way, and often that alters the tattoos that they want to get. If somebody was to come in and get a rose with their son’s name on it or underneath it the size of a fifty cent piece. It’s just not going to work, you know, because it’s just going to look like crap in five years even on something that small. That’s the largest mistake that people make is they want to get the smallest thing they can possibly get because they’re worried about the pain. And then they get back there and they see the pain isn’t that bad. And they wish they’d got the tattoo larger, you know. There is definitely a process you have to go through. We have a little, not a questionaire that’s written or anything, but we have a little list of questions that we go through with our customers to help guide them to tell us exactly what it is they see in their mind. That’s the hardest part, getting that out of a customer. A lot of customers will come in and say ‘you know, I want a coy fish’. And I’m like ‘well man, there are hundreds and hundreds of ways of doing a coy fish. Do you want a coy fish that’s curved and swimming in a natural state? Do you want it black and white? Do you want it in color?’ They haven’t considered all this. They just know they saw someone else probably with a coy fish so they want a coy fish. But we try to individualize our tattoos as much as we can and do our own drawings. While we have tons of artwork here on the walls, we try to guide people into coming up with their own drawings. If someone was to come to me and say ‘oh I really like this unicorn drawing on this wall right here,’ I’m going to start questioning them. I’m going to say ‘well, would you like that to look a little more realistic because it looks a little cartoony. Because you can have it realistic looking.’ And they’ll say ‘ah, well I didn’t think about that.’ And so a lot of times I’m just proposing the questions they need to be considering and then letting them answer that question. And I’ll take all their information and base that on how to make my drawing. Anyway, it’s fun that way. And it makes it kind of a challenge sometimes.

Why do you think tattooing has become so popular today? It seems like more people are getting tattoos now that ever before.

Miami Ink. You know, TV provides. The internet provides information too. And tattooing kind of comes in phases. When we first got into this industry, it was super popular. And I don’t think it was because of television. I think it was just, you know, like bell bottom jeans come into popularity every once in a while. I think it just goes through a cycle. It was super super busy, we did tons more tattoos when we first began than we did two years later. It just, you know, slowed down. For instance, one thing we used to never do are wrist tattoos. People now, in the past two years, have been coming in and wanting these little fancy written names right here, which is the worst thing you can do. First of all, because writing small is bad, and second of all the skin on your hand sheds real fast. And so the ink doesn’t hold well there. But some famous person had a tattoo like that, and that attracted people and it grew. It’s just like, you know, seven or eight years ago, everybody was getting Chinese symbols. They saw somebody in public someone that was famous, some artist or some musician, that had some Chinese artwork on them, and that started becoming popular. We hardly do that anymore at all. It definitely goes through phases. And yes, the business definitely has its peaks and its low points. During the recesion we just had, we’re very fortunate that we had a store here that carried us through that. If we’d only had a tattoo shop . . . Well I’ll just say this, I know other tattoo shops have employees that had to have other jobs. And they would all tattoo when they could and work their other jobs when they could. Because during the recesion nobody’s spending money on tattoos. They have to spend money on food, you know.

What are some of the common reasons that people get tattoos?

Ah man. There’s really not a common reason. But I do say that I think once people get their first tattoo, they realize that it’s not that painful. It’s not that terrible of a thing, and they see that if you come to a place like our shop that’s nice and clean like a doctor’s office. You know, tattooing has had the stigma with it for so long of being a hardcore evil biker thing. You know, you’re some kind of rebel in society, but it’s not that way anymore. We’ve tattooed preachers. We’ve tattooed many many professors from both universities here. It’s a much more accepted thing now, but . . . What was the question?

Let’s see. Maybe it was why do people get tattoos.

Oh yeah, as for reasons . . . Man, you might have somebody who comes in who’s lost a loved one, they want to have a dedication piece. You might have somebody come in that says ‘hey man, I saw some wrestler on TV’. You know, when Bill Goldberg the wrestler was really popular, all these guys wanted to get this tribal tattooing that look like his tattoos. There’s many reasons for it. There’s many answers to that question. I have a fiance and his wife to be coming in to get matching tattoos as wedding gifts to each other. There’s just really many different reasons that people get tattoo work.

What are your favorite tattoos? What do you like to draw, what do you like to see?

I like to do portrait work, because most of the time, people who are getting portraits done, it’s not a financial thing for them. So therefore I can really take my time and make a really beautiful picture. There’s nothing harder than doing a portrait. It’s hard to do on paper, much less on someone’s skin. So that’s a real challenge to really make it look like that person. As you know, with shading in the face, the least little shade that makes your cheekbone look too high or whatever is going to ruin the whole way the portrait works. But once again that’s true with any tattoo, you just can’t mess up. But yeah, I just love doing portrait work. I love practicing it. It’s just my thing, you know.

What do you think is the most rewarding part of being a tattoo artist?

You work for yourself, you know. Tattoo artists make a hundred dollars an hour, so if you only have to work four or five hours a week, eight or ten hours a week, that makes it better. When you’re working that short a time, it’s very low stress. I used to work at a paper mill many years ago, and it was a hard, stressful job. And I’ve worked at other stressful jobs. And I just told myself over the years, one day I want to have my own business so I can work for myself. I kind of had a goal of opening a tattoo shop earlier on in life, but it was just a matter of learning the technique of working with the tattoo process. But yeah man, it’s just the satisfaction of working for yourself. And it’s the satisfaction of making beautiful artwork that people will buy, you know. I wanted to be able to sell paintings earlier on. I’ve got a garage full of paintings that I’ll never sell because people just don’t buy paintings anymore. So, now I have hundreds and hundreds of people out there with my artwork on them that will be on their body the rest of their lives. So I like that aspect of it too.

One thing I was thinking about is how tattoo art is conspicuously absent from, like, art history courses and fine art, even though it’s existed for years and years and years. How do you feel about that and the influence that one has on the other?

Well, first of all, I can see how a lot of the art critics don’t consider tattoo art as being fine art, and I think that a lot of these television shows like Miami Ink and the other tattoo shows, while they are reality shows and they have their dramatic effects to them, they do show the whole world that you can really get some beautiful artwork. There is some seriously hardcore talent, and I challenge any serious artist to say there’s not. Now, with that being said, there’s a lot of artists out there that can’t draw a stick figure. With some tattooing, you go into a tattoo shop and pick a picture off the wall, all they’re going to do, they’re going to outline that, they’re going to color it in exactly like on there, on that picture on the wall. They’re not creating that art. They’re coloring in a coloring book picture, in essence. That’s why we draw all of our own artwork. That’s why we like to do the custom artwork because we can do shading and coloring and use other techniques we know from our other artwork that we can use with tattooing. We also paint, my wife and I both do this and we also paint. And a lot of times the blending of colors from painting transfers over into tattooing, you know. As you’re wanting to shade and make that look perfect, you utilize all those techniques from your other art that you do. But I think that it’s very under-rated in the art world. I think that art critics. You know, the stigma of tattooing has been so bad over all the years, art critics don’t consider it as being professional artwork, which is just totally the wrong way to think because it is. I challenge them to ever try it. I challenge them to try doing metalpoint because it’s the same exact thing it’s just on paper. You can’t mess up, you know. Which makes that a challenge, you know.

I think we’re about out of time. Do you have any closing remarks or anything you’d like to say?

I’ve done some studying on the history of tattoo and the tattoo art. Even in the past fifty years, it has come three hundred sixty degrees to meet classical art. I think now you have tons and tons of painters and people using graphite or whatever that are coming to tattoo because it’s the only way they can make a living. When you want to sell a thousand dollar painting, there’s not much market for that. At least not in our part of the world. But I have many many people that’ll come and get a thousand dollar tattoo. Because they can wear that piece of artwork, and they do realize that you can get just about anything done. I mean, my goodness, we went from getting these little bugs bunny and yosemite sam tattoos in the 1950s all the way now to getting portrait work and collages and you can do overlays of pictures. There’s just so many super-complicated styles of tattoo art that I think is great that the internet and television is showing the world. It is an artstyle, and it is not a craft, as a lot of critics all it.

Well thank you very much for being here, David Beckler.

Sure, man. I appreciate your time. Thank you.

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