Life of a Tattoo Artist
Words by Tamma Hicks
STEAM How did you get started in tattooing and how long have you been doing it?
JAY’E My journey into the tattoo world started rather oddly. Most people have a strong initial drive to take tattooing on as a career. For me, well, I simply stumbled upon it. While on summer break from my sophomore year in college (as an English major in Corpus,) I visited a friend of mine at a tattoo shop back home in Joshua Tree (Ca.) I befriended the owner Rick Reyes, and shared my art portfolio with him. At the time I had been taking several art classes at Del Mar (for fun) and paying for college via contract art (murals, portraits, etc.,) as well as selling some of my paintings at local Corpus galleries. Rick suggested that I try tattooing on for size. Now at that time, I had only one tattoo, and was fairly hell bent on becoming an English teacher- so I initially blew off the offer for an apprenticeship. Fast forward about six months- I needed a break from school. I had graduated early, when I was 16…I worked hard and decided I deserved a break to try something new. I had made some amazing friends out in Corpus (particularly in the local punk scene) but I needed a change… something new and super foreign, to grab my interest for a while. I packed my bags and decided to take some time off from school.
My apprenticeship lasted three months (pretty short, they are usually a year,) and cost me $5,000. Rick was very old school, which was hard for me to appreciate at the time, but I definitely do now. He showed me the ropes with all sorts of tattooing techniques, as well as machine maintenance and building, even needle making (which is almost completely a lost art in our industry these days). So, long story long, what I thought was going to be a fun “hobby,” ended up as a lifelong passion and career. I decided to stay out here (transferred colleges) and continued tattooing out in the California desert, which I have been doing for 13+ years now.
STEAM How long did you intern and work at a shop before opening your own?
JAY’E After my apprenticeship at Thee Ink Cup, under Ricky Reyes, I stayed for about another seven months or so. I took some time off to go back to school, but quickly got the itch to tattoo again. I hopped around a few shops for a while, then came upon Strata Tattoo Lab (which had recently opened in my neighboring town of Yucca Valley). I began working there in late 2004. By spring of 2008, I followed my father’s advice and bought out the previous owner Cameron Fuhrer. Soon to follow was the exciting double life of being a full time tattoo artist and business owner. In 2009, I decided to move the shop to a better location (one door over from our original location, but on the highway.) We have been there ever since, giving off the appearance of an art gallery, more so than of a tattoo shop. We do not have any flash (we are a custom only shop,) and enjoy showcasing art, being involved in the community and doing the best tattoos we can possibly do. There are four female tattoo artists (including myself,) at Strata Tattoo Lab, Anya Gladun (from Russia), Amanda Overmire (from Wooster, OH) and Tamara from 29 Palms. Our body piercer (and sole gentleman at the shop,) is Garret “Carrot” Conroy. We also have amazing guest artists from all over the world making appearances here and there at the shop.
STEAM When did you get your first tat and was it a secret from mom and dad?
JAY’E I got my first tattoo roughly after my 18th birthday in 2001. It was the album cover artwork from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (still to this day, one of my favorite albums and bands!!) I got it at Electra Art in Corpus, and it was a great first tattoo experience! I wish I could remember the name of the gentleman who did it for me, but he did an amazing job, and even stayed late (since I wasn’t aware that good tattoo etiquette means not showing up right before closing, wanting a fairly decent sized piece.) Many people get a band tattoo as their first piece and regret it, but not me!! I didn’t keep it a secret from my parents, but if I recall correctly they were neither surprised nor stoked about the matter. I got the ole’ “cool, as long as that’s the only one,” speech. Ha! So much for that.
STEAM There’s no hiding the fact that you are from Corpus and pretty darn smart, graduating at 16, so what High school did you go to? Also I know your were an English major in the beginning, did you go to a university in Texas and when you transferred schools to California did you stay with the same major?
JAY’E I was originally attending High School at Yucca Valley High, then moved to Corpus at the end of my Sophomore year. I attended King for the last few weeks of school, made some amazing friends but decided I was ready to move on. My friend at Texas A&M got me a meeting with the dean, who allowed me to attend (after a series of tests, and as long as I maintained straight A’s in all honors classes…I wasn’t old enough to take my GED, so that was our deal. It worked pretty well, but I was also a broke teenager, so I transferred to Del Mar after a while. I was an English Major, Art Minor, taking more art classes, when I moved back to California at College of the Desert. Education has always been a huge part of my life, coming from a long line of teachers on my mother’s side. Even now, I always offer a free (and large) tattoo to all students (18 yrs old +) who graduate with straight A’s and are bound for college. Over the years we have tutored students in various subjects (after school, at the shop...most of my artists (and current artists,) are all degree holding smarty pants bad asses!!) I also donate to many local schools, after school programs and sports teams.
STEAM We see that you do a lot of cool events at the shop. Do you have live bands? Do any of your celebrity clients come in to help?
JAY’E We have some small events throughout the year, but our biggest event is our annual Halloween party “Strata Tattoo Lab’s Hellfest.” We missed it this last year (which would have been our 10th year holding the event.) We have had some amazing local and not so local bands attend. From Trivium, to Wayne Static…even a short appearance from Alice Cooper! Several bands have been there from the beginning, such as Arbitrator (now known as Galaxy Crusher,) and Spankshaft! We have a great music scene out here, and these amazing bands have always made Hellfest an amazing event. This year we have to find a new location for it, being that it has taken on a new life the last few years (horror shows, three stages, burlesque show, haunted maze etc.,) …it has truly outgrown our tiny parking lot. This is all due to my amazing event coordinator and friend Randy Reynolds. This guy REALLY knows how to throw a party!!
STEAM How many conventions do you do a year and what awards have you won?
JAY’E For a long time I was doing about one convention a month…that got super overwhelming for me a while after buying the shop. I keep it simple now…one or two international conventions a year. My favorite by far is the Expo de Guadalajara!!! As for awards, I don’t know, they’re in boxes somewhere in my garage. I really don’t even compete anymore, I just go to have a good time, make new friends and ogle all the amazing talent that attends! I’m not in this occupation for any kind of recognition, I just like making art, meeting awesome people, traveling and having fun working with an insanely kind and talented crew while I do it.
STEAM A lot of pictures of you are mirror images and you have a mirror image tattoo on your chest. Can you explain the double / mirror image? What’s the meaning behind it? Are you a Gemini?
JAY’E I’m seriously addicted to my mirror photo app. That’s it, it’s that simple haha. I’m an Aquarius….but I’m currently crushing on a Gemini, if that counts for anything! As for my chest piece (tattooed by one of my artists Anya Gladun,) the original artwork is from one of my favorite painters Audrey Kawasaki. I had a print of that painting on my wall for about two years before I finally made the plunge and got it as my chest piece. I couldn’t love it more!!
STEAM We think the idea covering scars with tattoo is very creative. Is this a common practice?
JAY’E I absolutely LOVE working with scars. Every client’s scars are different from the last, so techniques vary. Scars from burns, for example can be thin, or very puffy. The more puffy and texturized they are, the harder they are to tattoo. Sometimes, you can just graze the surface, rebreaking the skin, and it will regenerate as normal healthy skin. Sometimes, it can just create more scar tissue. Scars should be at least a year old, and not have any pink, or healing skin left. This kind of tattooing is a huge part of my love for tattooing in general. Don’t get me wrong, I love making pretty pictures, sleeves, back pieces, chest piece etc.….but working with scars usually comes with a deep emotional reason behind getting the work. Whether their scar was from an accident, or surgery (I work on a lot of double mastectomy clients,) covering a scar like that has a real healing power to it. Tattooing has always carried an element of “healing” for many people. Not just from the endorphins and adrenalin that run through your body while getting the tattoo, but the emotional outcome of erasing a bad memory, or highlighting a great one.
STEAM Celebrities – can you say who you’ve tattooed and what you’ve done on them?
JAY’E I am very private with my celebrity clients, but I have had the honor of working on many rock stars, and actors. J
STEAM Can you tell us about tattooing Wayne Static? I saw that you tattooed his hand prints with his ashes on Tera Wray Static. Can you tell me about that? Techie question! When you tattoo using someone’s ashes (mom, dad, loving pet, whoever) what happens to the ashes – do they get absorbed in the body or do they just stay in that one place for life like the ink?
JAY'E I befriended Wayne and Tera Static roughly seven years ago. I had met them once off-roading (what everyone does out here in the desert,) but really got to know them when they started swinging by the shop, and eventually came in to get tattooed by me. The first time I tattooed them, I did the one thing that I never do on anyone – each other’s names. I always advice against this, for many reasons but this was one exception that I made and I’m glad I did. Wayne and Tera were very sweet, very generous and amazing friends and clients. Wayne will be missed greatly, and Tera is so strong and really handling everything the best way she can. I couldn’t be more proud of her. Since Wayne’s passing, we have been spending quite a bit of time together, and have really become good friends. The other day she passed some of Wayne’s equipment onto me, which was really awesome and super sweet of her. A little while ago, I started the first (of many) memorial pieces for Wayne on Tera. Before having Wayne cremated, Tera got his handprints done. I took his ashes, filtered out the bone fragments, and dissolved them into some black ink (Tera’s special bottle, just for her.) As for how the ashes stay on the skin it has been argued that the ashes can dissolve into the skin, separating from the ink, but either way, it’s the meaning behind it that counts. I then tattooed his handprints on her sides, placed right where he would always hold her. It was a very emotional and humbling experience. Up next for her, is a back piece and sleeve (for Wayne,) featuring artwork from the Wayne Static Facebook page fan art contest that was held in December.
STEAM What are your plans for the future? Does it involve that awesome Fender you just got?
JAY'E I keep my plans pretty open for the future. I try to travel as much as possible and see the world. I’m not married, and my dogs are my only kids, so I try to leave my options open. My future will definitely involve my sweet new Tellie, via my AWESOME dad over Christmas. Really, I have the greatest Dad ever. I hope to be a 10th of the musician that he is someday! If you get the chance, check out Corpus Christie’s local genius The Walter Midi Band, my dad will be the one shredding guitar! As for playing music on my end, I’ve always been the jack of all trades and master of none. I played Clarinet, and bass clarinet for nine years growing up – (Marching band, symphonic band, jazz band and winter drumline.) I began playing piano at a young age, and guitar when I was 12. These days I predominantly play guitar, mandolin, and ukulele…little bit of keys, and I’m currently learning the accordion. I’m always working weekends, so playing with a band hasn’t been a thing for me for many years now. I mostly just jam with friends, and rarely show up at an open mic now and again.
STEAM When you’re on vacation – do you still do work? Like when you come to Corpus Christi do you take appointments? By the way, I’m a chicken so this is just a question.
JAY'E I’m technically on vacation right now; does this interview count as work? Haha. Till about a year ago, I would always work wherever I traveled; Texas, New Jersey, Kansas, New York, all over Mexico, all over everywhere, really. Tattooing has taken me to some really beautiful places around the world, and introduced me to so many wonderful new friends! …Then I discovered what a real vacation is. Now I leave my equipment home half the time and really try to enjoy life, adventure and traveling everywhere I can.
In case you’re still wondering, “Pigments implanted beneath the growing layer are in the dermis or supporting layer of the skin and are not removed by the natural process of skin turnover. The body recognizes pigment granules as foreign material and there are cells whose function is to remove such material by engulfing them and transporting it to the lymph glands. These cells are unable to engulf pigment granules every certain size and, therefore, the body seem to surround them at their microscopic level by a thin layer of fibrous or scar tissue. And they become permanently trapped in the dermis.”- (source: )