I sat in the chair in front of the enormous desk holding the contract in my hands. Across from me, hands folded in front of him, sat the man in the suit and the tie with the Windsor knot that had handed me the contract.
I had just read article 15, which stated to wit; any and all work that I did over the next 15 years belonged to the greeting card company that was wanting to hire me as an artist. I looked at the man and thought how ridiculous his blue and red striped tie looked against the dark green of his suit. His eye glasses reflected the light, he looked like a Christmas tree with a sparkling tree topper.
The date was January 5th 1976 and I had just graduated midterm from my high school. I was taking college art classes and was not really sure what direction I wanted to go in life. The one thing I was sure of and the one thing I had always been sure of ever since I was a young child was that I would be an artist. Nothing else in the world interested me more than art. To spend my life creating art was my idea of a life well spent.
I laid the contract on the man’s desk and set back in my chair. He studied me and I studied him. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. What I thought was, “How did you get my portfolio?” I suspected that I knew how he had got my portfolio. My well-meaning mother, whose dream it was for me go to work for this well-known and well-respected greeting card company had probably sent it to them. That is what I wanted to ask the living Christmas decoration sitting across from me but what I said was, “Let me get this straight, any and all work I do over the next 15 years belongs exclusively to your company. So does that mean that if I paint a mural and hang it over my fireplace that you can come into my home and take that painting?”
He stammered, “Well technically…” I cut him off, “This is a simple yes or no question yes you can, no you can’t.” The human Christmas tree shook off some loose needles, cleared its throat and said, “Well theoretically…” I cut him off with a wave of my hand as I stood up, “Well theoretically”, I said turning towards the door, “I’m going to have to think about it.” Mr. Xmas jumped to his feet. “We are really interested in signing you; the contract will be here when you are ready to sign.” He pointed at his desk indicating the stack of neatly typed papers that lay upon it.
Over the years I have thought about that contract laying on his desk and I have wondered to myself; I wonder how dusty that contract is? Because I knew when I stepped out that door and it closed behind me that I would never be back.
I was 19 years old at the time and as I rode down in the glass enshrouded elevator all I could think to myself was if I had signed that contract I would be an old man of 34 years old by the time it expired. Now there are some people that would say I was crazy for not signing on with the greeting card company, I mean after all with the progressive salary raises that the contract offered by the time it expired in 1989 I would be pulling down $50,000 a year, not to mention accumulated bonus’, benefits and a fat pension package. At that time that was a chunk of cash, even in this day and age it is nothing to sneeze at, yet to me it wasn’t enough to sign my soul away. There is never enough money for that.
As I walked out of the large center that held the offices that I would never be returning to the chill wind sent a shiver up my spine. I stood and let the sunshine try to warm my face as I wondered; is it the wind that makes me cold or is it the thought of what I just turned down that leaves me chilled. There was one thing I knew for sure I wasn’t in a big hurry to return home. My mother’s dream for me had always been for me to go to work for that particular card company but it wasn’t my dream. No I would have to return home and tell my mother that her hopes, plans and aspirations for me were not the hopes, plans and aspirations I had for myself.
As I drove down Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri I looked to my right and my left for some distraction, for something that would allow me to kill some time so that I could delay the inevitable scene that would occur when I told my mother what I had decided. That is when I saw it, the tattoo parlor, I turned the corner and pulled into the parking lot behind the building.
I had never been inside a tattoo parlor, the thought of going into a tattoo parlor had never even crossed my mind let alone the thought of getting a tattoo. On this day my only thought was; let’s go in and check this out and see if it’s just like it is on TV and in the movies. Besides I was looking for a way to kill time and this was as good a way as any.
As I walked into the building the smell of alcohol, soap and cigarette smoke assailed my nostrils. The walls were filled with a mirade of cartoonish looking designs on large cardboard sheets; I would later learn that these were called “Flash”. The only sound inside the building was the music playing from an old radio up on a shelf and ithe nsisted buzzing of the tattoo gun.
In this time and place the terms “parlor” and “gun” were appropriate; that would not be the case in the future when those terms would become archaic and be replaced with studio and machine. But the tattooist who sat behind the counter in this “parlor” tattooing the arm of a man with his “gun” was not only appropriate but descriptive of the atmosphere of this place and the individual whose imposing presence ruled this domain.
I swallowed hard, cleared my throat and then in a voice meeker than I had intended said, “Excuse me sir, do you mind if I watch you work?” Without looking up from the bicep that he was tattooing a peacock onto the tattooist barked out, “Yeah, but don’t talk to me.”
I will not bore you with the details of my long time standing there watching this man tattoo. To go into detail about what he tattooed that day who he tattoo that day and where those tattoos were placed on the numerous bodies that walked in and out of his shop would do nothing but put you to sleep and cause you to stop reading this narrative. What is important to note was that 14 hours after I had first asked Gene if I could watch him and he locked those doors to his parlor for the day I was still there.
“So”, he asked as he locked the door, “when are you going to start learning how to tattoo?” I laughed, “What makes you think I want to learn how to tattoo?” Gene eyed me up and down and shook his head. “Boy let me tell you something I have been tattooing for twenty eight years, I am third generation, my daddy tattooed before me and his daddy before him. Nobody, and I mean nobody stands for 14 hours straight with their mouth closed watching me work that doesn’t want to learn.”
I was a 19 year old kid who thought he had all the answers, who believed that no one knew what was going on in this whole wide world any better than he did. I looked at Gene smirked and said, “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Yeah right”, he said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The drive home between Kansas City and St Joe that morning seem to take longer than usual. My mind was working overtime weighing, balancing, determining, and desperately trying to see into my murky, crowded and unknown future.
Around 4 a.m. I walked in the door of the apartment that I shared with my mother and sister. My mother sat on the couch waiting for me a stack of magazines and newspapers next to her. She jumped up as I entered the apartment and almost, no doubt in her excitement, screamed, “Where have you been? Where have you been? What did they say? When do you start work for them?”
I took off my coat and dropped it over the back of the chair by my mom’s priced piano. I turned around and faced her; you could not miss the look of excited anticipation on her face. I cleared my throat and said, “I’m not going to work for them.” The look of excitement left my mother’s face and was instantly replaced by a look of confusion. “What do you mean you’re not going to work for them? If you don’t go to work for the greeting card company what on earth are you going to do?” Mustering up as much of my manly nineteen-year-old fortitude as I possibly could I looked my mother dead in the eye and said, “I’m going to be a tattoo artist.” She promptly screamed and fainted.
My grandmother took it a little better then my mother did. When I phoned her to give her the news and I told her what I had decided. There was a slight pause on the other end of the line, I heard her exhale and then she asked, “Will it make you happy?” I said, “Yes ma’am it will.” My grandmother said, “Well then that is all that matters.”
In my 40 year career I have had many milestones, many accomplishments and many let downs. I have always chosen to not dwell up on the downside of my career but rather on the upside and what I have been able to give back to a profession that has given so much to me.
I have three associates degrees; forestry / wildlife management, technical illustration / mechanical drafting and psychiatric technician.
I have had the first tattoo studios in St Joseph Missouri, Abilene Texas, Midland Texas, San Angelo Texas, Baxter Springs, Kansas, Iola Kansas and Independence, Kansas. I also had the first legally registered tattoo studio in the state of Oklahoma and from 1995 – 2010 I was the officially recognized tattoo authority for the Osage Nation.
I was the first person in the state of Kansas to actually go to school to learn how to pierce and learn how to do microdermal implantation, what is commonly referred to as cosmetic tattooing.
At one time it was believed that you couldn’t tattoo over scars. In 1977 I was allowed the opportunity to practice scar cover up on a gentleman that had been burnt over three quarters of his body. I spent a year working on his arm and taking notes. I developed a procedure that worked for covering up his heavy scar tissue with tattoos and I wrote a paper on it in 1978. Tattoo artists that cover up scar tissue today may not know where the technique came from that they have learned to do but that’s okay. Because it gives me satisfaction to know how many people have been helped because of work I did in 1977 and 1978. Recently I heard of a tattoo artist in Ohio who is donating their time to cover the scars of victims of severe trauma. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to hear of other people in my profession giving back with something that I helped develop.
I promoted, organized and sponsored the very first ever tattoo convention in Kansas which ran from 1993 – 1997.
I have been a senior zookeeper, a soldier, a photographer, a truck driver, a bar owner and a school bus driver. I have driven ice cream vans, been an art teacher, actor and common laborer.
Together with my wife I founded Artist Alley and American Ghost Riders (a paranormal research group). I am an artist, an author, an illustrator, and a psychic.
I ran for the Kansas State House of Representatives in 2006 and I am the creator and executive director of Topcon Geek Expo.
I have donated of my time, my energies, my talents and my self to numerous civic and charitable causes. I was the Chairman of the Baxter Springs Joint Historic and Beautification Committee. I have sat on the board of Directors of the Baxter Springs Chamber of Commerce, Southeast Kansas Tourism Region and 4 State Tattoo Association. I was an Explorer Scout Adviser and a Children’s Art Teacher. And through all these things I have done and been I continued my Body Art career practicing my love of Tattooing and Piercing.
In 2008 I became one of only 27 people worldwide that had taken and passed the Alliance of Professional Tattooist Tattoo Mastery test.
In 2009 I was appointment to the Kansas Board of Cosmetology, by Governor Mark Brown, as the representative for the body art industry in the state of Kansas.
I have one of the first websites ever on the Internet dedicated to tattooing and piercing I have owned the www.ubtat2d.com domain since 1994. I am a resident expert on body art on www.allexperts.com and I have written numerous articles about tattooing and piercing as well as doing the lecture circuit disgussing body art safety and ethics.
From 1988 through 2010 I owned several different state of the art mobile facilities and worked the show and event circuit during the summer months. Arizona to Kansas to Oklahoma to Missouri to Ohio I traveled, I tattooed, I pierced. South Dakota to Arkansas to New Hampshire to Iowa to Texas I did the miles and I did the art. Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Nebraska to Wyoming to New Mexico I left no road untraveled and no client unmarked.
I have given countless television and radio interviews as well as appearing and starring in movies and television documentaries about tattooing, piercing and the paranormal. I even share top billing in a movie with Peter Fonda, Jim Dandy, Greg Alman, Willie Davidson, Slaughter and Paul Revere.
I have won numerous awards and accolades for the tattoo art I create both nationally and internationally.
I have artwork in the Smithsonian institution as well as in museums in Kansas and elsewhere in the United States. I am even part of an exhibit about American art that is featured in a traveling Museum in Australia.
My art and the career that I chose to follow have put food on my family’s table, clothes on my children’s back and a roof over my family’s head.
I am an old school tattoo artist and proud of that fact; I make no apologies to anyone for the art I create nor the style of that art. I do not compare my work to others and I do not appreciate it when others compare their work to mine.
All artists no matter what medium they work in have their style. You cannot compare Van Gogh to Renoir, you cannot compare Michelangelo to Rodan and you can not compare Sailor Jerry to The Gypsy. All have their styles, all have their niche and all have they’re separate following. The type of art I like is not the type of art that another person may like and vice a versa.
I have been practicing my tattoo art 40 years now and truthfully I am tired. It is not that I am tired of tattooing because I’m not. It’s not that I am tired of creating art because I am NOT. What I am tired of is ignorance; ignorance that comes from rudeness and the rudeness that comes from disrespect.
For 40 years I have dealt with the truly ignorant, the truly Rude, the truly disrespectful and and with the widespread popularity of social networking the trolls have become even more ignorant, rude and disrespectful and I am just tired of it.
It is an unfortunate statement on our society that you cannot educate those who refuse to be educated. I know, I have tried to educate people but while some learn others close their eyes, they close their ears, and they close their minds. Those are barriers that you just cannot pass through and I am done trying.
That is why I have decided to pass on the torch to younger and more enthusiastic members of the body art community.
In the near future I will be retiring from body art. I will go back to where it all started; I will lay down my tattoo machine and pick up a paintbrush and my art will have come full circle. So it is with life everything comes full circle and there is no beginning and there is no end.
In my career I have apprenticed 18 people; out of those 18 people 2 proved their worth. It is to those two that I will leave my legacy my hopes and my dreams to. My final chapter will never be wrote because within all those I have taught, touched and loved in my life and in my career my story will continue.
They will take all that they have learned from me and they will expand it, they will improve upon it and pass it on to those who want ti learn and will further expand on and improve the world of Body Art just like I did with what I learned. I will live on from generation to generation and the ethics and passion I contributed to Tattooing and Piercing will live on also. Because just as I drank from the spring that formed me so too did they drink from the spring that formed them and those who come after them will drink from their spring.
So when that day comes that I do announce my retirement do not mourn for what has ended rather rejoice with me in what has begun. Because baby you ain’t seen nothing yet.
-The GYPSY: Master Tattoo Artist-