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The best, worst and memorable tattoos from the artists themselves

Gaby Velasquez
Tattoo artist Mitchell Dean details new ink for a patron, three television sets stacked on top of each other.

The popularity of television shows such as “Miami Ink,” “Inked” and “Ink Master” brought tattooing into the mainstream media. They have made tattoos less taboo and more recognized as a true art form. El Paso has seen a boom in tattoo studios in recent years, but becoming a legitimate tattoo artist is still not something that is easy to do.

Former UTEP student Brian Stephens is an artist at Dapper Ink Tattoo and a former contestant on “Ink Master.” He says that becoming a tattoo artist is more than just having the ability to draw.

“I started out cleaning and mopping, setting everybody up, bringing them food, taking them out, being their designated driver—everything. We did that for about a year and a couple of months,” Stephens said.

After that period of time, Stephens said that he was allowed to start tattooing his friends who volunteered.

“The dumbest friends I had,” said Stephens with a smile.

Mitchell Dean, a tattoo artist at Golden Goose Tattoo, said that he paid his dues by sweeping floors and practicing on pigskin and even himself.

“But, it’s really hard to cry and tattoo at the same time so, I couldn’t really finish those,” Dean said.

The owner of West Texas Tattoo, Eric Ward, is a 25-year veteran of tattooing and said that the first few years of tattooing are a constant learning process.

“I lost (the nerves) maybe a year or two into it,” said Ward. “Until I was comfortable, it was probably 15 years into it. But even now, I still feel like I need to learn. I’m still not comfortable with my stuff at all, there’s just so much to learn. You’ve got to keep growing and growing.”

In some states, the apprenticeship in a tattoo studio is an actual certifiable necessity for a young tattoo artist.

In Texas, it is more of a requirement demanded of want-to-be young tattoo artists by seasoned tattoo artists. There are, however, some requirements by the state in order to protect citizens who decide to get tattooed.

“You have to get a bloodborne pathogens certificate, and that’s saying that you know all about pathogens and diseases and how to keep everything clean,” said Stephens. “Once you get that, then you have to pay an annual fee to the city and state to be licensed as a tattoo artist. At that point, they check your studio and everything.”

For people who tattoo every day of their lives, one would think that these three have seen it all. Tattoos are often used as memorials for people to remember lost loved ones for the rest of their life. So, what tattoos have meant the most to these three cynical tattoo artists?

“I’ve done hundreds of (memorial tattoos),” Ward said. “Anything memorial that’s dedicated to a family member I think is pretty deep.”

Stephens remembers a tattoo he recently did of a silhouette of a man and a daughter fishing at a lake with a sunset. 

“That was pretty meaningful because her father had passed away and that was one thing that they had to relate to each other,” said Stephens. “Those sentimental tattoos. That’s rough.”

For Dean, the most meaningful tattoos are memorial pieces.

“Someone’s dead parent, son, dog, stuff like that has a lot more meaning,” Dean said.

On the flip side are the tattoos that the artists see day after day that they may have gotten tired of doing at this point. These responses came a lot quicker than when thinking about their most memorable tattoos.

“Dreamcatchers, infinity signs, feathers breaking off into birds, anchors, roman numerals,” said Dean with a grimace. “I can’t stand doing tribals. I’m ready for that one just to die out.”

Stephens laughingly said he doesn’t hate doing anything because it pays his bills.

“I love eating and (driving) my car, but the tribals and the armbands, it’s done,” said Stephens.

Ward said his least favorite tattoos are the Pinterest trends.

“The infinity symbols, all that good stuff, the birds flying away—that’s like super overdone,” said Ward. “But, if that’s what they really want, who am I to talk them out of it? As long as I know it’s going to hold up well and look good over time, then I’ll do it.”

As tattoos—and tattoo television shows—become more popular, the corps of artists and customer base continues to grow. Apart from going with an original tattoo, Dean has one key piece of advice when picking out a tattoo artist for the first time.

“You should already have a style in mind for how you want it to look. This way, when looking through an artist’s work, you can see if he does the style you’re looking for,” Dean said. “Always check out the shop in person. This way you can feel the overall vibe of the shop and meet the artist as well. Listen to the advice the artist gives you, they will tell you if your idea will work as a tattoo or not and will give you advice to help you get the best tattoo. Don’t worry about price, cheap doesn’t mean good. Tattoos are permanent. Thirty dollars shouldn’t be the difference between a good tattoo you’ll love and a crap tattoo you’ll later fix or cover-up.”

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About the Contributors
Jason Green, Contributor
Gaby Velasquez, Photo editor
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The best, worst and memorable tattoos from the artists themselves