By Omar Edmison
In this age of websites, magazines, blogs, TV shows and a vast myriad of other such social networking venues the tattoo world has shrunk. There are lots of super-talented kids out there tattooing who are doing mind-bending work that everyone knows about. Their names are talked about in excited conversations in tattoo shops springing up on every corner in every town with a population larger than 200 all over the world. Some are even being spoken in hushed reverent tones as the new "legends" of tattooing. There are more people tattooing now than ever before. They are more widely recognized than ever before the age of the "tattoo celebrity" is upon us. The possibilities are seemingly endless for a young up-and-coming kid with talent and ambition...
With that being said, who am I to chime in? Will my voice be heard among the din of the clanging and banging, the buzzing of uncountable tattoo machines the world over? Who Am I? My name is Omar Edmison, I have been tattooing for 20-plus years. I came up in real (dis)honest street shops under the "legends" that only the really initiated have ever heard of. I use the term legends loosely because that was never their intent. These men were just tattooers... real professional tattoo men, they were not in it for the glory or the awards.
There was no TV deal in their future unless it was trading a color television for a tattoo. I hope to go into the histories of some of these men who I was blessed to know and work with over the years in future writing, but for now I figured I would give you a bit of understanding of who I am and why it is that I do what do and how I do it.
When I started tattooing it was different. How many times have we heard that Omar? Plenty I am sure, but bear with me here. I am sure I will throw in a "back in my day," as well as a "kids these days" I will even mean them from time to time. It's all part of getting to be the "older" generation of tattooer I suppose. My mentors and heroes will be laughing at me because to them I am now and for all time -the kid. Just a youngster still damp behind the ears. That is still how I see myself, but the years and miles tell a different story. Compared to them I still am "THE KID," I love that. Seems like they keep getting older but I stay the same age. I am the same way when I meet a young tattooist.
My uncle Bob had served his country for 37 years in the US Navy, he had traveled the globe many times over and had collected seven tattoos in his journey. As a small kid I was blown away by them. They were all fairly large especially for the time period. Most of his arms were covered in tattoos. They ranged from a panther (a cover up of a Death Before Dishonor dagger he got on drunken shore leave) to a large geisha angel that covered his forearm (that he had gotten in Japan when he was stationed there). I spent many a summer afternoon staring at these magical markings as the danced on my uncle's skin while he sighted in a rifle, casted a fishing pole or wrenched on an old car. I knew I wanted them, I just didn't have the first clue as to how you did that.
For a poor kid who grew up with nothing, tattoos were appealing. Just the mark, the fact that it never went away. It couldn't be stolen, pawned, traded or given away, which was stability in a very unstable world. Those tattoos were talismans for me to keep myself grounded and focussed. They were also war-paint. They kept the people I was afraid of more scared of me than I was of them. The tattoo marks kept me safe, they showed me that I could hold onto something (so long as it was etched into my skin) that everything was going to be okay. I started putting crude tattoos on my buddies in junior high and high school. I grew up in a small town where if you didn't have a nickname and a bunch of shitty tattoos it meant no one liked you or at least that is what we believed anyway. I knew that the marks weren't good... I knew they didn't look like the ones I had seen on the arms of the people in my life with real tattoos. So I stopped hacking up my friends for fun and profit for a time.
Back when I first started getting tattooed you were old enough to get tattooed when you had the balls enough to walk in and hand the guy your money. Once I started I became every tattooers dream. A kid who didn't have the ability to not go get new tattoos, who was out hustling as hard as he could to get some dough just to spend on tattoos. I was crazy about it. I would walk in and look at the wall of flash point and say, "I want that one."
They would reply ,"Which one?"
"I don't know I have $60 bucks, which one can I get?" You could get a lot for $60 bucks back then.
It was there, in those shops, that I started falling in love with the whole process. The larger than life guys who ruled the world behind the counter. Again not to beat a dead horse but I grew up a poor kid and the sight of a bunch of really well dressed guys with gold and diamonds on all their fingers, a pocket full of money, a bitchin' low-rider or motorcycle parked out on the curb, a pretty girl bringing them lunch everyday was VERY appealing. I didn't want to be an artist, I wanted to be one of those guys.
I'll let y'all in on a little secret... I still just want to be one of those guys. So I set about to dig myself in like a tick, to become indispensable, someone they needed to have around or at least what I perceived as a need. In all honestly, it was voluntary slave-labor. I swept up, I ran for coffee, I cleaned the bathroom whatever it took. Until one day I was accepted by them, brought into the fold, so to speak.
I didn't begin tattooing because I wanted to set the art world on fire, I didn't walk into a tattoo shop in hopes of finding a way to dazzle the world with the pretty pictures I created. Heck, I couldn't draw a stick figure with a nickel and a ruler back then. Some could say my drawing hasn't improved all that much over the years to be honest. I don't honestly know what I was looking for when I walked into that tattoo shop all those years ago. I can state unequivocally that what I found there was far greater than anything I had hoped for. What I found there was magic. Those shops had a magic to them. I didn't start tattooing to be an artist, I started tattooing because I wanted to be magic. I just wanted to be one of those guys behind the counter.
I learned what I could from everyone I have ever worked with. Sometimes the lesson is what not to do. Sometimes the lesson is learned the hard way. I began to travel with it. Bouncing around from shop to shop, state to state. Following the money, any place you heard through the grapevine was jumping off, that's where you went. I did it partially because that is how I make a living. I am a professional tattoo man, that means far more than JUST doing tattoos for money. Part of it is, however, that I do tattoos for money, so following the road, chasing the money is part of the game.
I should say "was" part of the game, there are lots of people who do very pretty pictures sitting in their home towns in big fancy tattoo shops, art galleries, fusion spaces, whatever it is they call them these days. These are guys and gals who have never left, never gone anywhere, never tasted the road. Bully for them, that just isn't how I came-up.
A big part of the travel was learning. We didn't have TV shows or YouTube videos telling us how to do things. We had the road and trying to impress the old guy who owned the shop enough to say we could cover the 12-6 shift Sunday thru Wednesday. We had the other travelers on the road trying to do the same thing. We had our heroes too, they didn't have TV shows or magazine articles or websites or awards, they had their reputations, they had their word and they had their shops. Some of these guys (who for the most part) are forgotten to the history books of tattooing. It was those guys who brought me in, brought me up, taught me to be a tattoo man. If there is any interest in it I would be willing to share some of their insight. It was pleases me to know their names will not fade away, just like their tattoos didn't.
There were magazines back then... Easyriders did a tattoo issue once a year, Outlaw Biker did something too. Those early publications gave me my first "celebrity" tattooers to look up to. Guys I STILL look up to. Guys like Lyle Tuttle, Jonathan Shaw, Jack Rudy, Randy Adams, Roy Boy Cooper, Famous Leg Greg, Ace, Ernie Gosnell, Mark Mahoney, Freddy Negrete, Gill "The Drill" Montie, Doc Dog and many more.
My lil' brother reminded me of something I said while looking at one of those early magazines. I showed him a picture and said, "That is Gill Montie, I am going to be good enough to work for him someday." He reminded me this after I had not only started working for Gill but was managing Tattoomania in Beaumont, Texas. You see, I understand the need to have heroes to have those people to look up to. I understand why my apprentice comes in excited asking me if I have watched the new Tattoo Age [Vice Magazine] or the Gypsy Gentleman [Marcus Kuhn's traveling documentary project] or any of the other Internet or television-based shows that are available these days.
I haven't seen them by the way. Not because I don't think they are important or worth my time but because they aren't showing my heroes they aren't telling the tales I want to hear. I imagine I will watch Freddie Corbin's Tattoo Age soon. He was among the younger crowd that I got to look up to. Freddie, Marcus, Aaron Cain, Dave Waugh, Little Vinnie, Scott Harrison, those were the young Turks who I was chasing.
I see a lot of very pretty pictures at conventions or the occasional tattoo magazine that gets dropped off at the shop. I see a lot of very talented people with awards covering the walls of their studio/gallery/art fusion spaces. That is awesome, I am stoked for them. That part of tattooing has never much appealed to me in all honestly. My awards are things you can't hang on walls or put in a case. I got to do a tiger tattoo at Roy Boy's shop on Broadway in Gary, Indiana at his station with his machines... I have had Diamond Glenn sleep on my couch... I did Fat Cat's last tattoo before the cancer took him... I have played dice with Doc Dog in several states and get to call him more than a friend... I managed Tattoomania and had Gill look at a skull tattoo I was doing and say, "You're paying too close attention." I have laughed and joked with Randy Adams in elevators... I have gotten to hang out in Lyle's garden... I get to hang out with Scott Harrison and get surly... I get to call Bobby Love my brother, and I have gotten to play my trade to the best of my ability for the last 20-plus years, providing a service to the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in one way or another. I have people who will not let their kids get tattooed by anyone but me. THOSE are my awards, my trophies...
Things are different now gentle reader, but very much the same. You see, when I started we didn't have the things the kids starting out have today, but we had our ways. We didn't have the Internet... We had the road. We didn't have television... We had working in a street shop until 7 a.m. We didn't have fortune unless it was a payday weekend. We didn't have fame... We had respect...
So who am I? Just a simple scab-vendor, your friendly neighborhood tattoo guy, Omar Edmison: Professional Tattoo Man.
(Omar Edmison is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Omar can be found at All American Tattoo in Salem, OR.)