By Sean Herman
I still remember the first time I ever saw CW Neese. He lived in Daphne, Alabama when I was a kid, and was a few years older than me. One day a few friends of mine and I went by my friend Jonah's house. At the time, a band his brother was in was having a practice, which for us being young kids getting into punk rock, it was a big deal to see. A skinny kid, with black tattoos all over him, and pad locks in his ears came out screaming like Jello Biafra. I remember being like, "That is awesome, that is what I wanna be one day." That was CW Neese...
Years later I had moved to Birmingham and started to get heavily tattooed. My friends here at home also started to get a few tattoos here and there, from CW. They would talk to him about me because I was getting so tattooed so fast, and he told them that he wanted to tattoo me.
I visited home once and they relayed the message, so I stopped by the shop he worked at. It's still so funny when I think about the first words we really ever spoke.
I walked in the shop, and I asked, "You CW?"
"Yea," he replied.
"I heard you want to tattoo me," I said.
"Sure," He replied.
He drew up an awesome poison girl, which is still one of my favorite tattoos to this day.
When I was finishing my apprenticeship I came down to Mobile to visit and he told me all about his apprentice, Pony (who is now one of my best friends and a huge influence on my tattooing). From there it was years again until I saw CW. I was down in Mobile visiting and some friends of mine where out at a restaurant... Out of no where I heard his epic radio voice, and anyone who knows CW knows that his voice precedes him. We talked for a minute, caught up, and went back to eating. On his way out he ran up to me with a fortune from a fortune cookie he had just gotten, it said, "A run in with an old friend will begin a life-long family." He handed it to me all excited and smiling, and I still have it to this day.
CW founded Royal Street in 2007, and I started doing guest spots at Royal Street not too long after it opened, and started working here about a year later. I was at a place in my life where I needed Royal Street, and am so thankful to this day I got to be here.
Anyone who has been around CW can tell you he has a way about him. He has a voice you would hear on radio, and he can be intense, and he will say things that have a way of changing your life. It's always the little things he adds, little words that end up being part of such larger ideas, and it's talking to him that helps remind me of my passion and love of tattooing. So, without further ado, here's how CW Neese got into tattooing, in his words...
CW Neese: "It was 1984, and I can remember it as clear as day. I was watching the `84 Olympics with my Mom and her man Joe. Joe was full-blooded Hawaiian, surfer, spoke pigeon, the whole nine-yards. He was pretty fuckin' cool to my six-year-old point of view. He had a sleeve that he had gotten in Hawaii back in the 70s. I would stare at that tattoo for hours, imagining what it took to get it, who did it, and when in time it was done. It was from that point forward I was completely in love with the magic of tattooing.
At the ripe old age of 14, I began looking for an apprenticeship. Needless to say, no one wants a 14-year-old hanging out in their shop. I can remember asking Electric Ed Ebole for an opportunity to learn tattooing from him, he told me I was too young. It was a bummer. I continued to try to find an apprenticeship from a skilled craftsman in the lower Alabama area with no luck at all. There weren't many tattoo shops here back then, not being able to get an apprenticeship, I began riding trains and continued drinking.
After some legal problems and health issues, I found myself back in Mobile. I was obligated to spend two years in Mobile, and I needed work. I found a job training piercers for a small, disappointing place. After the owner of that shop refused to pay me what we had agreed to, I went to work with this biker guy downtown. It was great, there were always a lot of motorcycles around, and those guys were very fun to work with, a bit scary at times, but I learned quite a bit about loyalty from the outlaw biker guys. Most everyone there went back to prison, and the apprentice went and opened his own shop.
I met my friends Monte and Jason Sexton in San Francisco. Monte needed another piercer at a shop in Tampa, and I told him if he could get me an apprenticeship in tattooing, I would happily help out on the piercing end. So I packed up and moved to Ybor City. One week after getting there my car had been broken into, and I saw a guy get shot a bunch of times across the street from the shop. It was a crazy place with crazy people. The boss was an old biker guy, as usual. I was able to work and learn tattooing from Dan Moore there, I miss that guy a lot.
After my time was up there, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama for a while. The boss there was trying to get me to train his wife how to pierce for free. That didn't work out well, unfortunately. Things went a little bit negative with most of the guys at that shop. I still have respect for most everyone I worked with at that shop though. The one guy that remained now owns the shop. He bought it from the old boss years ago. He and his lady had a baby recently, I'm happy things are going well for him. That's where Mr. Herman learned to tattoo.
I moved back to Mobile and started working with Old Tom. I worked there for years. It was great, busy street shop with plenty of tattooers, so we all had time to work on custom stuff and have fun. Old Tom showed me most of what I know about tattoo machines. It's true, if you can't build a machine from the ground up, you don't deserve to hold one.
I moved to Denver for a bit, over a year. I worked with my friend Walter there. I met him just stopping by his shop while I was in town visiting. He was so nice, he offered me a guest spot and I didn't leave for a long time. I learned so much there. Tattooing became like a magic or alchemy to me. A balance of love, and science. Walt is one of the coolest guys I've ever had the pleasure of working for. He was the first and only tattoo boss I had that didn't ride a Harley. I hear he is in Mexico nowadays.
I ended up in Mobile yet again, at Old Tom's shop. Shit got heavy there after a while. Tom dropped off and quit tattooing, sold the shop. I stayed on there for a while after Tom left. I organized a good rent situation for all the senior people there, and things were good, for a while. Many of the guys there weren't happy with the situation there after a few years. So I grabbed the opportunity to try to make what we all wanted from a shop.
Royal Street Tattoo opened in 2007. I begged, borrowed and stole to get this dream going. I love everyone there and have only the best for the collective in my heart. I know all the shops that I have worked at, and what I have had to deal with at those shops. I think that Royal Street is different. Sure, we have all the shit every shop deals with, but there is a lot of love and sharing going on that I haven't seen at other shops.
A lot of my ideas and interests have changed recently, I haven't been tattooing much lately. I am pursuing other art forms. I have no idea how Sean maintains the momentum that he does with all that he has going on. I have never understood... God damn him, God love him, he has accomplished more on his own in tattooing than I could ever hope to, or care to. Pete and his wife, then Pony and his wife just had babies, it's a crazy giant family now. I think it all lines up well, what more could we ask for? I am grateful for these people and these relationships that tattooing has provided. I owe everything forever for the honor. I hope that I can continue to live up to those old promises to the tattoo gods.
It is all so much bigger than the original idea now. It is so, so much bigger than any of its individual pieces. Always give more than you expect in return. It is home, it is legacy, it is slack, it is devotion, it is frustration, it is our Savior, it is a complete hassle, it is a collective dream manifest. A vehicle into the future I never imagined possible, with passengers, the family I have always wanted. Thank you everyone!"
(Sean Herman is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine.)
Sean and CW Neese can both be found at:
Royal Street Tattoo
Mobile, AL 36601
251 432 4772