Interview By Jojo Ackermann
Jojo Ackermann: I love pre-Internet how-to-make-it-work stories. It's putting the footwork in that makes you appreciate what you've got down the road.
Robert Atkinson: I was a totally different game, man. It really was. But it wasn't until after the L.A. earthquake in '94 that I moved down to Redondo Beach. I was painting houses with a friend to pay my rent and doing tattooing on the side. I really wanted to get into a shop and this friend of mine knew this guy (that had a lot of work from Kari Barba. He had a bodysuit of all these clowns and shit, remember him? He bought Melrose tattoo from Kari... He gave me my first real job tattooing.
I worked there with Stephanie Suhm. She had done a real apprenticeship with Kari. She taught me how to mix colors, make needles and make stencils. I hadn’t ever made a stenciled tattoo before that.
When I was at Melrose Tattoo I met Clay Decker. I met Dan Dringenberg there, back in '94. Then in '95 I got a big panel from Pote Seyler. Pote had tons of work from the Leu family... battle royal on the back, a Hardy design tattooed by Felix and Filip, rib panels from Alex Binnie, Eddie Deutsche had done huge snakes on his upper legs...
He started Body Electric on Melrose. He was Swiss and learned a lot from the Leus... No one was doing tattoos like he was in the early to mid 90s... not around here... Riley Baxter, Jesse Tuesday... Running Bear... that was Body Electric back then...
Pote did the big koi on my rib and did my upper arm. Corey Miller tattooed me in ‘93 before I was tattooing professionally. I had a girlfriend who had a bunch of work from him so she took me down there and introduced me to him. And he was always really cool. And I remember being intimidated by Corey too, because I thought, “Ahhh man, this guy's going to give me a hard time because I'm not tattooing professionally.” I was nervous about that, but he was cool as can be. He had unbelievable tattoos from Jack Rudy on his forearm.
Nice. It still looks great.
Yeah, it does. It's pretty fucking wild; it's almost 20 years old. I had never even stepped foot in Spotlight Tattoo because I was way too scared of Bob Roberts. Everybody had stories about him and especially being the wannabe tattooer that I was, I was way too intimidated to go down there, which is kind of funny, because I was at Bob’s house a few years ago, talking about art, smoking all his cigarettes and eating microwave tamales.
I remember the first time I ever met you and we hung out one night and it was brief, but it was at the National Convention in Tucson, Arizona outside the bar by the pool.
That was in 1996.
Yeah, and I remember hanging out around there for a little bit and everybody had a couple of drinks and it was getting pretty obnoxious out there and we had a pretty good time. And the next day I was just kind of trying to feel around and see who this dude, Robert Atkinson was, and I was checking out the work and found out you worked in Hollywood and then you fucking disappeared! You went to Europe. And you came back a totally different tattooer, man. What happened?
Well, if I back up maybe eight months before that, I had met Henning, and he was a friend of Stephanie Suhm, who I worked with at Melrose Tattoo. This is '95 I guess. Later on I wrote him that I'd always dreamed of going to Europe since I was a kid. The idea of going over there and tattooing was just out-of-this-world for me. So I wrote him a letter and it was four or five months later and about a week-and-a-half before that convention in Tucson that he came in the shop -this is before we were e-mailing or doing anything else. He just walked in and was like, “Hey man do you want to come to Europe? I'm inviting you and you can come in six weeks.”
So it was pretty fast, like, “Wow man, I've got to get a passport and I've got to figure all this shit out.” I was going open-ended. For me it was really exciting because here I was following my dream of going there and working with somebody that was really experienced and getting some knowledge. So he was real cool about me coming over. I went to Sweden and stayed there for a week, then I went down to Helsingør and it was total culture shock for me. I remember the first day in that shop when he was showing me the appointment book, and I was used to doing one or two tattoos a day, which for me, in Hollywood was busy. And being not booked, never booked. I'd have an appointment for tomorrow and hopefully somebody came in and got an appointment for the next day. I could really take my time and be really creative and artistic and all that shit -trying to figure it out. And since I had never served an apprenticeship like you -you came up with a lot more structured way of learning things than I did.
I was tattooing professionally for two years before I went there [Europe] and then two years on my own before then, which… Well it counts, but it wasn't under any sort of supervision. But when I got there, I remember thinking the first day, “Man; I'm just not going to be able to hack this. I'm not going to be able to keep up, I'm not experienced enough to be here.” And he was doing bodysuits on people all day, everyday. Sleeves, backs, fronts -big, thought out, super elaborate drawings. Things I wanted to do -I'd always dreamed of that stuff from the Tattootime books from Ed Hardy, which was pretty much the beginning for me...
(Robert Atkinson is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine Issue #30 and can be found at The Dolorosa Tattoo Company in Studio City ,CA.)
Click on TAM #30 to purchase your copy: