(Interview by Dawn Cooke)
Dawn Cooke: What was your first tattoo?
Debra Yarian: I wish I could remember the name. It was a name on an older Mexican man’s hands, at a flea market in Phoenix, Arizona. We were on our way back to California and he had a step van there that he had converted into a tattoo shop. At the time people would set up on the weekend and tattoo at this flea market. I mean, Peter’s Tattoos – who was Peter Poulos, a legitimate shop – would set up at the flea market too...
That was pretty common in that time.
There was a big greyhound dog track and a big flea market there. I bought a pair of cowboy boots and did my first tattoo. (Laughs)
Is that what you bought with the money you made from your first tattoo?
My first cowboy boots, yeah. I think they were like $7 dollars. I’m from Brooklyn so being out west was a totally new experience. But the man knew it was my first tattoo so I didn’t feel like I was…
And he was just fine with that?
He was just fine with that. Probably because I wasn’t dressed. No, I’m kidding! (Laughs)
Topless tattoos by Deb?
You know what was funny? I think the first tattoo I had ever seen being done was right before I did my tattoo. It was a girl who had a fishnet top on and it just was so strange to me – it was the first tattoo I had seen.
So the first tattoo you saw being done was right before the one you did?
On a woman wearing a fishnet top.
I saw it being done on the girl as she got tattooed – not by me, but by the nameless one – and I thought, oh, this is so strange. Then this next customer that came in was this older Mexican man. I say he was an older Mexican man because his English was poor and I wish I could remember the name. I wish it was like “Esperanza” or something, but it wasn’t. It was like Jilvia. (Laughs) I don’t remember how much I got paid but I know I got boots for seven bucks. That was the first tattoo I did.
But I will say, coming from New York – because a lot of people don’t know what tattooing was like then – tattooing was illegal in New York City then. So when I started tattooing it was halfway through the ban. I think the ban was ’61 to ’97. So when I turned 18 none of my friends were getting tattooed because there were no tattoo shops.
Deb can be found at Eagle River Tattoo in Eagle River, Alaska.