By Ben Shaw
I finally climbed from my car in front of the Lodge section of Colorado’s Keystone Resort and Spa after trying unsuccessfully to check into the spa section of the massive resort. The sound of running water enters my awareness, teasing, because with little to no lighting outside the lodge, I can only hear it. The whole place is quiet and sleepy, with nowhere to eat at 11pm, so I chose from a vending machine buffet offered in the reception area and then crawled into a queen size mountain of pillows in my room. It was a long day on the road...
Suddenly awakened by a beam of light burning through my eyelids, I stumbled to the window, drew back the blinds, and gasped, awestruck by the magnificent view. A vast mountain range saturated with lush, green trees and split with running streams. A pond sits center stage in front of me, between the well-constructed resort floor plan and the gorgeous landscape. I took an eight-hour pilgrimage to interview Gabe Ripley, and this looks like the Holy Land...
Gabe Ripley has spent the last 13-14 yrs. immersed in the tattoo industry, developing websites, planning events, and building tattoo studios. His Off the Map corporation has three major divisions: TattooNOW, a company that powers a network of over 150 tattoo websites; Off the Map, a trio of custom tattoo studios, one in western Massachusetts, one in Grants Pass, OR, and a third opening soon in Italy!; and finally the Paradise Tattoo Gathering, a revolutionary four-day tattoo event, which I found myself transported to on this day.
After a day of amazing education, ending with Gabe’s own “Building a Great Business” seminar, I finally got his undivided attention. Gabe is a BUSY man. Orchestrating such a beautiful convention/seminar/tattoo artist retreat took all his focus, so I carry a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity...
I found a quite room free from distraction and armed with my recorder, I took a deep breath, straightened in my chair, and began with...
B: Tattoo conventions today are all hustle-and-bustle, people moving and grooving, loud music and cramped spaces, poor lighting and poor seating. The Paradise Tattoo Gathering is on another plane from that game. How do you think this improved setting affects the tattooing process?
G: Well the event is specifically designed to remove as many distractions as possible, so that everyone can focus on learning and sharing. The setting facilitates artists bettering themselves and their art. By putting the tattoo convention in places that aren’t readily accessible, we pretty much weed out any of the jerks! It's a lot of effort for assholes, and if any make it they stick out like a sore thumb. But everyone else is making a pilgrimage of sorts, going out to the middle of nowhere to seek get to a large concentration of amazing talent all pushing in the same direction. It is a lot of pressure producing a show in such places, but I’m privileged to have the support of many of the worlds most amazing tattooers and industry. Everybody who makes it here can create their own fantastic experience him or herself. There are a lot of people that attend who say, “Wow, this was a life changing experience!” which is nice but also very intimidating because how are we supposed to make it better next year if we’ve changed your life this year? Due to the nature, caliber, and attitudes of the attending artists, I’ve learned to let everybody mix and just let it all happen. As we touched on in the seminar, we’re using the environment as a teacher, per my wife’s infant teaching techniques. We absolutely and purposefully use the environment to facilitate the experience.
Off the Map has been greatly successful, with over 40 guest artists per year pouring in to be a part of the movement. Now you’re opening Off the Map Italy, which will take a few years of hard work to ensure that it is a success. Excited to go international?
Absolutely. It’s been a long time coming. Because we have so many guest artists come through and the international nature of the Internet promtion we are on top off, it’s almost a natural progression. I mean, it’s obviously kind of freaky opening a tattoo shop in another country where you don’t know the language, but we are partnering with Alex de Pase in this so wer'e not even close to starting from scratch. Alex is an amazing tattooer, an accomplished businessman, and a really solid individual. In some ways it seems like a massive, big, crazy step, but there are things in place that will stop it from being a screw up. While it is in a distant land, the artists who guest there will be a lot of the same artists that helped our other two locations get up to speed. So it’s a new location, but the same 50-60 guest artists. Because we we're very deliberate on the artists who helped us set the bar in Easthampton and Grants Pass, this will set the stage for the next location. It seems like it should work out, but who knows how it will actually play out.
Yeah, you already have the model. All your doing is moving it to Italy.
It’s very exciting. Many people ask why Italy? Is it for bragging rites? So our brand is international? To travel there? Not really, there are other ways to achieve those things with much less risk. To me it’s being able to offer the tattooers that work with us, who work with our company, the chance to go to Italy and experience it. The history. The culture. The people. The details. The amazing food. I’ve always been a big fan of traveling Europe. When I was 17 I flew off on an airplane to Germany, then spent two months hitch-hiking to Poland and Lithuania. I’ve always been a big traveling. So this project is a way to be able to offer that experience to other tattooers. Venice is an hour-and-a-half by train, and the city is unbelievable. Florence is like two hours, and looking at paintings by the masters over there, will make you say “Holy shit! We don’t know nothing about realism here!” Some of the paintings are hundreds to thousands of years old. To offer artists the opportunity to be immersed in that experience is very exciting. At least one resident artist is working to build up their clientele for extended stays.
TattooNOW is getting more attention. The website has been growing and getting much bigger each year. Its a sign of success to have a TattooNOW website. What is the ultimate mission of TattooNOW.
In many ways it’s flattering that people would think that. The “status symbol” is kind of funny to me, because all it takes is $500 dollars to get a website with us.
$1500 for a custom one, or you could spend up too $10,000 if you wanted to go crazy with design and features and apps and catalogs and such. TattooNOW’s purpose is to be the ultimate tattoo resource on the internet. TattooNOW is a work for hire business. Our core business is to power websites and mobile apps for tattooers, which is growing at a pretty consistent pace.
The fun part is watching dozens of websites and social media sites come and go and know that TattooNOW is still here. We’re not going anywhere. We certainly do a lot of great work with a lot of amazing artists. We’ve been doing it for over ten years, and given the momentum we have going now we’re able to tighten up ship more each year.
We’re going to take a break from the Tattoo Gathering next year so we can focus more energy on TattooNOW and TattooNOWtv.com. Our development team is now all in house and we have been doing regular webcasts and webinars. In that way we will funnel the same energy we spend on the Tattoo Gathering through the regular live web shows (every other Sunday night) and the main website business. We’ve got higher quality workers than ever before, and everyones dialed into having a good time producing a high quality product. We're only as strong as our weakest team members, and thesedays we’re more together than ever. Venturing into the mobile apps world in the last year has been pretty amazing, with more than 15 under our belt now. In the past we developed giant touchscreen kiosks, nowadays everyone has a phone so getting your portfolio directly into the hands of potential clientele at their convince is amazing.
There are places like Hell City and the Tattoo Gathering, where you can teach 50, 70-80 people at a seminar. It takes a lot of time and energy to create the environment to fill up a classroom that size. With webinars on TattooNOW, we’re able to do class sizes of over 100 people beaming in from all over the world and everyone has a perfect view. And then we can go home to our families at the end of the night.
So, the momentum and different technologies are coming together, and the next year or two will be to shore up, solidify, and fix any shortcomings with TattooNOW so it can accomplish everything we envision. From there we can actually get started. It has taken over a decade to get the machine built...
So you’re ready to take your machine and fly?
Yeah, you ever hear in business circles about an overnight success that took 10 years? Nothing ever really strikes overnight. And although I’m not going on as many vacations as I like, I’m able to create such fantastic business trips! As long as we repeat what we’re doing, we’re in a somewhat secure place. Hopefully we will live long enough to see it succeed.
You’ve got a pile of success behind you, with a bright future ahead. And you’re a family man as well? For my own personal information, since I’m a father too, how do you balance it all?
Well that’s part of the reason we’re not doing the Tattoo Gathering next year. I have a child who is going through the first week of middle school without me and a wife who’s not happy that she hasn’t seen me much the last 2-3 months, or at all the last 10 days, so it’s a horrible juxtaposition to walking onto the tattoo floor and seeing all the great things going on... lets just say the balance isn’t quite there. This is a major reason why we want to back off from risking such large investments on four day events, thousands of miles from home that take months and years to plan.
It’s kinda crappy that nearly all the things that make the Gathering so successful came directly from my wife’s teaching. She creates an environment for her infants that stimulates an optimal learning state. I hated school. I’m a self-taught computer programmer business guy. So from her I’ve learned to create this environment for optimal learning, and an enhanced tattoo experience. It’s ironic that she unfortunately suffers the brunt of my absence, allowing us to create this for everybody else. The balance is out of balance!
But on the other hand, we all just went on a European vacation. I took my ten-year-old girl to Italy, where she took a gondola ride through Venice. She’s ten! These are opportunities she wouldn’t have if we weren’t doing what we are doing. So the family benefits tremendously from what we do, but unfortunately there are real physical, scientific things that happen that can’t be balanced. There’s no way to work 60-80 hours a week and spend enough time with the family…The only reason I would leave my family was because the effect of the Gathering is so great. If everybody was only having an OK time, we would never do this again. It wouldn’t be worth it. But everyone gets so much out of the experience. It’s unfortunate my family has to sacrifice for it. We’re working on figuring out that balance.
Well, coming full circle, the reason I came to interview you was because of your morals, ethics, and vision for our industry. Your team has taken a totally different approach toward the tattoo business. From computer programming and websites, all the way to revolutionizing tattoo events and business methods. The specific tips to success you’ve shared in your and Mary Bowen’s business seminars were incredibly insightful. Wisdom I can implement into my own businesses.
I blame it all on my politics (which I see no different than my personal philosophy). Well in closing, everyone has to do things in their own way. What we’re doing now with our events, shops, and TattooNOW is continuing to build a solid foundation of both clients and tattooers who are all in it for the same reasons…ultimately to build a massive quality tattoo community support system.
Thank you for your time Gabe..
I am grateful Gabe gave me some of his precious time. He was very patient, even though he had a tornado of tasks awaiting him just outside the room. TattooNOW, Off the Map, and The Paradise Tattoo Gathering are creating a unified movement and helping educate, inspire, and lead tattooers and all others involved in our industry toward higher levels of quality. They bring tattoo masters together from all over the world to share their gifts and expound on their craft. Ultimately improving the Industry as a whole.
As I pulled away from the Keystone Resort, I took in more of the fresh mountain air. This peaceful area stimulated an optimal learning experience in me. Filled with new ideas, inspiration, and praise, I headed back to my hometown, ready to share the experience created by Gabe Ripley and the TattooNOW team.