Traveling around the United States and South America as a kid has made Nick Hemstreet a little restless as an adult. He's constantly trying to move forward, whether it's learning new painting techniques or taking a journey to a different country. He has been tattooing for almost five years and currently works at Old Larimer Street Tattoo; we recently sat down with Hemstreet to talk about growing up in Chile, painting and pushing the boundaries.
Westword: Where are you from?
Nick Hemstreet: I grew up in Santiago, Chile and Lima, Peru. My dad worked for a company that makes tools for construction and mining. I moved around a bunch of states when I was really young. I was born in Michigan, then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, and then Oklahoma. And then, when they thought we couldn't go any further south, we moved to Santiago, Chile. And then Peru. Every once in a while I get sick of the United States mentality of thinking that we’re the center of the universe, so I have to get away from it a little bit. That’s still the gypsy side in me, where I feel I need to travel. So I was actually tattooing in Brazil. I just got back. I was tattooing in Ipanema beach for six months.
Were you exposed to art living in South America?
Yeah. I've always been interested in drawing. That’s always been what I wanted to do. Ever since I was little kid, it was either play soccer or be an artist. I always liked coloring and drawing. My brothers would be out playing with their friends on summer break and I just wanted to ask my parents if I could do a comic-strip class.
What was your first exposure to tattoo art?
I got tattooed in college. I didn't really take it too seriously. I actually got tattooed by a guy who didn't have any tattoos. It was college. There was a dog running around and it smelled like cigarettes. It was really gross but I didn't know any better. I was eighteen and what do I know? I thought that’s what it was. Tattoos were some mysterious thing.
I graduated college with two different degrees in 2008, so it was like the worst time in the history of the U.S. to graduate. I had crappy job after crappy job after crappy job. I graduated from a school in Michigan and I got the heck out of there. I thought, “If there are no jobs here, might as well go somewhere cool.” And I've been snowboarding here for a lot of years. In the off-season in Chile, when it was summer there, we’d come up here and go snowboarding, so I knew I enjoyed it and it was beautiful. So I was like, “Screw it!” I packed my stuff and left. And I've been here ever since. By having crappy jobs, it just kind of clicked with me. I decided I might as well do something in art that I would like.
Was it hard going from painting and other types of art to tattoos?
Yeah. Tattoos are probably the hardest thing I've ever done. You can do it for years, every day all day, and it’s still hard to get good at. I have a lot of painter friends who are very good at what they do, and they’re just so infatuated with tattoos. I just look at it as another medium. But it tends to be a very difficult medium to get good at.
What do you think it takes to succeed?
A lot of hard work. I think there are guys who are really, really, really good, and people just assume that it’s some natural talent, when they actually worked really hard to get where they’re at. They put a lot of effort and hard work into it. Also, getting involved in other stuff around the city, the tattoo scene, as well as getting on social media. If you’re not doing all that, it’s a lot harder to become known. The blessing of tattooing is that it’s so popular right now. The industry is booming with all the TV shows and everything going on. People just want to get tattooed. This coming month is our busy season because of tax returns. People get some money and want to go blow it on tattoos. I’m okay with it. It gets nuts. For the next few months, none of us here will have a life. It’s tattoo after tattoo and come 11 p.m., you realize you haven’t eaten since nine that morning.
You're a painter as well?
I started at a painting atelier based out of Encinitas, California, called the Watts Atelier [of the Arts]. It’s a painting school from a guy named Jeff Watts. He’s a living master painter and he’s phenomenal. A few months ago I decided I wanted to get better at painting. I’ve been searching for a long time, trying to figure out how to get better at it and get the right coaching to do it right. I found this atelier and it’s been helping a lot, to the point where it’s kind of weird and all the guys in here are like, “Slow down.” You’re doing homework and you’re doing all these things. I've done fifteen paintings since Christmas already. It just keeps the momentum going. You have to be self-motivated, but I've always been pretty self-motivated as long as I have direction.
What kind of media do you like to work in?
Oils, mostly. They’re having us do a little bit of gouache. It’s an opaque watercolor, basically. So it’s water-based, but you can go back in there ten years later and reactivate it with water and paint right into it, which is kind of interesting. But definitely oils is where it’s at. Most people who get into oils that are that kind of fine art painter, they tend to get spoiled really quick and then everything else tends to revolve around oil. It’s not forgiving, but it’s definitely a medium that has been used for a really long time and there’s a reason why people enjoy it. You can do so much with it.
Do you think that your training in painting has helped you with your tattoo work?
Absolutely. I try things with tattooing that I learned in painting, whether it be a palette or a technique. There’s this thing in painting called glazing, so you have a finished painting and when it’s all dry you go over it with another color, and as long as it’s very thin and not opaque, you can glaze over and tint the color. You can actually do that tattooing, which I would have never thought about trying before. But you can actually tattoo something, let it heal, then with a watered-down tint you can glaze over a little area and it actually works. That’s not traditional tattooing at all. In the past ten years or even less, the rules have started to be broken. By those rules being broken, the art is just leaps and bounds compared to what it was. That’s because people are not hiding secrets any more. Everyone in this shop goes to workshops and tattoo seminars multiple times a year around the U.S. You learn stuff from these guys who are phenomenal. There’s younger and younger guys coming out who are pushing the older guys, putting a fire under their butt.
So it’s an evolving industry?
Yeah, I would definitely say so. I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen ten years from now. And I haven’t even been in the industry as long as the other guys in the shop. They've seen a lot of stuff. I can’t imagine when I’m at their level, and have been at it for ten years, what will be happening then.
How long have you been tattooing?
Four and a half years. I started out at Lucky 13 in Lakewood. I was there for about a year and a half and then I left for Brazil, tattooed out there. I actually got offered a full-time job working right on Ipanema beach. I made contact with Ian [Robert McKown] here at the shop, knowing him through taking workshops and seminars with him, and hit him up. This was like my Harvard school — the big dream. I was offered to work at Ipanema beach because I was the only gringo working there and I had a different style than everyone else, so they offered to pay for my visa and everything. And I turned it down to work at this shop. I didn't see my career evolving as quickly there. I made a ton of friends and have an offer to come back whenever I wanted to. I just knew that being connected with these guys at this shop was what would push me to get better. I've gotten exponentially better because of these guys pushing me. It’s all about who you surround yourself with.
Do you still travel a lot to tattoo?
Absolutely. I try to do it as much as I can. I probably traveled five times last year. I got an offer to go to Austria this year and possibly one in Rome. I think when I really took tattooing seriously was when I realized that, when I do get to the point where you’re comfortable enough and good enough, I can take it wherever I want in the world. Even though you don’t speak the language, you can still communicate. You need to use Google a little bit more. It’s very slow and methodical, but that’s the fun of it. I've grown to appreciate those little things in life. I would love to do that in Italy and everywhere else just because it’s so much fun. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s what makes me enjoy it. It’s different.
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Do you find that the tattoo culture is a little different in different countries?
A little bit. Here in the states, for the most part, people want to get tattooed to be unique — minus Pinterest tattoos and stuff like that. Most of the time, they want a piece of artwork that’s custom and unique to them, designed for them. Brazil was completely opposite. They wanted tattoos that were like the celebrity they see in the newspaper or magazines. They want the same exact tattoo that the celebrity had. That’s not wrong at all, it’s just different. They’re doing a lot of traditional stuff that we were doing twenty years ago. It would be totally common to be at a McDonald's waiting in line for a cheeseburger and you see three different people in the line with the same exact leg sleeve. That’s normal for them. Here, you’d be like, “No! Somebody else has my same tattoo! I have to get it covered.” That’s the only country I've tattooed in so far, but I know there are a lot of countries around the world pushing it and pushing the US. Australia — man, the guys coming out of here are phenomenal. They’re just doing different things that are unique.
For more information, check out Hemstreet's website and follow him on Instagram @nick_hemstreet.