If there's one thing Travis Koenig has learned over fifteen years as a tattoo artist, it's that persistence is vital to succeed in the industry. Koenig is the tattoo manager at Bound By Design and specializes in large, conceptual pieces. He advocates for education in the tattoo industry and emphasizes the importance of getting the best possible tattoos by doing research and finding the right artist for each client's needs. Westword recently caught up with Koenig, who shared his thoughts on being persistent, humble and educated in the industry.
Westword: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Are you from Colorado?
Travis Koenig: Yeah, yeah, I'm one of the natives here. I'm 34, I've been tattooing for about fifteen years. I started my apprenticeship in about '98, had a really quick apprenticeship and was kind of thrown to the wolves. And stubbornness and determination made me get to the point where I'm at now.
Were you artistic as a child?
Definitely. Yeah. I mean I, strangely enough, failed damn near every single one of my art classes. I didn't like the structure that a lot of typical art teachings, and just the education based around art, had. So I always went against it and it always made me fail. I never liked painting or drawing in the canvas, the rectangle, the square. This kind of opportunity gives the ability to really kind of expand on canvases and really work with people on an individual level with their body style. So not adhering to typical, standard art rules has led me to this opportunity that I have now.
Where did your interest in tattoos begin?
It was always that counter-culture. Anything that had to do with heavy metal and punk rock and sex, drugs and rock and roll, that kind of thing always caught the attention of young, adolescent males. It was honestly a lifestyle and it just really appealed.
How did you get your foot in the door in the industry?
Oh, man, that was persistence. I knew I wanted to do it and I knew the things I had to do to get to that point, you know, talent-wise and the things I could draw and the things I could show to some of the people who would apprentice me. And at that point, straight up persistence. I think I called -- I think the guy who finally accepted to bring me on as an apprentice was just tired of me calling and showing up to the shop, and I think he wanted to give me the opportunity just to shut me up. And then, yeah, I just excelled with it. And it was awesome.
Having been in the industry for a while, do you think there are any misconceptions or stereotypes that people have about being a tattoo artist?
Oh, certainly. Unfortunately, a lot of tattooers that I know kind of perpetuate that stereotype. There's the stereotype of just an egotistical, know-it-all ass, or the person who thinks he's an under-served rock star. And there's definitely some artists who personify it to a T. But, you know, the really humble ones, the ones who really kind of just keep their nose down, work really, really hard for their customers, for themselves, they tend to be the best artists overall. You know, it's the ones who are worried about the stereotypes, worried about the atmosphere and the image of it, those are the ones that are usually producing work -- they're still producing good work but if they spent their time on their actual work instead of themselves, they'd probably produce a lot better.
I see that you like to work on big, elaborate, conceptual pieces. What is it that you really like about that style?
It gives me an opportunity to kind of really identify with the person I'm tattooing. Every now and then we'll get someone who's just like "I just want a tiger. I don't care where it is, how big it is, I just want a tiger." That's pretty few and far between; most people have some sort of belief, some sort of reason, some sort of image already ingrained in their mind of what they want to do. By doing bigger, more elaborate pieces, it really kind of lets me expand their expectations of what's available and really get to know the person on a little bit more of a personal level. When I'm sitting twenty hours with somebody with a project, I get to know a lot more about them than spending fifteen minutes doing their kid's name.
What are some things you think people should consider before getting a big, conceptual piece like that?
Usually the people who are looking into stuff like that, they're not getting their first tattoo -- it isn't going to be a back piece. So at that point they already have some sense of tattoo-shop etiquette, what they're looking for in an artist, the quality. A lot of people who are getting the bigger, conceptual work, they kind of already know what they're in for. And they've already done a lot of the homework, they've studied the artist that they want to do it, or at least the style they want it in. But honestly, it's just really the quality; quality is number one. Tattoos cost a lot of money and they hurt quite a bit, so it's nice to get the best product that you can get, and honestly it will just make it more worth your while, you know? There's nothing worse than spending a whole bunch of money and going through a whole bunch of pain just to get a tattoo that's honestly subpar.
Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Travis Koenig.
Are there any artists in Denver that you really admire?
All of them, honestly. Even some of the new artists who are coming up now who have been tattooing a fraction of what I've been tattooing, they've been immersed in this electronic age where they have every single bit of information at their fingertips. So even the young people who don't have the experience that I do, they're producing some pretty amazing work for where they're at, just as far as experience-wise. You know, when I first started, if I wanted to do a lion portrait, I had to go to the library, and I had to use the Dewey decimal system to look up animal kingdom books and find a picture that would work with that. Now, these young kids -- I do it now, too -- they can just jump online and find whatever reference they're going to need for any project, so it makes things significantly easier for them, and anyone who can take this business, this medium, to a newer and a higher level, I'll always look up to them, because everything that I can learn from anybody else is going to make me a better artist.
Do you like doing other types of art now?
Oh, of course. I'm really into watercolor right now. And, you know, with my workload I don't get to do the projects for myself that I would like to do, I'm too busy doing stuff for other people. But whenever I have free time, I just get immersed in drawing and doing stuff for myself and kind of being a little bit more selfish with my art, you know, something I can hang on my wall instead of something that someone else can go show off.
Have you ever given yourself a tattoo?
Yeah, it's a horrible idea. Horrible idea. I've gotten it covered up. It's really hard to focus on how much pain you're giving yourself and try to focus on the quality at the same time. So you honestly kind of end up overworking yourself because you, just in your mind, you're going to think that you're not going deep enough with the needle or being as thorough as you should. So you get that kind of ingrained in your mind and overworking yourself and giving yourself a really bad tattoo.
What was your favorite cartoon when you were growing up?
On TV, it's gotta be Ren and Stimpy. Yeah, it was definitely Ren and Stimpy.
Is there anything else you'd like to mention?
There are over a hundred shops in this town, and the quality ranges from spectacular to very sub-par. The cheap tattoo is always going to be in demand, and I really hope that it's because of an information-based problem -- that they just don't know the steps to getting the best-quality tattoo they can -- or if honestly money is the biggest determination of that. You know, money is always going to be a factor, but in the grand scheme of things, a tattoo is going to last your entire life. Spending an extra $200 for a tattoo -- it's pretty much the equivalent of a date when you're going to wake up hungover and freak out the next day.
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