Growing up in Little Rock, Brian Thurow never thought he would become a professional tattoo artist. But after six years in the Air Force, he decided to part from his conservative background by getting tattoos -- and he's now been tattooing professionally for almost ten years and is one of the owners of Dedication Tattoo. Westword recently caught up with Thurow, who talked about his conservative upbringing, the social consequences of getting tattoos, and the image of tattoos as an accessory in the media.
Westword: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Brian Thurow: I'm 33. I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and lived there until I was eighteen. I spent six years in the military, in the Air Force. And after that was right about the time I started apprenticing as a tattooer. I moved back to Arkansas and 2004 was when I started my apprenticeship; I started tattooing full-time in '05. I left Little Rock and moved to Dallas in 2006. Around that same time was when I met Jason Boatman met. He and I actually met in Little Rock tattooing together and then ended up both moving to Dallas and tattooed together at Saints and Sinners Tattoo. I tattooed at that shop for five years. Over the course of working there I also met Sam Yamini, who is also one of the owners of this shop. Sam moved up here first and worked at Th'ink Tank, followed by Jason and then me. The three of us all worked there together for a while. I moved to Colorado in the summer of 2011, so almost three years now.
Do you find it's really different here from Arkansas and Texas?
It's different in the sense that Arkansas isn't a very cultured place in terms of art or entertainment or media, things like that. Colorado, and Denver especially, is a great place for cultural-type things. There's a lot of young people with a really great eye for art and there's all kinds of other great scenes, and that lends itself to a good tattoo community. I like Colorado a lot, in addition to the nature and the beauty of the place, which is something that Dallas completely lacks.
How did you become interested in tattoos?
Back where I was from, growing up you typically would only see them on ex-military or just your good old, out-of-the-trailer-park-kitchen tattoo job or bikers and things like that. I always saw them on people like that and always thought they were super-cool. I never really imagined myself being involved in tattooing just because I came from a pretty conservative background. What actually got me into tattooing was I moved back to Arkansas after getting out of the military and was dating this girl who I thought had a bunch of tattoos at the time -- she had like eight or nine tattoos and I thought she was just covered in tattoos.
That sort of created an interest in me wanting to get some tattoos. Having an art background, I figured, "Well, shit, why not design my own tattoos?" So I started drawing tattoo designs and going and getting them at the shop in town. One night I was there getting one of my tattoo designs and ended up meeting the owner of the establishment, Seventh Street Tattoo, and he and I just started talking. We sort of hit it off and he asked me if I had an interest in learning to tattoo, if I ever considered it, and I told him I really hadn't but I thought tattoos were badass and I could draw some. So one thing led to another and it led me into an apprenticeship. Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Brian Thurow. So you didn't expect to become a tattoo artist. What did you think you were going to do after you got back from the military?
I thought I was going to go to college and sort of take that typical path. The whole reason I joined the military to begin with was to pay to go to college. When I got out, I ended up getting a job as a customer-service representative for a cell phone company -- shirt and tie type of gig -- and I was going to school, and just fucking completely miserable and hated it. But I didn't think there was going to be any other option for me. I was just planning on pursuing some sort of degree and doing what normal people do.
What style of tattoo do you like to work in?
The things I like the most are traditional tattoo styles, American traditional-style stuff, the tattoo style that you see that's influenced by all the pre- and post-WWII old-school Americana images. I like taking classic designs like that and maybe giving them more of a contemporary look, not so rough but a little bit more updated and refined without losing the spirit of the old school design. I also enjoy doing Japanese and Asian-style tattooing in a similar fashion, taking that really old artwork and putting my artistic input and little bit of a spin on it, more of a modern feel.
I saw that you do a lot of large-scale pieces; is that something you enjoy as well?
I do like to do large-scale pieces. That doesn't mean I don't like to do small, single-session tattoos. I started finding myself doing a lot of large tattoos a few years ago because I got to do a few sleeves in Dallas and got some good pictures of them and put them in my portfolio. It seems like once you start selling that type of tattoo, you tend to get more of that. But at the same time, I really enjoy doing smaller tattoos, whether it be a two-session tattoo or even a tattoo that takes only thirty minutes. Those are great because I get the gratification of seeing something go from concept to a finished product, which is something that takes a long time to get out of a large tattoo.
Unfortunately, and I hate to say this, but a lot of times people don't finish large tattoos. A lot of the hard work that gets put into the design portion of it and all of the work that led up to that session they never showed up to is almost all for naught, so it becomes really discouraging. It's really awesome when you see a client go through that whole journey. From their perspective, it was a hard thing in a lot of ways: It was really painful, it took a long time, it took a lot of their money, it could very easily have changed their status in their social circle for better or worse. You never know what those kinds of decisions to get a big, crazy tattoo may do for you. But you develop a little bit of a bond with those clients over the course of doing something like that. I think that's one of the really great things we get out of this job that not a lot of other people get out of their jobs.
You mentioned how getting a large, visible tattoo can affect you socially. Do you think that's something people tend to consider before getting them?
I think it's fifty/fifty. I have clients who are more -- for lack of a better word -- responsible tattoo collectors because they're not afraid to get a large tattoo, but at the same time they have an understanding of the way society works, as far as prejudices go. Other times, people tend to see tattoos as more of a fashion accessory. It's very popular in modern culture right now. It's a real trendy thing. We like to think that in a perfect world we don't get judged and we can float through life doing whatever we want, but the truth is that's not the way it is. When you start to get heavily covered, you're making this sort of major lifestyle decision that you could be putting yourself in this smaller subculture of outcasts, who knows?
Is that something you considered before getting a lot of tattoos?
Totally. When I decided I wanted to get heavily tattooed, to me it was really different than I think the decision-making is now. My decision wasn't influenced as much by media. The tattoo media side of shit has gotten way crazier than it was ten years ago. The TV shows started hitting the air and now there's fifteen or twenty tattoo magazines on the stands and numerous online resources where people are being constantly influenced by tattoo art and tattoo culture, and it's making people want it more and more.
When I started getting tattooed, I just wanted to do it because it looked badass. I wanted to do it because I wanted to take my shirt off at the pool and people to be like, "Holy shit, that guy's got a ton of tattoos. He looks fucking crazy." Like I said, I grew up in a really conservative environment all the way up until I decided to leave it at the age of eighteen. I wasn't allowed to even have a fucking skateboard because my father thought it would make me some kind of punk rock, degenerate loser. I had to keep my hair cut a certain way, I had to hang out with a certain crowd, I had a curfew, I had to check in with mom every few hours. I never got to have those little freedoms that a lot of my friends got to have. Right after that I joined the military, which is another form of organized control. They tell you what to wear, what kind of haircut to have and you have to keep your face shaved and you have to keep your shoes polished. I think by the time I got out of there I was just like, "Fuck, man, I just gotta go crazy. I want to be my own person and do my own thing."
That's why I decided to get tattooed. I had no regard for what was cool. At the time it was still super-frowned upon in Arkansas. Now it's turned into something a little bit different.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.