Fish talks moving to San Francisco, the origin of his nickname, and Denver's Mexican food

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Westword: Do you want to go by Fish or your full name?

Fish: Fish is fine. It's definitely the name that I've gone by in tattooing. I've had the nickname since I was a little kid.

Where did it come from?

Kids picking on me when I was a freshman in high school for having big lips. Being a skinny kid with big lips is definitely not, you know -- If it had been like, in 1990, when baby Kate Moss had done her first Calvin Klein add, that standard of beauty didn't really exist quite yet. Having big lips and being thin wasn't quite the thing that it's turned into. I was thirteen, I definitely wasn't as cool as Mick Jagger. So that's where Fish came from. But then, not long after that, there was a certain group of people that kind of used it as a term of endearment and then I kind of really took that and ran with it and started telling people to call me that, so I kind of took control of it and made it into something that I was proud of, as opposed to ashamed of.

It's as much my name as the name my parents gave me. Like, my parents call me Fish. It's funny because my girlfriend has actually suggested that I legally change it to Fish.

Have you thought about it?

Yeah, I have. But then, I really like my given name. You know, it was really interesting. My dad was one of those guys who wasn't into kids, you know, I don't think he was a really big fan of having kids of his own, necessarily. But when my mom got pregnant and he knew that he was gonna be a father and start a family, he kind of put his foot down and was like "Two rules: I will name all of our children, and they will all be raised Catholic."

So I grew up in a kind of oddly Irish-centric, Irish Catholic family. Because of that, because I knew my dad gave me that name -- my dad has since passed away -- it's something that I hold onto pretty tight. Even though I don't go by that name, I won't change it, either. I'm not gonna be like, you can also call me Patrick from now on -- I'm always gonna be Fish. But it's definitely one of those things that I keep that really close to me, you know, for that reason.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background in tattooing and how you got into the industry?

Let's see, it's 2014. I got my first tattoo in '96, it was like a little tribal thing on my upper arm that I actually still have, that I refuse to cover up because it's my first tattoo. During that period of time everybody wanted to look like the surfers from Point Break, with goofy tribal tattoos and stuff like that. So I got that tattoo in May, and then at the end of that same summer in '96, in September, I got my second tattoo. And when I got that tattoo, my best friend and I and we were moving to Northern California. We were moving to Lake Tahoe to do the whole ski bum thing and all that stuff, and it was the day that we were leaving town, so we had all of our shit packed in the car and all that stuff and our parents thought that we were leaving, but instead of leaving town we went straight to the tattoo shop.

He got his first tattoo and I got my second one and we both got tattooed by the same guy, so we were there all day. You know, like, showed up when the shop opened, ate lunch there. He got tattooed and I was drawing and all that stuff, and so I spent the whole day in a tattoo shop -- and spending that whole day not getting tattooed, too. Like I was literally just the person in the shop kind of observing everything that was going on, and it was really intoxicating. I mean, just from the music they were listening to, to the conversations that were going on, it seemed like such an amazingly fun and creative environment. And to know that those guys were busy and they were making good money. At the time I was twenty years old, I had dropped out of college, I'd quit my job working at the outdoor store that I had been working at for a couple years. It's odd now to think about a twenty-year-old and have a total, like, "shit or get off the pot" attitude.

During that winter, I turned 21 and I was definitely like, "I need to figure out what the fuck I'm doing with my life, I need to get on it and have a direction, because this is bullshit." To think about that now, how many 21-year-olds you know have at least that clarity to say, "I need to get off my ass and do something with my life, like, now"?

And so, I spent the whole day in that shop and I remember leaving that night and saying to my best friend, "I think I want to learn how to tattoo." Just like with a lot of other things that I've been like that about in my life, I got obsessed with it. Most tattoo shops didn't have websites and the Internet was still a pretty fledgling thing in '96. So there wasn't all this information out there, so I literally was trying to grab everything I could find, every tattoo magazine I could, went into every tattoo shop I could, just to look around and see. I actually started writing letters back to the shop I got tattooed at in my home town, saying that I would really like to learn how to tattoo. They were really cool about it; they wrote me a letter back that "you need to talk to the shop owner, I can't really help you out with that, but when you get back to town, if you want to talk to her, go for it." So that's exactly what I did.

I tried to draw as much as I could during that winter. When I got back to town at the end of that season, it was May, something like that, and I went in and I was like, "I want to learn how to tattoo." And she said, well, "No. We're too busy right now, we don't have time to take on an apprentice. We just finished another apprenticeship. Why don't you come back in the fall? Spend the summer drawing, draw as much as you can."

And so that's exactly what I did. And I was getting tattooed at the time too, so I was in that shop getting tattooed and I was coming in every two or three weeks, something like that, to get tattooed. I was working on a pretty big tattoo, so I spent a fair bit of time in that tattoo shop that summer. I took her advice and I didn't talk to them about learning and shit like that that much, I just kind of kept my mouth shut. So end of the summer comes around and I go back and I'm like, "Okay, summer's over. How about it? Are we gonna do this thing or not?" She was like, "Nope. Sorry, still too busy, still just not ready to take on an apprentice right now. Maybe check back at the end of the winter."

At that point I was really like, "Listen, I've been waiting to do this for X amount of time, I've done what you asked me to do, I've not bugged you about it." And I said, "Lady, come hell or high water, I'm gonna learn how to tattoo, whether you teach me or not. I want to learn from you, there's nobody else in this town that I want to learn from, but it makes no goddamn difference to me whether you're the one who teaches me or not -- I'm gonna learn. Even if it means I have to teach myself, it doesn't make a difference."

That at least impressed her. She was like: "I'll tell you what, I'll make you a deal. You can come into the shop as much as you want, you can ask as many questions as you want, I'll try to help you out as much as I can. Help out a little bit around here, I'll help you get some equipment, that's the best I can do for you." I was like, "Okay, deal." And so I came in every day, every single day. That lasted maybe two months, and it was finally October-ish before she said, finally, "Okay, if you want to tell people you're apprenticing, you are. You've earned it." That was about October and then my apprenticeship lasted through that year into the next year, until about the following February. So it was about a year and a half, or so. Continue reading for more of the Q&A with Fish.
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Nathalia Vélez
Contact: Nathalia Vélez