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

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What was interesting was, I was working a full-time job at the time. So I would get done with my day job at five o'clock, I'd go home, change my clothes, get in the car, drive 45 minutes to the tattoo shop every single day. Basically, every day the routine was the same. I would get in there, I would take out the trash, collect everybody's dirty needles, run the autoclave, go downstairs, scrub tubes -- every single day. So most of my apprenticeship was spent in a dirty basement, alone, scrubbing tubes, not being around tattooing, not being around all the other things. Granted, I will also say -- and I'll get to this part of the story in a second -- that my apprenticeship was exactly what it needed it to be. But a lot of it, at the time I was 21-years-old, 22-years-old, I'm a kid. And all my best friends were in college, they were doing the college thing, like going out, having fun, meeting girls and yada yada. And, you know, I was a hardcore kid, so I wanted to go to shows all the time. It was hard to keep a 21-year-old focused, you know what I mean? If you're kind of letting them run around on their own.

Even though this was really what I wanted and I was really determined to do it, I'm also someone who has a tendency to lose focus if I'm not, like, reined in. So that's kind of what started to happen, is I would lose focus and was spending a little bit too much time screwing around with my friends and things like that. Some of the people at the shop started to get kind of aggravated about it, and then she got wind of the fact that I was planning on moving. When my apprenticeship was over, I was gonna move. And she got real torked about that. She was like, "What the hell is this? I gotta hear this from somebody else that you're gonna leave?"

I defended myself, like part of the deal with the apprenticeship was that she was like, "When you're done with this, you gotta go. There's no room for you here. I'll apprentice you but, when you're done, that's it, you gotta go." And I come to find out that was not actually gonna be the case. You know, because a lot of the time that's what you get paid back from an apprentice. You don't charge your apprentice. Anyone that charges for an apprenticeship is somebody who shouldn't be doing it in the first place. The way you get your investment back is having that person work for you. And I did, obviously, the whole time. I was there cleaning the shop every day, doing all the shit work that they don't want to do. I mean, that's worth something, for sure, because if I'm not there doing it, then they have to. But then, like, you make the money back too, by having them work for you and all that stuff.

So I realized that she had had every intention of having me stay and making her money back, at least to some degree. So when she found out that I was planning on leaving, she was like, "I'll tell you what, I've been getting a lot of shit from everybody else here about you and the fact that you're not taking this seriously enough. Why don't you just go ahead and get your stuff and go?" And she fired me.

And I'm a pretty sensitive kid. So she got really upset and she started to kind of cry, and then I started crying, we were both crying. It was pretty intense. We were both really sad about it. But one of the things she said to me was, "You really need to figure out if this is really want you want to do." And then I went home and I really thought about that. Like, "Is this what I want?" And then I was like, "Fuck you, I'm not gonna spend the last two years of my life trying to learn how to do this and go through all the work to get here to fucking quit on it. There is no way. I refuse."

Again, I got super-motivated. I made a deal with her where I could come and use the equipment at the shop, the autoclave and all that stuff, so I could still sterilize all my stuff and still do tattoos safely and properly. I set up like a little tattoo station in my room at my parent's house and did every tattoo I could. I drew non-stop. I almost got fired from my day job a couple times for drawing. They kind of started to know that if I didn't talk for more than five minutes, they knew exactly what I was doing. They'd just scream, like, "Fish, stop drawing!" I got sent home once, they were like, "You're done for the day, get out of here." Because I'd literally draw non-stop.

And so, you know, I did every tattoo I could and made a little portfolio and did a kind of flash and got this stuff together and came up to Boulder because that's where we figured out we wanted to move to. We had friends that lived there and, you know, I went around and I found myself a job. There's a shop on the Hill in Boulder called Tribal Rites and they liked me and they were like, "Yeah, we need another tattooer, it's yours if you want it." And that was it.

I was back in Rochester at that point when they offered me the job. I think that was April and then we moved out like the first week of June. I think I started working within the first two days or so of me being in Colorado. And that was it; I was a professional tattoo artist.

There's been lots of ups and downs and all that stuff ever since. I will say this, tattooing has been the thing that has given me every good thing -- I shouldn't say every good thing -- or almost every good thing I've gotten in my life, at least as an adult. Tattooing has given me so much. It's really special.

You mentioned when you got started tattoo shops didn't even have websites; what are some other aspects of the industry that are different now from when you began?

Tattooing, when I started, even though I got into it later than a lot of people did, tattooing was really blowing up in the '90s, but definitely not to the degree that it has in the last ten years. At the time that I got into it, so much of it was legitimately word of mouth, very oral tradition. There was still a good amount of mystery to it. Tattoo shops were still scary places to come, you know, where you would still get chased out with a fucking baseball bat. That world was a serious deal, you didn't screw around in a tattoo shop, whether you were somebody that was trying to learn, like I was, or you were just a customer. Tattoo shops where those places that were awesome to be at, but always had a little element of danger. But In the fifteen-plus years or whatever -- I'd say the twenty years that I've been around tattooing at this point -- it has changed immensely.

The thing is that tattoos aren't scary anymore. Tattoos aren't a mystery anymore. The veil has been completely pulled back. You know, the curtain's pulled back, you saw the wizard for what he really was, it's all gone. In some ways that's good, because so much of the stuff has become so readily available to anybody that's involved in tattooing. All the reference material you would ever want is there, all the information you would ever want in the world is all there for the taking, and because of that, it's really kind of proved who's in and who's not. It's like, everything has gotten so easy to take advantage of, if you're not taking advantage of it, that's sad because it's right there. But then it's also really pushed people to have to work a lot harder. There's kids wgi are tattooing that have been tattooing for like three years, but look like they've been tattooing for ten. Because they don't have to work at figuring anything out, it's all right there, it's right in front of them. And so that's made the rest of us who have been in it for longer have to really work harder and stay hungry. Because I've always said -- about lots of different types of things -- that no matter how good you think you are, there's always somebody out there who's younger and hungrier and better than you. There's always gonna be somebody out there who wants it more than you do and is better than you at it already.

To go through the list of the ways tattooing has changed, I'd talk your ear off for an hour. But just think about the fact that you've got, you know, soccer moms or PTA moms who have full sleeves. I tattoo my dermatologist, you know what I mean? Tattooing is for everybody, which in a lot of ways is good and in some ways it's kind of bad. But I think that the explosion in popularity of tattooing has been, generally speaking, overwhelming. Just look at the fact that there's the amount of tattooers now who are working and that are able to support themselves tattooing. Obviously, we're all competing. There's only so much in a pie and we're all competing for a piece of the pie. And every time you add another mouth on the table, everybody gets a little bit less, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, either. That makes us all have to want it more and fight harder for it, and that's good. It keeps the lazy people out, and the shitty people out. Continue reading for more of the Q&A with Fish.
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Nathalia Vélez
Contact: Nathalia Vélez