When Jeremy Barber was a young kid growing up in Milwaukee, tattoo shops were illegal in the city. That didn't deter him from pursuing his passion for art and becoming a tattoo artist. He's been tattooing for almost 20 years and has been living in Denver for the past five years. He currently works at Thick as Thieves Tattoo. Westword caught up with Barber, who talked about the biker shops from his youth, sticking to tattoo tradition and the importance of tattoo education.
Westword: Why did you decide to move to Denver?
I was living in St. Louis. I had my first son, Atticus, and it's kind of a rough town. I was just kind of getting a little bored with it so I wanted to make a move to someplace fun and active and interesting to live because I figured was going to be tied down for a few years so I wanted to make sure I was in a cool place. So I did some guest spots for a summer, moved around the country and tested some things out. I really liked it here so I moved here.
How long have you been tattooing?
It's going on about 18, 19 years now. I started in around '94. I had a friend, Troy, who started teaching me a few things about how to get into the business, basically. I started tinkering around with machines and flash art and things like that, just trying to meet people and work my way into the industry. By '95 I was pretty much tattooing. I had done an apprenticeship with Cleen Rock One in Illinois, in the Chicago area. He taught me how to tattoo really well and I moved on from there.
Have you always been an artist?
Actually, yeah. I always did art for friends' bands and things like that growing up. I dabbled around with graffiti and stuff like that when I was young. I kind of just decided pretty young that I was good at art but that I wanted to do something with it, and graffiti wasn't necessarily going to pay bills at that point. Doing the stuff for my friends' bands was fun but it was so local that I started seeking out something that would be free and I could do what I want but at the same time respect myself and what I'm doing. So tattooing just kind of presented itself and I've been going on since way back then.
What styles do you like to work in?
Early on, when I first learned, I thought new school was the best thing ever--just color bomb new school. That's really what I specialized in for quite a few years. After I started getting into the actual industry and meeting more people and learning more things, I started to gain a lot more respect for traditional art, both Asian and American, and just the way things were done before. I realized that if I did things, to a certain degree, how they were done before but just put my own heart into it, it's gonna be my own but it's going to be way more mature and more developed. The way things have been done, especially with tattooing being such a technical artform, there are certain rules that you just have to adhere to. Later on I just realized that instead of reinventing the wheel or trying a lot of new stuff, I would just do stuff that was more based on tradition. It just looks better, I think.
Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Barber.
Do you think a lot of people outside of the industry don't realize how technical tattooing is?
I think so. I think for a lot of young artists, it's something that--especially being in this industry so long, it can be hard to look back at being the guy who was walking into a tattoo shop for the first time, or the first couple years of tattooing. I don't want to sound insulting, but there's a lot of ignorance. I don't mean stupidity; I mean ignorance. People need to be informed, both as customers and artists, in order to really get the best work. Customers need to be informed by the artists, and artists need to sometimes do this for a few years before they even realize that they're not going to change the game. It exists and there's ways to do it and as long as you stay within certain confines, it'll all work out great. You can do what you want. There's a lot of artists that try to reinvent the wheel and don't really realize how there's technical aspects they have to adhere to.
Have you seen a lot of changes in the industry from when you started until today?
Oh, yeah. It's a lot, lot different. When I started, growing up in Milwaukee, it's a big biker town and having tattoos wasn't illegal but there weren't any tattoo shops. There was no licensing, so tattoo shops were considered illegal in the Milwaukee area. All the tattoo shops in that entire part of the state were on the outside of Milwaukee and they were biker shops with big old tough guys sitting around. There wasn't a lot of customer service and there wasn't a lot of young people running in and getting tattooed. They kind of had their own vibe and their own clientele. Even for me--I thought I was a young tough guy--I'd walk into those places and they intimidated the hell out of me. For people now, there is a lot more friendliness. The entire industry has become a lot more outgoing out of necessity. I think that there's just so much more going on now, that a lot of people who used to just sit around and hang out with their buddies and cut out a decent wage, now have to compete with, not only a lot of other really good artists, but also tons and tons of artists that aren't that great and aren't giving people the right information and are doing things that make us look bad to a certain degree. It makes it a lot more difficult but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that, as an industry, we've been forced to become a little bit more customer service oriented and little more outgoing and bring people into our world that weren't there before. It's pretty cool.
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For more information, visit Thick as Thieves' website or follow Barber on Instagram @jbarbs303.