Nik Pew on illustrating, success and Love Thy Chopper

Nik Pew brings his passion and creativity to not just tattooing, but also re-building motorcycles and cars. The Denver native has been tattooing for twenty years and is known for illustrating custom designs. He currently works at Landmark Tattooing and donates his time to Love Thy Chopper, a fundraiser that benefits Wilderness on Wheels. In advance of that July 12 event, we spoke with Nik Pew about how he got into tattooing, and the motorcycle he rebuilt for Love Thy Chopper.

See also: Jeremy Barber on biker shops, tradition and tattoo education

Westword: What inspired you to get into tattooing?

Nik Pew: I kind of grew up around tattooing. Some of my dad's friends were getting pretty heavily tattooed in the '80s. As a youngster, I was definitely intrigued by that. I come from a family of artists, so it was kind of natural for me to gravitate toward tattooing. I was already illustrating, drawing cars and bikes and whatever else at a pretty young age. When I started seeing tattoos, those were the images that got burned in my mind and I kept drawing. When I was old enough to start thinking about getting tattooed, I already had a pretty big arsenal of tattoo designs that I had come up with or re-drawn from other pieces I had seen.

I got a job working the front at a tattoo studio when I was seventeen and I did that for a year before I started my apprenticeship. That was in '93, I started working at the tattoo studio. At that point I had already done a bunch of homemade tattoos, which was pretty frowned upon by my parents because it's obviously not the right way to do it. There was definitely some health risk. So I put that on the back burner and started working at the tattoo studio, got my foot in the door. They saw that I was pretty crafty at illustrating and being able to come up with custom designs. To this day, that's kind of my specialty -- being able to come up with something that somebody has in their head or an idea that somebody comes to me with. I'm able to illustrate from my head. I don't really like to use a whole lot of reference unless it's something specific.

Is that a hard process, finding the right balance between what a client has in mind and your own style?

Yeah, I think it is a challenge to come up with original art that people are stoked about. I see a lot of tattoo artists that only want to do one style of tattooing, which might be more fun for them as a tattooer but I try to respect the client's intention of whatever it is that they had in mind and try to stay true to it. Even though I know that maybe down the road they might be better educated about tattoos, who am I to say that's what they want or don't want? Illustrating is definitely my specialty. I'm able to draw a lot of different styles, not just one particular style. I think that's what makes me a little more well-rounded.

Have you seen a lot of change or evolution within the industry in the past twenty years?

Of course. It has changed 180 degrees from where it was, which is good as a business aspect. If you want to work hard, you can be successful nowadays. Whereas twenty years ago, you just had to work a lot harder for a lot less money. The whole game has changed. I guess I kind of came in at a time when it was in that transition, and now it has fully turned to the point where people have a lot of tattoo knowledge they're getting from TV or what their friends tell them. It's usually 90 percent bullshit. I guess everybody has to start somewhere.

As an artist, what would you say is your idea of success?

I don't know if there is a "making it." It's not like you ever break out of what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life. Tattooing is a day-by-day trade. There's no bigger picture, really. A lot of us don't have retirement, nor do we have any type of future. I go to work to make money and it continues throughout my life. It'll probably never change. I've always felt successful in the fact that I work at a great studio and I have great people that I work with. That makes it totally worth it. I still feel like I'm learning every day. Continue reading for the rest of our Q&A with Nik Pew Do you work in other forms of art still?

I draw and paint a lot. I'm super into building motorcycles and that whole culture -- hot-rods, bikes, dirt bikes, all that stuff is a pretty major component in my life. I definitely get my art fix at work. I'm drawing all day, so sometimes when I get home I want to shift gears and work on something more three-dimensional. It's kind of a different ball of wax, when you're used to working in two dimensions, to branch out and work on something that isn't all totally visual.

How long have you been working on that kind of stuff?

Off and on my whole life. I'm definitely no mechanic, but I like to tinker with bikes, cars, old trucks. I hang out at a couple places where they actually do that for a living and they let me hang out and I'm fortunate enough to have some guidance from some mentors in that realm.

Can you tell me a little bit about the charity event you're working on?

It's called Love Thy Chopper. This will be the eighth year that we've done it. It's a bike show that incorporates art, music, motorcycles and lot of other things. We all kind of pull together for this event once a year. It's really a community event in that no one of us is doing it for our sake. We're doing it as a whole for the chopper scene here in Denver. This year is the first time we've done the raffle. It's something we've thought about doing for a while; we just didn't have the means to make it happen. This year I got an early start on it and found a good donor bike. So I've spent the past five months totally restoring this old bike and we're going to give it away the day of the show. We're trying to collect donations for Wilderness on Wheels, and I think it's totally a worthwhile cause. It's a unique area that's totally handicap-accessible and it's a private campground that anyone can go there, pay a minimal amount of money and have a really neat place to camp. It's only an hour away from home and the people who run this facility are all super-cool and really receptive to having us up there.

You know, you start mentioning a motorcycle show and a tattoo shop and it still kind of has a stigma, where people are still a little hesitant to just open the door and see what happens. At Wilderness they were totally cool with it. They were really enthusiastic about us trying to structure our event up there. Our intention this year is, to make a really nice donation and do something special. I have a friend who donated all the paint for the motorcycle, another who donated parts, friends that donated their time helping me assemble and prep it all. It's super-rewarding when it's all done.

When is the event?

It will be on July 12. Wilderness on Wheels is on Highway 285, ten miles above Bailey Colorado, up on Kenosha Pass. It's super-pretty, super-awesome. Really great spot. It's a cool destination to go to on bikes because it's not down some dirt road. It's right off the highway, easy to find.

Anything else you want to talk about?

I don't get too carried away with preaching about what tattooing is or isn't anymore. I think it's pretty obvious that tattooing has gone through some major changes. Like I said, it's good for business, so I'm not going to complain about it. It's difficult work. It's not for everybody. I truly enjoy it, though. I really do. I love tattooing, I love the history of tattooing, I love every aspect of tattooing. For a lot of years, I was consumed by it. It was all I did. It's been a great experience.

Love Thy Chopper begins at 1 p.m. July 12 at Wilderness on Wheels. There will be live music, art, motorcycles and a raffle for a 1978 Harley Davidson Sportser Chopper. Tickets cost $25 or 5 for $100 and can be purchased online; all proceeds will benefit Wilderness on Wheels. For more information on the event, visit Love Thy Chopper online or on Facebook. To purchase tickets, visit the Wilderness on Wheels website.

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Nathalia Vélez
Contact: Nathalia Vélez