Kneeling on the floor of his Steamboat Springs shop, Atlas Tattoo Studio, artist/owner Milo Alfring wades through pages of slightly crumpled, brightly colored drawings. The images, usually residing in an unassuming black filing cabinet, now spread almost halfway across the floor. "I don't usually get to look at these," Alfring says, clearly captivated by the story of each image, relics of tattoos now roaming the world.
The Denver native and Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design alum has dedicated more than a decade to his craft and a dream of becoming the proprietor of his domain, doing what he loves: tattooing. Over the years, Alfring has become renowned for his eclectic, detailed tattoos featuring sacred geometry and painted elements of nature. We recently visited the artist in Steamboat Springs to talk about his inspiration and approach to art.
Westword: How do you approach working with a canvas that communicates back?
Milo Alfring: Utilizing the structure of the body and the muscle, the layout of the human form is generally my main priority when designing a tattoo; this is where printing out the body part and sketching on that and doing all these rough sketches is so beneficial, because then you have this dynamic composition that flows with the body. It has flow.
In ten years, when people can print a 3-D body part and accomplish flow on the body part, would you consider that to be a departure from the origin of tattooing?
There's tattoo technology where that almost exists already in a lot of ways. It's not that I'm "too cool for that" or "I don't want to do that." It's more that it's more foreign to me, and I'm set in these ways and things. Especially with mandalas. There are so many guys who will just sketch them out digitally in a program, where it's completely, perfectly linear. Even if you're as careful as can be and you have a really good template, you're going to have hiccups, because it's still just a human being when it comes to geometry. And there are guys who'll design it all on a computer, print it out, run it through the stencil machine, never even touching a pencil.
If you had the technology available, would you use it?
That argument has been around for quite a while, even with painting. And I do think there's something beautiful, something authentic about getting your hands dirty with it, I guess. Like putting your soul into it. Even map-making with Garrett [Brown], we've always talked about how you could just run it through a laser cutter, but we do it all by hand. Nobody would know the difference. But to me, I'm more proud of the product when I put so much time and soul and energy into it. I think about what they really are. If you break it down to the fact that it's a permanent change to your body, in a lot of ways it's almost up there with body modifications and enhancements. It's permanent, and these people are living with that forever.
How much time do you dedicate to your work between research, drawing and tattooing?
It comes in waves, for sure. There are weeks where it's just nonstop: I'll wake up at eight o'clock and then tattoo till eight or ten at night. Then I'll get home and draw till one-ish. I just had a week like that, where every single waking moment of my life is drawing or tattooing.
With such long hours, does it begin to feel like a grind?
It's a double-edged sword. More and more now when I'm tattooing, it's just getting better and better (and better) for me, and I think that's because the tattoos that I've been doing and the requests that I get are more conducive to the types of tattoos that I want to do and the kind of work that I am interested in doing — the type of work that's fun for me.
What type of work and style is fun and interesting to you?
I suppose I gravitate toward neo-traditional tattooing. It fuses these ideas of the American roots of tattooing, the really Sailor Jerry kind of big, bold tattoo work. And that stuff is so beautiful and such a part of the tattoo culture for a good reason, because it's bullet-proof. It's just going to stand the test of time. It's solid, it's clean, it's readable, ya know? But I also like to take those roots and elaborate, make it a little more new, a little more detailed, a little more dynamic, a little more three-dimensional — while still holding on to the elements of what's going to make a good tattoo and how a tattoo is going to age and hold up and stand the test of time.
How do you balance designing a tattoo when a client's ideas oppose what might work ergonomically or structurally for their body?
That's another thing: You have to be willing to spend a lot of time with clients. They have these ideas that are great ideas, but they don't necessarily translate onto the human skin. Generally I'll tell people, mostly less is more, that's usually my main thing. Because people have so many ideas and they'll say, "I want this animal and this mandala and these flowers and this and that," but really if it was just flowers, to me that would make a beautiful tattoo. If they just narrow it down. And usually people are totally down for that sort of thing, especially after they've seen my sort of work. Then requesting a tattoo from me, I think they kind of know what they're going to get. A lot of times they'll give me ten ideas and I think, "We'd better home in on two of these elements."
As an adviser and tattoo artist, how do you educate your clients?
Depending on the tattoo, I'll try to talk people into going for color. I like doing color, but it's also another element that helps make the composition more readable, by actually being able to make out subject matter and helping to bring out features in a composition. When I was first starting, I'd always hear people saying. "What's that going to look like in ten years?" and I didn't give a shit. But now that you're older and you see that time is flying by, I've done a total 180 on that. When I was apprenticing, I took everything with a grain of salt. I was skeptical about the rules I was being taught, and I was also young and thought I knew everything about the industry. Now I know it's important to listen to your elders; it's been around a long time. If you look at the history, there are these guidelines. You also start to notice what shades and colors heal like, and how they go into the skin. Some are harder to saturate than others. It's complicated and dynamic, but generally the pastels fade.
With working such long hours, how do you avoid burnout?
As long as that fire is burning and you're keeping hungry and keeping passionate about it, I haven't gotten burned out. People who are booking with me are booking me for a reason. You have to want to get a tattoo from me now. I'm hard to find. I have this private studio, and that's kind of what I wanted. Because really, I'll never turn down a tattoo unless I just don't have the time. That's really the only thing.
Do you feel rewarded by your art and work?
I think tattooing is a perfect example of you get what you put into it. I am continuing to strive to get better. Sure, there are times when I think I need a day off, or I've worked for twelve hours and need to go home and do a drawing. One day I'll be drawing a fox with leaves and flowers. Another day I'll be drawing a big geometric mandala with tessellation background, and the next I'll do a realistic flower. That helps keep it different.
How do you find working so closely and intimately with your clients?
I love the relationships you build with clients. It can be a pretty special experience for a lot of people. It can be a heavy experience, too. You're in pain, you're getting something permanent. I don't know if it's because I'm here, but a lot of my clients I really enjoy spending time with. We're on a similar level. We usually share a lot of interests, whether that's snowboarding or being outside or exploring or just...getting tattooed!
To find out more about Milo Alfring and Atlas Tattoo Studio, call 303-903-4648 or go to atlastattoostudio.com.
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