Tattoos have colored most of Walter McDonald's life -- he got his first ink at age twelve and has been tattooing professionally for more than twenty years. Originally from Houston, he has lived in Colorado for 26 years, becoming a well-known name in the industry. He's now the owner of Lifetime Tattoo, where he has worked since it opened in 2001.
Westword caught up with Mcdonald, who talked about the importance of mindfulness, being a storyteller and reinventing the wheel.
Westword: How long have you been tattooing?
Walter McDonald: I did my first tattoo when I was twelve, so 29 years ago.
How did that happen?
My step-uncle, he was a tattooer and went back to prison and left his tattoo kit. So me and my friends, being mischievous, tattooed ourselves.
What did you get?
I got an anarchy sign on my knee. We were punk rocker kids.
Was that your first exposure to tattooing?
That and bikers. My dad was a biker. That was probably my first exposure. But what got me into it, though, was the whole punk rock hardcore scene.
Do you have a favorite style of tattooing?
I like working in all styles. I don't have a preference. The aesthetic that I like, more than the style, is I want it to look like a tattoo. Even if it's some sort of medieval image or if it's some anime cartoon, or whatever it is somebody wants, I think it should look like a tattoo. It should have that presence.
A lot of the people I've talked to say the industry has changed because tattoos are so prevalent now. Having been in the industry for a long time, is there anything you miss about the way it was when you got started?
There's definitely a nostalgia. It's way different, but it's even different from ten years ago. And then ten years before that it was different. There's certain things that I miss, but for all the things that I miss, there's new things about tattooing that I love. For instance, I love the competition that's bred out of social media and out of tattooers looking at each other's photographs on Instagram or on Facebook. Most people just copy, which is not bad, that's what every good artist does. But every once in a while, there's a breakthrough or something that happens that isn't planned, and I think that's good. It's good for the whole of tattooing, pushing tattooing to the next level or just making it better. Even if it's just reinventing the wheel.
Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with McDonald.
What do you think sets tattoos apart as an art form?
I think the biggest thing that's different, for me, when I'm tattooing somebody it's for them. When I'm creating art, it's for me. It's not even for me, it's just done because I have to. I think that's the biggest difference in tattooing; it's an art form that you're creating for the person to wear as a talisman or as an amulet or even just as a decoration or a keepsake, whatever the reason is for the person.
What do you think are some traits you need to have to be a good tattoo artist?
Mindfulness is the most important trait, not just to be a tattooer but to be a good person, because that's the biggest thing. You need to care about what you do, deeply, and you have to devote at least five years of your life to studying and trying to learn the fundamentals of tattooing. It kind of becomes your life. Most guys that I know that I look up to and think they're really good tattooers or really have a good hold on what they're doing and they're successful, they've sacrificed their lives.
Do you think that's something people don't realize about the tattoo industry?
Yeah, I think a lot of younger kids see it on TV and they think "Oh, you just draw. That's so cool, man." And yeah, you draw, but what you're drawing on people is an indelible mark. And I don't think a lot of people comprehend the gravity of that. In my personal opinion, your body is connected to your mind is connected to your spirit. And if you make a mark on your body, it affects not just your flesh bag, but your core of who you really are--your spirit. It's a pretty heavy thing. I wouldn't trade it for the world, I love it, but it's super hard. I know that there's always gonna be somebody that's a million times better than me. That just drives me to want to work harder and give my clients the best tattoos that I can possibly give them.
I heard you tell a lot of good stories. Is there one that comes to mind that gives a glimpse of what the day-to-day life in the industry is like?
Back to what we talked about what makes a good tattooer, you have to be a good storyteller. That's essentially what we're doing. The best tattoos tell stories. But then the best tattooers also tell good stories while they're tattooing. That usually just has to happen. We'll be hanging out and I'm shaving someone's chest and that'll remind me--OK, here's a story: I worked with this guy Carson Vester in Houston, he's one of my mentors and one of my favorite people in the world. He's a genius tattoo machine builder, also an amazing artist. But he's shaving this guy's chest, looking over his shoulder and talking to me and he cut the tip of the guy's nipple completely off. The guy's yelling and Carson looks at the guy, turns and looks at me, grabs a paper towel--doesn't even miss a beat--hands the guy the paper towel and and says "don't worry, man, it'll grow back." That's kind of a horrible story, but that's an example. It's like rainbows, they have to naturally occur.
Anything else you want to add?
We love tattooing at Lifetime. Make an educated decision about getting tattooed. I want everyone to come and get tattooed at my tattoo shop, but more than that, I just want people to get good tattoos, whatever that is. That could be anything, it doesn't necessarily have to be aesthetically perfect and the lines don't have to be perfect. It's the experience and the product and the feeling and the soul of the tattoo that matters.