Some tattoo artists might scoff at the thought of tattooing dolphins and butterflies straight off the flash sheet, but Chris Hamilton argues that this is an important step in the learning process. Hamilton has been tattooing for more than twenty years, and recently moved to Colorado to continue his work at Fallen Owl Tattoo. We recently caught up with Hamilton to talk about bicycling, his traditional tattoo apprenticeship and becoming well-rounded as an artist.
Westword: Where are you from?
Chris Hamilton: I'm from Pennsylvania originally, but I've moved around quite a bit. I've lived all over the place.
Where else have you lived?
Let's see: Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, San Francisco and I spent nineteen years in Florida, which is where I was tattooing before I came here.
How did you end up in Colorado?
My wife grew up here, so we started visiting a lot. To say the least, I prefer it over Florida in a big way.
You didn't like the weather down there?
I was just there way too long. Compared to here, it's boring, bland and doesn't really suit my lifestyle. Colorado does.
Is the tattoo scene different in Florida?
I wouldn't say it's really different. Obviously being here, close to the city, it's a little more popular. I started my apprenticeship down there and worked in the same shop for nineteen years, and then moved here. I developed a really good clientele down there, so I can't complain. They treated me well.
How long have you been tattooing?
How did you get into the industry?
By accident. An old friend of mine was a tattoo artist. When I went to Florida in '93 to visit him, he was tattooing in a shop and I got to meet everybody. I got to meet the owner and I got to be friends with everybody. I just kind of got lucky that they were in need of an apprentice at the time, and there I was. I stayed there for nineteen years.
Did you have an interest in art before that?
Oh, yeah. I've been getting tattooed since I was -- I think I got my first professional tattoo at sixteen. Back in the late '80s, I was already pretty tattooed.
Have you seen the industry change a lot in the past twenty years?
Over a twenty-year span, I guess it has changed. I don't know if I would say it has changed a lot. Like anything else, there have been minor refinements year after year --nothing revolutionary. The tattoo machines and all the equipment has changed a little bit, but I'm still using machines that I used twenty years ago and they still work just as good. Continue reading for more with Chris Hamilton. Do you think the experience of being an apprentice is different now than it was twenty years ago?
Yeah. In my experience, I would say -- I can't speak for what everybody else does -- my apprenticeship was hugely different than what you see nowadays. It's a hard thing.
There's so many more tattoo shops than there used to be twenty years ago. I mean, there's probably twenty times more. When I was an apprentice, there might have been one shop in each town. We're talking 1993 -- not that that was the old West or anything, but there was a big difference back then. I had a very traditional, formal apprenticeship. There were no short cuts. I was cleaning toilets, mopping floors, running errands. I was very much a gopher and a bitch to some degree. But I appreciate that. I wouldn't change it because it saturated my learning curve.
Nowadays I see a lot of people coming up in an industry that everybody wants to jump in and be the cool guy, the rock star. Nobody wants to do little dolphins and butterflies and hearts and roses like I did over and over and over. I hate to generalize, because I don't know what everyone else is doing, but I know a lot of people skip over those steps. So years down the line, that's where you see people "specializing" in things, because they're not well-rounded. They don't know how to do a lot of things because they wanted to skip over all the hard-work stuff, all the boring stuff that taught me everything I know. It translates to the bigger custom things, all the flash we used to do. That's the biggest difference that I see.
So you would say you have a well-rounded style?
That's exactly what I would say. If you want to tattoo for a living, you have to be well-rounded.
Do you have a favorite kind of piece to work on?
I've gotten a bit of a reputation over the years for some of the traditional Japanese themes. I've gotten kind of good at it over the years. It was something I really wanted to learn how to do back in the day. Ten or fifteen years ago I really liked that stuff, so I tried to learn how to draw a lot of it, so I did develop a little bit of a reputation for that. There's a fair amount of it in my portfolio and I do enjoy it. I wouldn't say it's the only thing I want to do. At some point I might get bored of it. But I get to do it enough that I really enjoy it.
Do you work in any other media?
You've never had any interest in branching out?
I've always drawn, so my artistic calling gets fulfilled at work. We're busy. Fortunately, I've been busy enough over the years that I don't really feel the need to go home and draw or paint. I've got other interests outside of work that keep me fulfilled.
What are some of your other interests?
The biggest thing is that I'm a cyclist. I race bicycles. That keeps me busy eleven months out of the year, training and racing and riding. That's pretty much my life outside of work.
For more information, visit the Fallen Owl website.