Colored Ink Via the Black Rooster
Playing witness at the tat shop
I learn that he got into tattooing in a roundabout way—he wanted to be a piercer, and succeeded in becoming one before sidestepping into tattooing to pay the bills. He apprenticed for three years in his brother's shop, Elite Custom Tattoo Studio, in Scottsdale, Ariz. “He had plenty of great artists pass through the shop. I pulled knowledge out of each and every one, and thank each one for the opportunity,” Bedo tells me. The first full tattoo he completed was a minuscule hiker's boot print that no one else in the shop wanted to touch. Unaware that he should be afraid of something so small and precise, he hammered it out perfectly and got the bug—the satisfaction that comes with seeing someone walk out the door with your artwork indelibly pressed into their skin.
While setting up a bottle of woodsy-smelling green soap, tiny ink cups and bluish needles sterilized with ethylene oxide gas, Bedo details that he always drew here and there, was good but not great in art classes. And that's when I realize you don't necessarily have to be an art prodigy to be a tattooer. Sure, you've got to have a certain level of raw skill, but you also have to be willing to put in good old-fashioned work. I ask what he thinks it takes to be a legitimate tattooer, to which he responds, “I guess the short answer is: Be licensed by the state.” But he's motivated by more than just bureaucracy and license papers and logged hours: “Aside from [always] working to be a better artist, you have to have many things like [being] prompt, being responsible and having ethics—I mean, we are permanently marking someone for life.” Precision is important, and Bedo is disdainful of anyone who cuts corners: He says the most important qualities of an expert tattoo are layout, flow on the body, quality of design, clean lines, solid fill and smooth gradients. Considering all these skills and the creativity that pulls it all together, the $125 per hour minimum starts to sound pretty damn fair. Plus tip, of course.
Today's human canvas is Christy McCool, a costume designer with an extensive and impressive leg sleeve in progress. She's a little late, but arrives bearing fresh-made soup for Bedo, along with a million other accoutrements that show this isn't her first rodeo—far from it. Pillows, snacks, music and reading material are all a must when you're sitting in a plastic-wrapped chair for as long as she does. I soon get a glimpse of the work du jour. The front-top panel of her leg is covered by a colorful Día de los Muertos woman (based on a picture of herself in costume on Halloween); this image flows down into a bright '90s Jim Lee-esque X-Men scene featuring Rogue flying over a cityscape. The back of her leg leeches into a black and gray Route 66 collage with arrows, road signs and a pinup girl. The top-back panel of her leg is again shaded with another Día de los Muertos woman. Bedo illuminates various ways of merging one tattoo into another, such as flow movement, matching color values and similar background themes. He ballparks his work on the leg sleeve at around 26 hours total with sessions lasting up to 7 hours at one time. Clearly, McCool is a trooper.
Finally, purple gloves on, tiny pots of white, black, robin's egg blue and vivid orange waiting, Bedo revs the machine gun and leans forward to begin the process. The two chat about their kids and summer. Music plays. Other artists come to catch up with McCool since her last session. Customers walk by to proudly show off their shiny, new ink.
Hypnotized by the buzz of the machine, I meditate on the repetitive process: Dip the needles in the ink. Buzz. Buzz. Buzzzzzz. Swipe with the green soap—the scent gets stronger and stronger. Dip, buzz, swipe, repeat. Rinse between colors. After a while, microbeads of ruby blood occasionally well up, only to be quickly blotted and have their enzymes broken down by the medical-grade cleansing agent. The skyscrapers below Rogue become dark and brooding, and the night wind curling between the buildings takes on life. That's the magic. Even as my eyes are beginning to glaze over from the repetition, this artist in front of me is precisely and skillfully pushing new life into already living tissue. And perhaps that's why we get tattoos—to feel a little more soul under our mortal skin.