His name was Hendrix.
The maroon-hued cinnamon clownfish was the longest survivor of Jedidiah Reed’s saltwater aquarium. Hendrix had become a mascot of sorts for Jedi, as friends call him, and his young shop, Element Tattoo off Fredericksburg.
Then the fire. Old, overloaded electrical wiring blew an outlet one night in 2009 and started a blaze around the tank. It got so hot, the aquarium exploded and smothered the fire before it could take the whole building.
Reed’s small stable of artists were jettisoned to other friends’ shops for about a year while they rebuilt. And they honored Hendrix just how you’d expect – each got a clownfish tattoo.
While the Texas Department of State Health Services has licensed more than 100 tattoo studios in and around San Antonio, Reed is one of the latest in a line of tattooers pushing skin art to new heights in South Texas. Decades before Reed opened up Element, which has since grown to house about a dozen of the best artists in the city, tattoo legend Bob Moreau put South Texas on the flesh-decor map when he opened Perfection Tattoo here in the mid-1980s. “Doctor Bob,” as people called him, went on to teach prominent artists like Chris Treviño, Shawn DeGan and Troy Curry and helped forge what aficionados across the globe call the Texas Style, a wild Americana marked by bright blues, lime greens, pinks and purples – like Americana gone nuclear.
Reed grew up and learned how to tattoo in Corpus Christi under another Texas skin-art legend, Bruce Edwards, and describes his own style as “modern classic.” It’s a style he’s needled into numerous clients as multiple-session bodysuits and back pieces – the kind of massive, traditional Japanese-inspired movements Reed’s perhaps most known for. Last year, he says he started 27 back pieces – which can cost anywhere between $18,000 to $20,000 and generally take an average of 50 hours in the chair. Which makes it a bonding experience between tattooer and tattooed, Reed says.
Such is the case with Craig, who’s been going to Element for several years to finish what started as a shoulder piece, then grew into a full-back tattoo, and then added sleeves, front panels, and now leg work. Craig, a local business-owner who builds home theater systems for a living, doesn’t necessarily look like the Yakuza-style bodysuit type; he didn’t even start on the project until age 45.
But on a recent Friday, Craig stood in Reed’s studio, naked except for sheared boxer-briefs, as the artist stenciled a coy-dragon-octopus battle scene on his left buttock. His ink-covered skin now tells numerous stories. On his back, there’s a rooster that represents his brother tussling with a snake, which represents Craig, over a mouse in the center – which represents Craig’s brother, who died at age 4 from Leukemia. On his left arm, there’s a dragon (his daughter) biting the tail of an ox (his son) which is poking a monkey (Craig’s wife) that’s strangling a snake (Craig). Ashes from his beloved pets were mixed into black ink to write their names on coins that dot his right arm. He says he wishes he had more skin for more stories.
“The only regret I have is that I’m not bigger and I don’t have more skin,” he tells Reed.
Even with his success, Reed still hustles as hard as when he was a young man learning the trade. The shop is in such demand that some days, by the time it opens at noon, walk-ins are already swarming the front desk – which Reed’s mother helps him manage. Reed usually shows up a of couple hours before the shop opens to knock out a session before the place wakes up.
While an established artist like Reed, who can command top-dollar for his work, could isolate himself in a private studio and only take the clients he wants, he cherishes walk-ins and tries to do at least a couple every week. “It’s the root of tattooing,” he says. “I gotta keep meeting new people, new faces, new ideas, new things.”
Still, walk-ins can be a tricky thing. On one recent day inside the shop, a would-be customer walked in with some vague design ideas wanting some coverup work. When he asked for a good price, Reed’s response: “I don’t do good prices, I do good tattoos.” At one point, the guy said something about wanting some sort of blue tattoo on his right arm – that’s all Reed could get out of him.
“Why would you get something on your body for the rest of your life if you don’t know what the fuck you want?” Reed asked. Then he told the guy what he tells most customers: “I’m just trying to get you the best tattoo that you can get.”
As Reed puts it, successful artists are the ones who can veer in and out of right- and left-brain thinking – the technical skill needed to apply clean lines, solid shading, and color that will last, while at the same time creating and sketching and developing a personal style. Style and tone – or what you might call the artist’s chair-side manner.
Reed says he loves the feel of an old school shop, where artists worked with their shirts off so customers could read them like a billboard. Sometimes Reed works shirtless so his clients can read his skin. Other times, he says, it’s for more practical reasons. “This is a blood-letting ritual,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t want their fucking blood on my brand-new shirt.”
Dylan Donohue has seen the good the bad and the ugly when it comes to tattoos. That’s because, on his journey to success in SA’s tattoo scene, he’s bounced from apprenticing, to laser-removing people’s regrettable ink to, now, working as a full-time artist at a prominent shop here in the Alamo City.
“I’ve seen how devastating terrible tattoos can be to people,” Donohue says. “If I really don’t think the tattoo [a client] wants is a good idea, I’m gonna tell ‘em why, and do my best to get them to come around to a tattoo that they’re gonna be happier with.”
As early as he can remember, Donohue says that he was always drawing, and eventually was put into art classes as early as seven years old, where he started learning how to work with charcoal and pastels. Enrolling in advanced art classes throughout his schooling, Donohue said that drawing didn’t just stop in art class – that even in his other periods, he was “always drawing in the margins of notebooks” with what were mostly Simpsons-style cartoons.
After a bachelor’s degree in marketing later, followed by a stint in the retail management world, Donohue was eager for something a little more fulfilling and closer to his artistic passions. Upon discovering his friend Patrick Thomas had been tattooing for a while at Custom Ink, Donohue secured an apprenticeship and learned the ins and outs of tattooing for some two years.
After finishing his apprenticeship, Donohue tattooed at Custom Ink for a few months before landing a job as a laser technician for a tattoo removal company on the North Side. After a few years of removing tattoos, and tattooing on the side, the artist secured a full-time slot at Fortune Brothers Tattoo Company, where he’s been mastering his craft for a little over a year now.
“When I first started tattooing, I didn’t really know what to expect,” he says. He’s since slid into a favorite style, known as American traditional, which was popularized in WWII and has grown more popular in recent years. “I think my OCD and needing everything to be in order is why I like traditional tattoos so much,” Donohue says.
For Donohue and other artists, learning the trade isn’t just technique and finding and developing a style. Early on, Donahue found the customer service aspects of the job were just as important – communicating with clients, asking them questions to really figure out what they want, and helping them pick a tattoo they’ll be happy with and “hold up” over time.
Now with five years of experience putting needle to flesh, this is his advice for any young bucks interested in pursuing the art of tattooing as a career: “Get a real apprenticeship with a veteran tattoo artist that’s been in the business for a while and knows what they’re talking about,” he said. “Then listen to everything they have to say.”
Essentially, Tara Quinn is just a kid who never grew up.
A look around her work area, the furthest back corner of Dandyland Tattoos, and you’ll find toys still in boxes and comic book covers neatly attached to the wall, making it look like it’s covered by one giant poster.
Quinn was born in California and at age seven moved to Beeville, a small town an hour northwest of Corpus Christi with a population of about 13,000. There was absolutely nothing to do there, she says, so she spent most of her time drawing — and still does.
On a shelf in Quinn’s work area sits a thick stack of sketchbooks, each one completely full of drawings. But that stack, she says, hardly makes a dent in the number of books she’s filled up in her history as an artist. More recently, she’s started keeping her drawings in a tablet, which she uses to quickly sketch up ideas when a client comes to her wanting a new tattoo. She talks about her tablet with pride, knowing that some of her best work sits in there, stored as a rough draft.
Quinn is a new school tattoo artist, which means her work often incorporates vibrant colors, varied lines and animated styles. Her tattoos often look cartoonish (think exaggerated features) that are sometimes unsettling, but always unique. And though her work has evolved over the years (you can scroll through her Instagram to see her early drawings), her style is distinguishable among new school artists for her attention to detail and use of shading.
Quinn remembers watching her uncle practice giving a tattoo during a family trip, and at that moment, something for her just clicked. Right then, she knew she wanted to be a tattoo artist.
She began to practice tattooing on fake skin (it’s a thing, really) and landed an apprenticeship where she got her first taste of the tattooing industry — an industry, which she quickly learned, isn’t always that welcoming to women.
Throughout her career, Quinn says she’s experienced sexism, from past employers who treated her differently than her male co-workers to the clients who didn’t believe in her as an artist. Some people told her there’s no way her work could actually be hers because she’s a woman. In the beginning, it took some time for Quinn to get used to being the only woman artist at a shop, as well as one of the few women professionally tattooing in San Antonio.
“It’s not as much of a good ol’ boys club anymore,” she says while scrolling through her phone. She’s searching for photos of her work that other artists — other male artists — have ripped off, claiming her drawings as their own.
At first, Quinn didn’t feel the need to call out the impostors, but when she saw her work being replicated more frequently, coupled with clients questioning her abilities because of her gender, she began putting the copycats on blast.
Quinn’s passion for respecting original art is commendable. Don’t expect to walk into Dandyland with a photo of a tattoo — a photo of a tattoo designed by a different artist, that is — and have her needle that image onto you. Instead, you’ll get a Tara Quinn original, a piece that’s been reworked and reimagined. Which is part of the reason why clients keep going back to her.
Currently, Quinn is the longest standing tattoo artist at Dandyland. She started working at the shop around 2009 and has worked on countless tattoos since, building relationships with clients that she now calls her friends.
Any tattoo artist will tell you that this career is not for the weak.
“You deal with assholes all the time,” she says, “and back pain, no medical insurance or benefits.” And artists typically work by appointment, getting a cut of each piece they tattoo. That means that if a client bails, you don’t get paid. But it’s all worth it, she says, for the moment when a client finally sees their finished piece.
“You know that weird kid who always sat in the back of the class,” she asks. “Yeah, that was me.”
It wasn’t until she started getting tattoos that Quinn began to feel comfortable in her own body, and giving that gift to other people — helping people grow into themselves through her art — is why she got into the business in the first place.
She’s currently booked through the next couple of months, but folks interested in working with Quinn can get in touch with her through Dandyland or Instagram, which is where about a third of her clients discover her work. However, if you’re going to request a tattoo from Quinn, there are a few things she wants you to know: She considers herself a giant nerd and apologizes in advance for all the dumb things she’ll say during your session, which, depending on your tattoo, could take a few hours, so be prepared. Bring your phone and watch Netflix, listen to music or use the time to catch up on a podcast. She asks that you don’t bring a million friends into the shop because it’s distracting and more people usually means more opinions, and more opinions can get in the way of your artist's advice.
And last but not least, respect your artists. Whether it’s Quinn or not, your tattoo artist knows best. Trust them.
Love for permanent flesh art started early for Justin Martinez. In the late '70s, his mom would take him with her to visit some shops down in Corpus Christi. He’d eventually hang out in those same shops with his uncles after a day at the beach.
“They smoked in there, the tattooer didn’t have a shirt on – it was just real outlaw,” he says. “It was a real treat.”
Martinez has since become a prominent name in San Antonio’s tattoo scene, but breaking into it early on was harder than it is nowadays. The tattooer explained that the scene used to be dominated by tight-lipped bikers that weren’t exactly keen on giving out tips, or welcoming outsiders to the community for that matter. He also explained that finding tattoo machines and supplies was pretty much out of the question in those days.
“It’s not like it is now where you can just order whatever you want off the internet,” Martinez told us, saying that a person would need a reference number and have to pay an annual due to even order the equipment.
Eventually breaking into the scene and getting a start at Mr. Lucky’s in 1999, Martinez was taken under the wing of shop owner Weldon Lewis, where Martinez says he learned how to paint, tattoo and interact with clients. Martinez says it wasn’t necessarily a formal apprenticeship but a “working and guided” tattoo-learning process.
As for style, Martinez likes the “silly, not so serious,” recalling a rubber chicken he once tattooed on someone. But really, he loves working on big, Americana traditional-themed pieces – like the classic “rock of ages,” a nautical-themed piece with a woman clinging to a stone cross in the middle a thunderous sea.
Now Martinez works out of Element with Jedidiah Reed and some of the Alamo City’s other tattoo scene heavy-hitters, like Sweet Lorraine and Kelly Edwards. It’s a clean, open space (which last week got a 100 percent on its surprise health inspection) that looks half art gallery, half tattoo studio. The artists strip the walls once a year to clean, repaint and redecorate.
As Reed puts it, “A shop’s like a living entity.”
Slinging Ink Tattoo Expo, March 3-5, Freeman Coliseum, slinginginktattooexpo.com
Alamo City Tattoo Show, March 31-April 2, Hilton Garden Inn, alamocitytattoo.com