James "Snapper" Snap carefully sketches an outline on the calf of a young woman getting ready for her latest tattoo, an elegant arrangement of lilies and stars.
In business since 1971, the self-described elder statesman of the San Antonio tattoo community might sound like a curmudgeon amid a new generation of artists. But Snap is sincere and straightforward when he speaks about the plethora of changes he has witnessed during his long tenure in the industry, which includes 20 years as the owner of Phantasy Tattoos on the city's northeast side.
"A lot of these young people who are in this business today, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, 'I'm just in it for the art,'" Snap, 68, told the San Antonio Current at his shop this month. "Well, if you're just in it for the art, then you're fucked up because tattooing isn't an art, it's a craft."
The "art versus craft" debate may seem irrelevant to someone just looking to get marked up, but it's actually much more than skin deep for industry insiders. It's a distinct difference in philosophy that's quite noticeable for those who have seen San Antonio tattoo culture evolve.
Snap's "craftsman first, artist second" mentality stems from the way he was taught during his time as an apprentice. Back then, it was mandatory to know how to build tattoo machines and needles and etch out stencils. Apprentices had to pay their dues learning under a master tattooist for a few years before breaking out on their own. Nowadays, Snap lamented, people call themselves tattooists just by getting online and buying a cheap tattoo starter kit – likely made in China – and then learning the hard way that it's actually not that easy.
"When I entered the tattoo business, it was a closed society," Snap said. "Today, everybody thinks they're a tattooer. They're like, 'Come over to my house and I'll show you how good I am.' Then, after getting their tattoo, they end up coming over here and paying me a whole lot of money to fix that shit."
When he opened in 1995, Snap said there were less than 10 local shops in San Antonio. Now, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, there are currently 104 registered in Bexar County.
"There are some really good tattooers here in town, but there are also some really bad tattooers," Snap said. "Because of that, the quality across the board is not what it used to be."
A local tattoo shop whose quality is usually unquestioned is Element Tattoo Studio in northwest San Antonio. Owner Jedidia Reid, 36, seems to strike a balance between old and new school mind-sets. He said he came into the business about 15 years ago, when premade ink and needles weren't readily available. He understands veterans' frustration with new artists coming in like they know everything, yet they're mostly clueless about what it all entails.[Slideshow: A Photo Tour Of Element Tattoo Studio]
"After the internet became prominent, all those trade secrets like building machines and needles were kind of lost," Reid told the San Antonio Current. "There's less of that complete creative process now. There's integrity and power in knowing a design is hand drawn and the needle and ink is handmade. To know that some of these kids will never be able to do that is kind of a shame."
Reid also feels there is not as much mutual respect among shop owners as there was when he first got started. One unwritten rule no longer observed: owners not opening up next to one another.
"Rule of thumb was that there should be at least a 25-mile radius between shops," Reid said. "That was your zone. But that doesn't exist anymore. There are three shops within throwing distance from this one."
But that's where he reconciles remembering the good ol' times with today's reality.
"You know, this is a business," he said. "People want to make money, so sometimes their selfishness will overpower their moral compass. You see that in every industry."
And just like with most industries, growth leads to increased competition with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. So it probably doesn't come as a surprise to see some tattoo shops here today, gone tomorrow. A quick online search reveals at least a dozen with disconnected listings or dead websites.
"Just because you're an artist doesn't mean you're a businessman," Reid said. "When I see these other shops close down, I'm not surprised. I kind of enjoy watching who sinks and who swims. Only the strong will survive."
That's just fine by him, Pikaso Soliz said. The tattoo artist at Revolution Ink in northwest San Antonio said he's had his share of ups and downs and somehow has survived. In and out of the prison system for 15 years, Soliz considers himself a tattoo artist because of what he learned behind bars. The less you have to work with, the more creative you have to be.
"I'm an artist, but I know my craft," said Soliz, 38, who has worked nearly half of his life as a tattoo artist. "Prison taught me a lot. It improved my artistic ability. It really gave me time to focus on my art. Give me a tape player, remote control car, VCR and a spool of wire and I'll make you anything, not just a shank."
He started as a "scratcher" when he was a teenager, tattooing his friends out of his house. While "scratcher" for many people in tattoo circles is a derogatory term for an amateur without a shop, Soliz embraced it early in life and doesn't look down on others trying to make their mark. He speaks from experience. It's one of the reasons Revolution Ink also sells tattoo equipment, which is derided by veterans who say it encourages people to start tattooing without training.
That's fine if they feel that way – not Soliz. He just sees it differently.
"It's like going to a mechanic," he said. "You can get your car worked on at the BMW dealership or you can go to your homeboy's house. I have nothing against it because that's where I came from and it made me who I am today."
It's yet another example of the generational divide. Even for someone with an open mind toward the new, Element's Reid said he draws the line at selling self-starter kits.
Doctors or dentists wouldn't sell such tools for people to work on themselves at home, Reid said. In fact, when a failed tattooist comes into his shop trying to sell him a starter kit, he'll offer the guy $100 for it – out of moral obligation.
"A lot of times I'll buy it just to get it off the streets," Reid said. "If I can help stop the spread of disease, I will. Or maybe I'll just stop some 14-year-old kid from fucking up his 12-year-old cousin."
Local scratcher "Mad Mike" Medina, 29, who got his first tattoo when he was 12, bought two of his customized tattoo machines from Calavera's Tattoo in Southtown. He's been tattooing for five years, working out of a home studio for the last year and a half. He used to work for Legion Ink. And he is considering joining a friend who's thinking about opening up a new shop this year.
It's easy to jump around in the industry since tattooists, unlike nail technicians and hair stylists, are not required to have a license or certificate to operate in Texas. For now, Medina enjoys being his own boss and not having much overhead.
"Sometimes people are skeptical about going to someone who works from their home, but I like to post a lot of photos of my tattoos so they know my work. I feel like I'm a good tattooer and I definitely don't cost as much as a regular tattoo place," he said.
Also unlike most regular tattoo places, Medina is open to bartering for tattoo work like most scratchers who advertise online. Look up Medina or a number of other aspiring local tattoo artists on Craigslist and Facebook – most will list stuff they'll take in lieu of cash. In the past, Medina has received flat-screen TVs, game systems, vehicles, jewelry and even semi-automatic rifles and handguns.
"I want everyone to have a tattoo if they want it, but some people just don't have the money," Medina said. "If they have something to trade, then I'm cool with that. Sometimes I'll keep the stuff and sometimes I'll sell it or barter it for something else."
Like Medina, tattoo artist Lee Minor, 31, is another new kid on the block, tattooing for five years. He works out of his own tattoo shop, Minor Ink, off Culebra Road on the West Side. When he started, other tattoo artists looked down on him because he committed what many consider a sin in the tattoo industry: cut his apprenticeship with an experienced pro short to go into business for himself.
"They looked at me negatively because most tattoo artists want you to earn your place and build respect, but I just jumped into it," said Minor. "Still to this day I don't think I have the full respect of everybody."
Tattooists like Minor are the reason veterans like Snap don't take young trainees. He's heard too many stories about guys calling it quits and doesn't think young people today have the moxie it takes to stay for the long haul, Snap said.
"You take on an apprentice and try to teach them how to tattoo properly, and they'll hang around here for six months and do a couple of tattoos and think they got this shit down," he said. "Then they'll go right down the street and open up their own fucking tattoo shop. Not on my dime."
Probably not the way Minor sees it, though he'd agree that there may be too many tattoo shops now in San Antonio. Still, he said, if you can build a strong clientele, a little competition isn't anything to worry about. Even for someone like Minor, who admits he's still learning, there's enough room for people wanting to prove themselves. And, he said, there are enough clients to go around.
"Just as long as my customers are happy, they're the ones paying the bills," he said. "I think the majority of people in this city think it's cool to have tattoos, even if they get a shitty one every now and then."