Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Ink Tank

By Dave McAlinden

When it comes to tattooing, the ink always seems to receive more recognition than the artist. After all, we get tattoos for ourselves, not to plug the artist who adorned us with it. But the real lifeblood behind the popularity of tattooing comes from the people dedicated to the practice as an art form. They are the ones who carry it on and supply the ever-growing number of those who want tattoos with the gift of style, meaning and distinctiveness. Never one to shy away from an interesting story, I recently interviewed a few local tattoo artists in an attempt to get under their skin and find out what brought them to the profession.
Over at Adorn Body Art (2535 SE Belmont St, 292-7060,, a newer shop in Southeast, I spoke with local artist Elias “Eli” Falconette. Originally from So-Cal, he received his first tat when he was 15 years old in “some Vietnamese guy’s house…a friend of a friend,” says Falconette. “It was of this really shitty dragon,” he says, lifting his right shirt sleeve to reveal the spot where the dragon once garlanded the brachialis between bicep and tricep. “I’ve had it covered up so many times,” he adds. When asked how many pieces he has had so far he quips, “Geez, I have no idea… Hopefully one day it’ll be just one big tat.”
Jeff Johnson, a veteran tattoo artist at Sea Tramp Tattoo Co. (207 SE Grand Ave, 231-9784,, the oldest tattoo shop in Portland, recalls the events of his first tat as the result of a magic trick. “I was 15 years old,” he says. “It was at this crossroads motel and I was showing some biker guy my disappearing handkerchief trick.” Johnson goes on to explain how he used a fake, plastic thumb to facilitate the trick. “The biker freaked out and was all, ‘You gotta show me how to do that.’ So I made him a deal: the trick for a tattoo. The tattoo was the symbol of chaos.” Johnson has been in the business for 18 years.
Much like Johnson, Falconette was 15 when he received his first mark (under arguably questionable circumstances). But as Falconette reasons, “I’d rather get a tattoo that’s not very good from someone who’s really cool than get an amazing one from a shitty person.”
It’s interesting that the love of a piece of body art does not lie solely on its aesthetic qualities. When I ask both Johnson and Falconette about their first experiences there is no hesitation about the events; no stopping to think about it. “Tattoos are about the memories,” says Falconette. And while he and Johnson both have a lot of memories circumscribing their art, when asked how many tats they have, each responded with a satisfied lack of awareness. “I don’t know how many tattoos I have, and it’s really not about how many, it’s now more a matter of surface area. I guess you could say I’m at about half,” Johnson replies, twisting his wrist from left to right. Suffice to say that for both Falconette and Johnson, the body acts as a special kind of scrapbook ensconced in art, the extremes of both caliber and context. Just like life.
In the heart of the Alberta Arts District is D’Lacie McBride of Optic Nerve Arts (1223 NE Alberta St, 287-0339,, who got her first tattoo (a fairy ring around her waist) at the age of 18. She knew at that moment that she wanted to be a tattoo artist. McBride has been tattooing for three years but she was an artist long before that. “I had been drawing since I was four. My grandma was an artist and my uncle was a D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) miniature painter, so I had some influence,” says McBride. “I love fantasy art, but I have a tendency to (go) towards the organic; flowers, trees, that kind of thing.”
McBride’s own body art, she explains, is a collage constructed by the artists of this city. “I haven’t gone to everyone, but I’ll get there,” she states. The tattoos cover about a fifth of her body. When I ask how many people she’s tattooed in her three years, she just laughs, as if I have asked her to solve some complex math problem. “It’s impossible to tell,” she says. “I can say I have a lot of really great friendships with clients. I like to build friendships with bigger pieces. I have a lot of repeat business and life-long clients.” It’s clear to see that McBride also adheres to Falconette’s observation that it is important to like the person who’s tattooing you. When you consider that alongside her experience, it’s no wonder she has repeat customers.
In light of the current economic climate, many businesses have been experiencing a high loss of revenue resulting in layoffs and, in some cases, closure. Curiously enough, the tattoo industry hasn’t seen much of a blow, at least not in Portland. I’m not sure if this is a testament to the quality of art Portland tattoo artists are producing or the attitude Portlanders have toward the art form. Nevertheless, Johnson revealed that February has been one of his best months. “I think when people purchase something they feel an appropriate amount of guilt. Ya know, after you go shopping you think, ‘Should I have bought that?’ But with tattoos it’s less of an indulgence so there is more respect from the buyer,” says Johnson. “It’s not like you’re buying a pair of shoes. It is something that’s going to last you forever.”
Furthermore, McBride notes that getting a tattoo “is not a body modification alone, it’s therapeutic.” In times of stress people seek therapy and getting a tattoo has a certain feeling of catharsis to it. It’s something you do for yourself and ultimately, it is nice to have something you can call your own that no one can repossess or evict you from. There’s a security in that, I think.
So if you are in the market for a tattoo, if you want something you can call your own, these are artists with whom I recommend you trust your skin. They are dedicated, professional, talented, and above all, really cool people. This is evident in the way that they support each other as well. Artists in this city don’t tend to be all that competitive and are quick to recommend (and patronize) other studios like Altas (4543 N Albina Ave, 281-7499,, Infinity (3316 N Lombard St, 231-4777, and Tiger Lily (4616 NE Sandy Blvd, 288-1555, where they themselves have been inked.
At the end of the day, it all lends itself to boosting an industry that plays a big role in putting Portland on the creative national map—one tattoo at a time. (Photo credit: Cambrae of Daniel James Productions)

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