I've been tattooing since February of 2013. I'm based in Atlanta, GA but travelling full time for work. I have set for myself a goal to tattoo in all fifty states by September 2019.
Before I started tattooing, I never worked a single job for more than about six months. I did everything from construction to math tutoring. The thing in me that says, "man, I've gotta get out of here," is extra strong. I get tired of the same commute--I love to drive, but I get tired of the same road. When I run, it's always a loop. I can't stomach an out and back for whatever reason. On a whim one afternoon--before the internet had infiltrated cellphones, before Waze, before Google Maps, in the day of the trusty atlas--John Zimmerman and I bought a case of Sugar Free Red Bull and drove US-41 from Murfreesboro, Tennessee to Chicago. We drove there and back in a straight shot. We came back a different way. I'm not really sure how we made it back. There was no GPS, and there were no signs marking any of the roads we took through Kentucky. Right out of high school, I went up and down the East Coast with a couple of different bands, and that was a great time.
A couple of years ago, I took a month off of work and drove from Georgia to California and back. I drove out through the middle of the country. Once I made it to Colorado, I drove North until I reached the high plains of Wyoming then headed over to northern California. On the way home, I headed south to I-40 and high tailed it straight back across the bottom of the country. I'd never really seen the desert before. There is this sense of freedom navigating roads that you haven't seen before or at least don't see often. Everything is different and interesting. What is the bathroom going to be like in this gas station? Is this cheap motel going to be surprisingly nice, or will it smell like a bar because someone had a party last night? The terrain varies. The sunrise and sunset look different. The vegetation changes so often. There is a barbed wire museum in Kansas. There is an elaborate mosaic in a rest stop men’s room in Texas. Simply finding a good cup of coffee is an adventure on the road.
When I do a guest spot, the sense of adventure comes right into the tattoo shop with me. Usually, I know someone there or have at least looked at some pictures of the shop and the work, but there’s no way to really know what the shop is like. Am I going to hit par here? Is someone going to really burn me at handling walk ins? What will I learn from this trip? How do I get paid? What percentage are they going to offer me? Is there counter help? Is it fun, or is there tension? What are the hours? Every shop is so different, as is the way every tattooer works.
Shortly after I got back from that trip to California we closed the first shop where I actually did tattoos for money. I worked there for three years. That was the only building I’ve ever worked in for more than one year. It was surreal walking out of that place for the last time. The next place I worked was where I really learned to handle walk ins. My buddy got me a job working for Sailor Bill Killingsworth’s last apprentice Lil’ Rat at Beyond Taboo Tattoo. This dude is the real deal. He’s one hundred percent 1% but somehow an incredibly nice guy. I was driving an hour and a half each way with a twelve hour shift in between and running a small tattoo supply business on top of that. It was too much. I made it a year at that then took a job at a shop much closer to my home.
Beyond Taboo was on a wait almost every weekend. In a busy shop all you have to do is care about doing the best job you can on every tattoo, and you will grow as a tattooer. You learn to draw new things. You do tattoos that are outside your comfort zone. You walk up to the counter over and over and deal with each new, strange request better than you did yesterday. But, this last year, I’ve been sitting in a room waiting for a tattoo that isn’t coming. I’m talking about zeroing out on two Saturdays in March. I’m talking about it feels like November all the time. It’s nice to have time to draw and paint, and I love hanging out with that crew of dudes, but except for a couple of guys who grew up in the area and have clientele coming out their noses, no one was making a living. In fact, the shop nearly closed around the time that I started dreaming up this project.
I needed to do something interesting. I had to find an adventure that would take me new places and make me money and help me grow as a tattooer. I somehow got myself into this deal with the most recent shop’s now former owner where I was helping him with a lawn care company. He shouldn’t have even had a lawn care company, but I’d agreed to go with him to Florida and do some unknown amount of work for some unknown amount of money for the shop’s landlord. It was a bad deal, and as I was lying in a hotel bed realizing that I’d gotten myself into a bad deal and wondering what the fuck could make things better, it dawned on me: I haven’t even been to all fifty states. I should see the country tattooing. I’m going to tattoo in every state. When I’m not tattooing, I’m going to visit as many shops as I can along my route selling my prints and my flash and meeting other tattooers. I’m going to visit that barbed wire museum in Kansas. I might even drive all the way to Alaska. I’ll write about any interesting experiences I have here in this blog and make a painting or sheet of flash that has something to do with my experience in each state. When I’m done with all of that I’m going to collect the writings and the paintings into a book.
The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, (and if you could come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles. Miles of trials. -John L. Parker Jr.