Nine years ago, Colin Dowling decided to use everything he'd learned over the course of his tattooing career to open Gold Rush Tattoo in Costa Mesa. Dowling had never owned his own shop before, but he'd been getting tattooed since he was 18, and started working and apprenticing around shops less than a year later, so he was already closing in on almost a decade in the industry.
"I'd tried to get tattooed before I was 18, but I couldn't find a place that would let me until I was 18," Dowling says. "But once I was old enough, I was always that kid in a man's tattoo shop. They couldn't get rid of me."
Dowling spent nearly three years without getting paid while learning some of the skills of the trade, such as making needles, and that was before he even set his hands on a tattooing machine.
"I started learning how to draw for tattoos before I started tattooing, I always had hereditary traits to draw and create, but I never had an outlet," Dowling says. "I spent most of my early 20s learning the technical side of it, mixing pigments, making needles, stuff like that. That's how I developed the work ethic and learned what was expected."
Like many tattoo apprentices, Dowling hated the beginning of his tattooing career. Over a decade-and-a-half later, Dowling believes that those formative years were tremendously crucial to his success.
"I'm so grateful for that time now. It might be the best thing that could've happened for me as a tattooer," Dowling says. "I picked up and was influenced by so much of what I saw back then. Some tattooers like to talk about how they're 'self-made,' but really no artists are self-made. Everyone is influenced by ideas, people, and so many other things."
Since his early days as an apprentice, Dowling has seen some major changes in the tattooing industry. While Dowling has stayed true to his roots by working with his inspiration, mentor, and friend Joel Bones at Gold Rush, he doesn't mind the bigger changes. Dowling admits that part of the reason for tattooing's recent meteoric growth could be the reality TV shows, but he believes that a lot of the changes themselves have to do with the caliber of artist who is entering the field now.
"Because of the popularity of tattoos now, you're getting well-trained artists out of art schools who want to tattoo. The type of work being done is is changing," Dowling says. "The TV shows, they leave some things out, but they also open a lot of people's eyes to tattooing. It's not painting. It's not carving. Tattooing is a medium all to itself. As long as artists keep pushing boundaries, it's going to keep growing. The business side of tattooing is still in its infancy, but as long as each artist can be responsible for their own work, it'll be huge for tattooing."
What's your personal style of tattooing? I do a lot more large-scale work these days. It's a Japanese style, but it still has some American traditional aspects to it, seeing as I learned here. My background is actually in black and grey, as well as traditional.
How can you tell your tattoos apart from others? Usually you see a fair amount of different line weights in my tattoos. I'll use both lighter lines and darker, heavier lines in the same tattoo. I also like to put the bright colors up in the front of the imagery, while the background is darker.
What's your favorite thing about tattooing? I love to give the customer what they want, but still having the freedom and trust from them to throw in my two cents. I've been tattooing for 15 years in this area, and I've got such a great client base here. I give them a great experience, and then they get to leave with the tattoo as a souvenir.
How does owning your own shop differ from tattooing at someone else's shop? Well, you get to create your own environment, but you have to make time for your employees, coworkers, and everyone else who comes into the shop, like contractors and media. It's a constant balance of representing what's best for tattooing as a whole, along with the business. We don't want the tattoo gods to frown upon what we're doing.
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What's something that people don't realize about tattooing? The responsibility and preparation that it requires. You get the idea from the customer, then you have to prepare the drawing and take it from a sketch to a line drawing to a stencil. Then you apply the stencil to the curves of the body, and not too many people understand how to make a drawing work on a body. Over time, you learn to make something very difficult look easy. We're not architects or painters or sculptors, but we have to be all of those things for a tattoo.
How is tattooing around the world different than the tattooing here in California? Fairly recently, I was tattooing throughout Southeast Asia, and it was a really cool experience. I was tattooing halfway around the world, but I was still among friends. It's a different style of tattooing, but everyone still gets similar tattoos. You have to consider the culture and religion of the area you're tattooing in, because some religions can't have tattoos, or at least not of certain subject matter. All over the world, you're still seeing traditional and Japanese styles of tattooing because of the wars. Guys like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy were in port cities all over the world. Tattooing is really a universal language.