Dan Smith's Captured Tattoo looks like any other Old Town Tustin storefront from the outside. There are no big neon signs or colorful tattoo-based images on the windows. Even the frosted door reads "You found it!" in big letters over the name, clearly aware of the shop's incognito exterior.
That's what Smith wants, though. After all, he's already had plenty of the spotlight, being a mainstay for two seasons of TLC's LA Ink and performing with numerous bands, including his most successful outfit, The Dear & Departed. Although Smith put music on hold when he opened Captured last year, the two will always be connected in his eyes.
"I became aware of tattoos through music," Smith says. "My dad was heavily into music in England, so that's where I first saw tattoos. Seeing [photos of] musicians in the '70s and '80s, they were mostly traditional tattoos."
From there, Smith moved to New Zealand, where he attended a "really strict, all-boys high school" and saw a tattoo in person for the first time, a self-inked cross on one of his Samoan classmates. Both in and out of school, "the white kid from England" was living in an area where tattoos were a far more prevalent part of culture than they were in America two decades ago.
"Growing up, I was so much more aware of tattoos than people who don't get into it until they're 18," Smith says. "At 16, I met [renowned New Zealand tattooer] Dean Sacred, and he had a huge influence on me. I was a clueless kid looking for direction, and he had such a great work ethic. He didn't deal with egos or anything, he was just mostly positive."
Smith hung around Sacred's studio as a teenager before moving to Australia to play music. There, he got his first taste of a real "street shop" when he spent over two years tattooing out of a shop in Adelaide. While living in Australia, Smith wasn't only introduced to the most common style of American tattoo shop; he also got to visit the U.S. a few times, where he made some friends in SoCal. In 2004, the tattooer and musician took the next step in chasing his dreams and moved to OC.
"It was a really exciting time," Smith says. "As a kid, I grew up on movies and music from California. It was like a dream. Before I did the LA stuff, I lived in a warehouse in Santa Ana. For four years, I was trying to make things work there. It was a very trying time."
At the end of those four years, Smith was asked to work at the studio featured on LA Ink, Kat Von D's High Voltage Tattoo in Hollywood. Even during his time in Hollywood, the 35-year-old artist says he never intended to stay there.
"They say if you take care of tattooing, it'll take care of you," Smith says. "I always wanted to come back to OC. I grew up by the beach in New Zealand, so it always felt like home. My wife and I live here in Tustin, and everyone here in Old Town Tustin has been really great to us."
What was it like working on LA Ink? I would like to say it was all positive, but it wasn't. When you're on the show, you have to understand that everything you say and do will be broadcast by people who don't necessarily know or care what you meant or what you were trying to show. I'm appreciative for the opportunity and how much it helped get my name out there, but I would've shown more of the positive parts that happened too. I tried to put my head down and just work instead of be dramatic or bitter about things, but I guess when it comes down to it, their first goal had to be to keep the show on the air.
How do you think shows like LA Ink changed tattooing? It started with the TV shows, but you can't help progression. You can't deny that it's happening. The outlets that are available now, with the Internet and apps, there are more ways to see tattoos than ever before. There are pros and cons of anything blowing up in popularity. The music industry is dealing with the problems of it too. Five years ago, people owning a cupcake shop probably didn't think there'd be a TV show about it, but oil will always separate from water when things get popular. I like to think people will always do their research and go to someone reputable, because if you follow someone on Instagram, it's like you're seeing a consistently updated portfolio. There's no excuse to get bad tattoos.
Do you think that popularity has changed things for tattooers? I would like to think that people gravitate toward something they love. I love what I do, and I couldn't imagine doing it every day if I didn't love it. I would like to think that there aren't just people who do oil paintings who want to get into tattoos for the money. There's a magic to learning tattooing that most people will never understand. It's like the difference between learning to plumb or to fix a car from your grandfather instead of going online and watching a video or reading about how to do it.
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What's the most important thing about a tattoo? I would say giving someone a great experience. It comes down to the finished product, obviously, but it's also about the conversation and giving people what they want. When I would travel, I would hear stories about people who got tattooed by people who were cold to them or just shitty and grumpy. When you get a tattoo, you're literally wearing your feelings on your sleeve. I don't want anyone having a shitty experience surrounding that. We focus on giving a high quality of tattoo and a pleasant experience. We want to make sure each person is happy.
Do you have one style you like to tattoo more than others? When I did the TV show, a lot of people said I was mainly a traditional guy. That's fine, but I was taught to be proficient in everything. Now, people can specialize in one thing because there are so many people doing tattoos. I just try to do the best tattoos I can. If a customer asks for something I thought someone else could do better, I'd tell them who to go to. There's a responsibility to put something permanent and important on people. I take that seriously.
Captured Tattoo, 284 S Prospect Ave, Tustin, 657-210-4884, Instagram @capturedtattoo