For many tattoo artists, traveling a few states over to do a tattoo convention is the highlight of their year. For Luke Wessman, that's not exactly the case.
The owner of OC's most exclusive tattoo shop, the Summertown Inn, made a name for himself tattooing at Love Hate Tattoo Studio and the Wooster Street Social Club, the location of TLC's reality shows, Miami Ink and NY Ink, respectively. These days, Wessman splits his time between OC, NYC, and traveling the world as a world-renowned tattoo artist, but Wessman's life wasn't always so easy after his parents moved from Tennessee to Southern California with him as a baby.
"I grew up in a rough area, so tattoos were kind of like armor back then," Wessman says. "The meaner you could look, the better. Of course, I was still just this tall skinny white kid."
When Wessman was young, his brother's friend began tattooing out of his home. Wessman, who was working as an electrician at the time, originally fought the idea of tattooing, because it didn't seem like a viable career at the time.
"It wasn't like it is today. There wasn't a shop on every corner," Wessman says. "A shop opened up in my neighborhood, and the guy who ran it asked if I wanted to learn to tattoo. I had no idea if it was going to be a stable career or not, but now I've been doing it for almost 20 years."
After tattooing in renowned shops in San Diego, Miami and NYC, Wessman decided to set up shop in OC. Wessman didn't just want to run another shop though; he wanted to do something people hadn't seen before.
"I wanted to do a private studio, like a secret speakeasy based just on word of mouth. If you didn't know about it, you would never find it. There's no sign, no address, it's completely hidden. I wanted to keep it more secret, make it different than other shops," Wessman says.
Wessman doesn't have anything against normal tattoo shops; he just decided to go a different route after his last plans for a shop in OC fell through. Of course, he's still working out the details and logistics of making the Summertown Inn a more sustainable studio for the long run.
"I like that it has a more personal vibe. There are so many good shops out there, I wanted to do something totally different. It's about nice conversation, not a big joking shop," Wessman says. "I'm still trying to figure out how people sign up to get tattooed here. So far, it's mostly been friends and friends of friends who have gotten tattooed here. I like to say it's open to the private."
What don't people realize about tattooing? Now that it's popular, people respect the art more, but people overlook the history of the craftsmanship of tattooing. There's so much more to tattooing than just the art. It's a whole lifestyle.
What was it like to tattoo while on television? People see tattoo shows and they think it looks so simple, but there's a lot of pressure on with all of the cameras there. The first few times, it's nerve-wracking because you know that millions of people will be honing in on your piece. After a while, you befriend the guys with the cameras and then it's just like tattooing with your friends around. I think the shows kind of opened the world to tattooing. It takes away a little bit of the magic.
What's the most important thing about a tattoo? The structure and foundation that make it a tattoo. It's important to have solid black lines and deep black shading, and some tattooers overlook that. That's why I like doing traditional tattoos. Tattoos with white outlines are popular right now, but there aren't a lot of photos of how they heal. We don't know what they'll look like in 10 or 20 years.
How would you describe your style of tattooing? I think it's still developing. I've never wanted to stick to one style. I always try to adapt for each piece. I like traditional because it has the most foundation, and that's often how I draw things. I'm constantly evolving. I have a strong desire for development.
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What kinds of tattoos do you like to get? These days, it's more little personal tattoos. I don't really have space left for any big pieces. I've collected from over 50 different artists. I just look for good energy and good-natured people. I like to get little tattoos when I travel, like souvenirs from some of the cool places I've traveled to from good artists and good people.
Why is your studio called the Summertown Inn? Summertown is the name of the town in Tennessee where I was born. My parents were hippies, and I was born on a big hippie farm out there. I thought it sounded like a good name for my little speakeasy. I wanted a spot with really cool energy, and that's the Summertown Inn.