When Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum and Harley Davidson teamed up for a series of custom-painted motorcycles, Oliver Peck was an obvious choice to be one of the featured artists. Not only is the mustached Ink Master star one of the most visible and respected tattooers in the world, but he’s also a diehard Harley rider who’s collected quite a few bikes on his own.
“Tattoos and motorcycles have both been a part of that underworld culture since the turn of the century,” Peck says. “Harley Davidson really became an American icon in the ‘30s, and that goes hand-in-hand with when Sailor Jerry was making his mark. You think of people with tattoos riding motorcycles, it’s not just a coincidence. It’s part of the whole culture that we’re a part of.”
But beyond just being a Harley-loving tattoo artist, Peck feels even more of a connection with his most recent painting project, as Sailor Jerry — the legendary tattooer whose real name was Norman Collins, for those who don’t know — is arguably Peck’s greatest influence. Stylistically, few did more to advance tattooing than Collins, and the native Texan still does his best to honor the tattoo icon as often as he can.
“My specialty is exactly what Norman Collins did himself,” Peck says. “The style that I’ve done over my career is directly based on the foundations he laid down, so I kept my designs really true to the traditional Americana style and Sailor Jerry’s tattoo imagery. I took tattoo designs that you might put on your arm and put them on all five bikes.”
Of course, Peck is known by more folks these days than ever would’ve recognized Sailor Jerry back in his heyday. As one of Spike’s resident tattoo experts for Ink Master, Peck is generally considered to be among the artists most responsible for bringing the art form into the mainstream. That wasn’t really the toothpick-chewing tattooer’s intention though, as back when Peck was first getting started (and even when he began taking part in the TV shows), tattooing was still a part of a relatively underground subculture that he loved.
“I didn’t think about making it mainstream or making it accepted,” Peck says. “I just did it because I liked it, and the people I was influenced by didn’t really care what the world thought. Some tattooers nowadays shun away from the popularity, but I embrace it. It’s something that I love, and I think it’s awesome that more people like it now. I love the culture of tattooing and where we came from, but I also embrace the future of tattooing.”
As Peck sees it, the boom in tattooing popularity over the last decade has brought many more talented artists into the world of tattoos. Rather than the trade it was just a couple of decades ago, tattooing is becoming a form of fine art, and artists like Peck aren’t given disapproving glances for “wasting” their talent on it. But along with the art improving, the veteran tattooer has also noticed the unmistakable growth and change in both the tattoo industry as well as tattooing’s place in everyday life.
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“Tattooing is a huge marketplace now,” Peck says. “When I first started going to tattooing conventions, there were only a few a year, they were really small, and the only people who went to them were other tattooers. Nowadays, there are hundreds of tattoo conventions all over the world and thousands of people go to them. It’s a huge tattoo community. You go into any store or anywhere, and somebody in there has a tattoo. Your bank teller has a tattoo showing now. It’s a completely different world than it was 20 years ago.”
And for all of those aging tattoo artists clamoring for the way things were in the tattoo industry, Peck has a friendly reminder that it’s not the first art form to “go mainstream.” Much like so many radio-friendly styles of music that were once viewed as too subversive to become popular, it was only a matter of time before tattooing crossed over into households around the world. Thankfully, it has people like Peck to make sure the transition continues to go smoothly.
“The same thing happened to rock ‘n’ roll music and punk rock music,” Peck says. “People used to be shunned for listening to rock ‘n’ roll music, and now it’s the standard. It was the same thing in my generation for punk rock. The people who loved rock ‘n’ roll were like ‘Oh, these punkers…’”