Shae Fitzgerald of HB Tattoo on Keeping it Old School
Fitzgerald: At work, art behind him
Photos by JC Chesler
"The shop has been here for 22 years," Fitzgerald says. "I've known about it since I was like eight or nine when my mom came here to get her nipples pierced. Obviously, these days, [HB Tattoo] is more of a customer service kind of deal instead of the old school clubhouse feel, but we still keep some of the old things."
For Fitzgerald, 27, that "old school" feel means keeping a bit the grittiness that went with tattooing when he was growing up. He's looking to capture the vibe of tattooing before the TV shows and celebrities brought it to soccer moms and schoolteachers. For HB Tattoo, that means porno magazines in the bathrooms, and definitely no children allowed.
"We get parents that come in here and want us to tattoo their kids who are under 18, and that's not going to happen." Fitzgerald says. "That's so weird to me. When I was under 18 and doing stupid shit, my parents didn't know about it, or they definitely weren't involved in it."
Of course, Fitzgerald's tattooing career may not have ever gotten started if it wasn't for his mom.
"When I was about 15, my mom sold dope out of our place. So these dudes from prison would come in, and they'd have these old school prison tats. I thought that was the raddest shit I'd ever seen," Fitzgerald says. "I would go to this old scummy-ass dude and get shitty tattoos out of his apartment when I was 15. I got in huge trouble from my parents, but he really taught me a lot because he showed me what not to do. I realized that he never did anything girly or outside of what he really wanted to do, and I knew he must be losing money because of that."
After turning 18, Fitzgerald began tattooing to support his band's touring schedule. After years of "living on the cusp of (his) dick" and a stint in jail, Fitzgerald decided to establish himself in OC's tattooing scene by teaming up with his brother to open up an ill-fated shop in Garden Grove.
"It was a learning experience," he admits. "We just didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. For three years straight, we were just working seven days a week and staying in the shop until 4 a.m., drinking and shit. My girl was pregnant at the time, and the shop just wasn't working out."
Once he left Garden Grove, Fitzgerald learned that HB Tattoo was looking for a new crew. Since he'd already had management experience at the shop he ran with his brother, Fitzgerald was brought in to manage the OC tattoo-scene icon.
"It's been such a crazy, gnarly, rocky road to get to where we are now," Fitzgerald says. "Going to jail, having a baby, it was all just a part of growing up. Being here is awesome. The crew here now, we're all transplants from all over OC. It's a shop full of underdogs. We're not wearing sunglasses indoors or anything like that; it still feels like an old-school tattoo shop."
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Can you describe what it's like to be a tattoo artist for someone who's never done it before? It's like that little girl from Virginia who wants to go to Hollywood to be a famous movie star. There's no rules. There are no guarantees. You might end up a huge movie star or you might end up doing porn, you just don't know what's going to happen. You have to just plant your feet and go. I got my face and my hands tattooed because I knew I wanted to commit to it. I didn't want to be able to pussy out. Oh, and you'll probably be working every day until you die.
How has tattooing changed from when you were first introduced to the industry? Back when I started, you'd see that 45 or 50-year-old tattooer who you really respected riding his fixed-gear to work every day. There just wasn't the money in it that there is now, but now tattoos are everywhere. I think society is becoming desensitized to tattoos. It's cool in some ways. People treat tattoos like they're just cosmetic now, whereas before they meant something. You get people come in who want the "cool guy" tattoos, and you get the collectors, and then there's the people who are getting tattoos that mean something. For me, it's not like Kat Von D's stupid-ass show where people are looking in the mirror and crying at the end of every tattoo. I don't get emotionally involved in every tattoo or judge people for what they're getting, my job is to do the best tattoo possible.
How does tattooing differ from working other jobs? It's really just a service to make people feel better. If my job left tomorrow, it wouldn't change anything very much. We're not saving the world. There's a study that shows that tattooing is like the fourth best industry to survive depressions, after bars and shit like that, because it makes people feel better. People use the pain of tattooing to balance out the bad things going on in their lives. It's an outlet to express themselves, and it releases endorphins. People might say self-mutilation is a weird way to get those endorphins, but we all have different ways of getting off in life. Maybe someone's mourning the loss of a son or girlfriend. Like I said, it's not my place to judge why they're getting the tattoo.
What's your personal style of tattooing? I think my style is pretty universal and all over the place, but it's definitely Southern California-based. The stuff that I draw in my spare time is way different from what I tattoo. I like drawing and painting weird dark shit, but I keep all of my tattooing more current to what's going on around here.
What's your favorite thing about tattooing? The fact that I love my job. I can change anything about my job. I can change any tattoo that I do. It's the ultimate freedom. I don't have that predetermined destination. It's up to me to be successful based on how much effort I put in. Everyone here is accountable for themselves, you're not working in some office where the bitch across the hall doesn't want to be there. Pretty much everyone tattooing wants to be tattooing, because it takes a long time to get here, and it's not an easy life.
HB Tattoo, 20387 Beach Blvd, Huntington Beach, (714) 374-4948. Follow HB Tattoo on Instagram @hb_tattoo
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