Although you can’t throw a rock down the streets of OC without hitting some tattoo shop or gallery hosting a tattoo-based art show, the one put on by the Sullen Art Collective on September 10 was a bit different. Dozens of the area’s best tattoo artists gathered at the Attic in Long Beach to show off their latest projects and designs on a medium none of them had ever used before: retired fire helmets. With hundreds of dollars from each auctioned helmet going to the Junior Firefighter Youth Foundation, “The Ultimate Sacrifice: 9/11 Fire Helmet Art Show” was a success from a fundraising perspective.
But while many of the pieces looked like they’d been worked on for months, some of the artists – like Tattoo Gallery’s Charlie Coffin – were working with an extremely tight timeframe. Coffin and his longtime coworker Brian Correia were given about two weeks to come up with a unique design for an old fire helmet, so Coffin immediately knew he had to think radically different.
“I tried to do something different instead of drawing or putting some kind of tattoo art on it,” Coffin says of his helmet design. “I’ve tattooed many firefighters, and they all want St. Florian – the firefighting saint. I based my helmet off the helmet of St. Florian and made it kind of a Roman helmet. I guess it was more of a craft, like fake armor or a LARPing kind of thing.”
Inside of that helmet remained memories of a firefighter, but externally it was almost completely indistinguishable as a fire helmet. The two weeks of Coffin’s efforts let his decades of tattooing and artistic experience shine through in an ornate design that would’ve made St. Florian himself proud.
Of course, the intricate helmet was just one of Coffin’s many sought-after designs. Whether he’s inking the darkest blackwork or using the brightest colors, Coffin has come a long way since his time as a tattoo-loving teenager in Hawaii.
“I got my first tattoo when I was 16, but we couldn’t afford to actually go and get professional tattoos growing up in Hawaii,” Coffin says. “I got homemade stuff done first, and once I got my first tattoo, I became really addicted to that feeling of permanent change [on the body]. I started doing homemade tattoos with a guitar string machine until I got in trouble and my mom told me I needed to go find someone to teach me if I was going to do it.”
Between his artistic talent and his love for body modifications, tattooing just seemed like the right move for Coffin. Following a couple of years in an old-school “slave-like” apprenticeship, Coffin got his start back when tattooing was full of cholos and bikers rather than parents coming into shops to watch their 18-year-old children get neck and face tattoos.
“You see a lot more face and neck and hand tattoos with kids nowadays,” Coffin says. “It’s become trendy, and you’ll see kids who are 18 years old and blasted up to their cheeks and their face. When I got in the industry, my teacher told me I couldn’t even get my hands tattooed until I’d been in it for at least five years – and then you started to progress to the neck and the face. I’m 43 now, and I just started getting stuff on my face in the last few years.”
When Coffin moved to California a couple of decades ago, the giant kanji tattooed across his throat was enough to draw the eyes of anyone he walked past. At the time, he already knew he wanted to tattoo for the rest of his life, but it still sticks with him whenever he sees a teenager who wants to get their face or throat done. That’s not to say Coffin won’t do the more visible areas of his younger clients, he just wants them to consider the repercussions first.
“At 18 years old, you’re not thinking about what you’re doing at 30 or 40 years old,” Coffin says. “You can get pigeonholed into certain careers because of the stupid shit you did when you were 18 years old unless you get it lasered off. I mean, literally, where are you going to work with your face tattooed? I think about that now. If I had to stop tattooing, what would I do now? It’d be sideshow circus shit.”
Tattoo Gallery, 19921 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 969-4700. Instagram: @charliecoffin