Forty years ago, tattooing was nothing like it is today. As tattoo legend Jack Rudy of Anaheim's Good Time Charlie's Tattooland would tell you, it wasn't just that there weren't as many tattoos, there weren't even as many styles of tattoos.
"Electric tattooing really started with two styles. There was what we call 'traditional' now, but we called it 'Pike Style' back then (named after the tattoos that came out of the Pike in Long Beach), and there was pseudo-Oriental. I say pseudo-Oriental because there were really only a handful of guys who had any clue what they were doing back then with the Oriental style, and the rest was just fake Americanized shit, but that's what people wanted," Rudy says. "Now, there are at least 25 distinctive styles of tattooing. We brought in the third one, single needle fine line black and gray."
Credited by many for bringing the more detailed fine line black and gray style to the masses in the 1970s, Rudy and his mentor, Good Time Charlie, really only started doing it to please their customers. The tattooers, who were located in East LA at the time, certainly never expected the style (or tattoos in general) to get so popular.
"We were just doing our thing, just giving the customers 'the haircut they wanted' as Good Time Charlie used to say," Rudy says. "A lot of East LA chicanos were coming in asking for more prison-style work with no color in it. We started doing black and gray, then we started making single needles right in the shop so we could do it like they wanted it. Modern single needle black and gray tattooing was born in our shop. No one was doing it at a professional shop at that time."
Tattooing has come a long way since those days, and Rudy is still blown away by how common they are in the modern world. For a man who started tattooing when tattoos were only for sailors and outlaws, the shift in popularity comes with both good and bad side effects.
"Tattoos crept into the mainstream and everyday life. There are tattoo toys, like marker pens and fake tattoos for kids, that you never would've seen before. You watch TV and you can't not see someone tattooed. You used to almost never see that. Tattoos weren't ever supposed to be this popular. I remember Don Ed Hardy used to say that he wanted tattoos to be more acceptable and respectable. At the time, it was a great idea, but looking back, I'd tell him to just let the sleeping dog lie," Rudy says. "When something becomes too popular, it loses its coolness. It's a good thing tattoos hurt, because otherwise, every pussy in the world would have one."
Of course, with the increased popularity comes the huge increase in saturation, which is exactly why Rudy tells most young tattooers to "get out while they're young" when they ask him for advice. While there is a bigger market for tattooing than there's ever been before, there are also way more tattooers splitting the work, which takes away from everyone's bottom line.
"The quality and acceptance are changing, but a lot of people are doing horrible work, and it's likely not one in a sanitary and sterile environment because they haven't been taught things like how many times to change your gloves before, during and after a tattoo," Rudy says. "This business has been real good to me, and I'd like to think that I've been real good to it, but at this point it's just about putting one foot in front of the other and keeping at it. I'm always glad when I see a tattoo shop that shouldn't have ever been open closed down, but every time that happens, two or three pop up to take its place."
Rudy may sound like he's opposed to tattooers and the industry as a whole, but that's not the case. The revered tattooer really just thinks there are too many people "putting on shit tattoos" out there and knows that people don't always use their brains when it comes to getting a tattoo.
"Something that's always confused me about tattooing is how tattooing transcends common sense," Rudy says. "Somebody will get a tattooing kit online and their homies all want to get tattooed by them because it's free. That's like if I said 'Here, have some dog shit, it's free" and you took it because it was free. It's still dog shit. Some people are OK with getting fucked up because it's free. Why are you thinking that's going to come out good? People don't think shit through."
The lack of common sense isn't the only thing that Rudy doesn't quite understand about today's tattoo culture. The combination of technology and tattooing's popularity has brought forth another issue that didn't used to concern tattooers, Instagram trolls.
"I got on Instagram a few years ago because my homie Mr. Cartoon convinced me. He told me it was like texting, but with photos, and I'm a texting mofo," Rudy says. "You can post 10 times a day, or you can not post for months, that's the beauty of it, but there's a lot of bullshit on it too. Some people use it as a medium to insult people, and I'm just wondering what kinds of lives do these people have that they have time to insult people all day. I see all kinds of shit I don't like, so I don't press like and I don't say anything. I see shit on there going on like a war between two followers. I don't fucking get it, people going back and forth about shit. If you don't like shit, just keep moving."
What was your first tattoo?
In 1969, when I was a freshman in high school, my homie and I decided we were going to tattoo ourselves. We had to tattoo ourselves, because my parents were almost never gone at the same time, so we could each do ourselves in half of the time it'd take for me to tattoo him and then him to tattoo me. I already had the India ink because I liked to draw with it, so I took my mom's sewing needle and I tattooed a spider on myself. Then, my homies all wanted me to tattoo them, so I did that in high school. In '73, I met Good Time Charlie after I got out of the Marine Corp. boot camp, and I went to work for him in '75. The rest is history, as they say.
How is tattooing different from any other art form?
The human canvas is what makes it totally different than any other medium. If you have an art gallery, you can see photos of it online, but if you want to see it in person, you have to physically come here to view the gallery. My tattoo art gallery is all over the world. The artwork is seen every single day all over the world, even if it's only by the person who wears it and their spouse or family. It travels, it walks around, flies, drives, the gallery never stays in one spot and never closes. Well, actually, it does close eventually, because the tattooer dies and every person they've tattooed dies. Then, hopefully, there's good photo evidence somewhere to be enjoyed. Paintings might be hundreds of years old, sculptures can be thousands of years old, but tattoos, we're only here for a very short time, even if you live to be 100.
As someone who's been tattooing for so long, what do you think of the tattoo stigma that comes from the older generations?
Man, fuck that. Let me tell you something, I'm sick of the guilt trips from parents and grandparents about that shit. If you don't like them, don't get them. It bothers me how parents lay that guilt trip on their kids. Tell them "I don't like them personally, but it's your body and your life, so it's your choice." I understand not wanting your kid to get their face tattooed or their throat blasted because it could cost them job opportunities, but not just any tattoo. If your parents were blind, you could be tattooed head to toe and it wouldn't change a thing. You'd still be the same person you would be without the tattoos. Some people are mildly offended and some are outraged. That stigma with tattoos is less than it's ever been before, but we still have a lot of it. I went into a store and noticed this young chicano guy working there and he had one long sleeve covering his arm, so I asked him about it and he said he wasn't allowed to have tattoos showing if he was working with customers. Who makes these policies? It's not like it's going to influence someone's son to get tattoos if they wouldn't have before. What a crock of shit. Tattooing's at an all time high in popularity, and I don't see the pendulum swinging back the other way anytime soon.
How crucial is customer service for today's tattooers?
Customer service is extremely important. Tattooing's always been a one-on-one customer-based business, so it's paramount. It's not like you can just stick your arm through a hole, pick a design off of a wall, push a button, and get it tattooed on you. Tattooers who have poor customer service might be great artists, but people won't put up with that. If you don't like people in general, you're going to be miserable while you're tattooing. The customer might like the art they leave with but still think you're a dick. On the flip side, you could be the nicest guy in the world, but if you're a shitty artist, it's not any better. You have to be able to balance that. I can't imagine wanting to tattoo if you don't like people, that'd just be terrible.
What's the most important thing about a tattoo?
For me, it's always been to make it look as good as I possibly can, but it's also about the longevity. My stuff has stood the test of time for the most part. I always did it like you never know what your last tattoo is going to be. You don't know what's going to happen in a minute, much less an hour or on your way home from the shop. You do the very best you can do, and you may look at it later and think "I could do that so much better now," but at the time, you did the best you could do. You may want to change something or touch it up or totally rework it, but you couldn't have done it any better that day. Be honest with yourself. People should feel terrible if they did something that they know isn't their best work. If they "weren't feeling it" that day or didn't like the customer, then they shouldn't be working on it. Few people get more intimate with their customers than we do. Don't make a customer suffer because you "weren't feeling their design" that day. Reschedule them, or cancel it if you have to. Let someone else do the tattoo who will give it their best.
Good Time Charlie's Tattooland, 2641 W Lincoln Ave, Anaheim, (714) 827-2071, Instagram @j_rudy_gtc