Running a business with your spouse is a nightmare for a lot of people. For Jen Davis of Tustin's Mule Tattoo Studios, working together has always just been part of her relationship with her husband, Josh.
After initially apprenticing under her future spouse at a Boulder, Colorado shop in 1997, the couple moved to NorCal before dropping off their portfolios at the now-closed Outer Limits Tattoo location in Anaheim while on vacation in OC.
"My husband's dream was to work for Kari (Barba, Outer Limits' owner), so we dropped off our portfolios and then went back to NorCal," Davis says. "We were kind of chuckling like 'Hehe, we just dropped off our portfolios at Kari's shop,' and then pretty soon after we got back, I got a phone call offering us both jobs at Outer Limits."
There was only one full-time position available in Anaheim, so Davis let her husband have it and initially declined the part-time offer to work at the Outer Limits shop in Orange. After realizing the opportunity she'd just turned down, she immediately picked up the phone to accept the job. For the next 14 years, Davis worked in that Orange shop (becoming full-time within a month) and had the privilege of working with one of the most legendary tattooers of all time.
"My eyes were so big when I first got there," Davis says. "The first time I worked with Kari, I was like a churchmouse. I'm just speechless and grateful to say I worked for her."
When Barba closed the Orange location of Outer Limits, Davis and her husband decided to open up their own shop instead of going to someone else's. Opening Mule Tattoo Studios a few months ago just made more sense than taking a job at another shop.
"I was very surprised and touched by the support we've gotten from clients and old coworkers," Davis says. "I didn't think my clients would follow me. A lot of them have followed me here, so I guess I was wrong about that."
Of course, there's a reason Davis' clients are willing to travel for her. Aside from doing clean lines and smooth shading, the friendly tattooer also bakes cookies for every session on every one of her clients (and her husband's clients). They're damn good, too.
"Years ago, it was an occasional thing, but now I have to do it," Davis says. "It'd be like tattooing without gloves on. I don't know why, but I just have to do it. I have to, it's a fact."
As Davis has seen, cookies aren't just cookies all of the time. When her husband was working on a client who worked at an inner city school, she baked cookies for all of the kids in the school on the last day of the school year. The client suggested only baking for the good students, but Davis insisted that everyone gets a bag of her beloved dessert.
"The hardest dude in the school came up to him and said 'Tell your friend I said thanks for the cookies,'" Davis says. "It's just proof that you can't be a gangster with a cookie in your hand. Nobody is doing a drive-by with a cookie in their hand."
Did you ever encounter problems as a female tattooer in a male-dominated industry?
Not really. It was really easy for me to get into it. I was just at the right place at the right time. There were women tattooing when I started, but a lot fewer. If anything, being a female tattooist helped me get a job sometimes. I've never had a man say he didn't want to get tattooed by me, and girls often want to get tattooed by me because maybe I have a more gentle hand or maybe they're just more comfortable with me.
How would you describe your style of tattooing?
Well, as a child, I was always drawn to art. I had a great aunt and uncle and a grandma who were very supportive of my art and would make me draw stuff before I ate it. So if I was having donuts and milk, I'd have to draw the donuts and milk before I could eat it. I've always been more of a mimicker than a creator. I'm still more comfortable mimicking things today.
That's a different "style" of tattooing than most people have. Did that ever cause problems for you?
When I first started, I was punished for not being able to do every tattoo that walked in the door. They'd say I couldn't work weekends since I couldn't really take walk-ins. The TV shows have really put a positive light on the differences artists have, and it has made it OK to specialize in something and not be a jack-of-all-trades.
How else have you seen tattooing change since you began 18 years ago?
Being a tattooist in general wasn't as easy back then. It was glorified among those who did it, but not the general public like it is now. I was looking for an apartment, and when I told a woman I was a tattoo artist, she threw my application in the trash. It seemed more friendly among tattooists when I started. In Colorado, all of the shops would go to dinner together and it seemed more close-knit.
What do you think of the tattooing TV shows?
The TV shows brought it into living rooms everywhere. I think it took a lot of the stereotypes of tattooing away and made it seem more accessible to people. I don't know what people used to think we do, but now they know a lot more about what we actually do. People have kids who want to tattoo now. I don't know. It felt more special back then.
Mule Tattoo Studios, 528 El Camino Real, Tustin, 714-348-8472, Instagram: @jendavislovescheese