Editor's note: Welcome to Under Their Skin, our new tattoo column! Every week, Josh Chesler sits down with a different artist to talk shop, crazy questions, and all that good stuff. Got a place Josh should hit up? Tweet at him below–enjoy!
While some tattoo artists know from a very young age that they want to ink people for a living, others get into the industry by chance. For Orange's American Vintage Tattoo owner Neal Monier, his introduction to tattooing came in 1995 when his friend began an apprenticeship.
"My friend was apprenticing at a shop, and he and I were really competitive," Monier says. "I knew I could draw better than him, so I thought I could tattoo better than him. I just hung out at the shop a lot, and eventually they offered me an apprenticeship."
After spending the first 14 years of his career bouncing around between a few different studios around Southern California, Monier finally found a permanent home when he opened American Vintage in 2009.
"There are definitely a lot less headaches when you're working for someone else," Monier says. "All you have to do is just handle your appointments. When you're the owner, you worry about everyone else, and you have to be the moderator, but you get more freedom and make a little more money."
These days, Monier is among the most highly regarded artists for American traditional tattoos in OC. For him, the secret to a good one is all about keeping it simple.
"I've got a formula for my tattoos. They're very cut and dry," Monier says. "Younger guys do more of the neo-traditional tattoos with more complicated shading. I keep mine very simple in style."
Speaking of younger guys, Monier believes that while celebrities and reality television shows may have moved tattoos more into the mainstream, a lot of the population still doesn't know much about the history or lives of tattoo artists.
"A lot of people have no clue as to the history of tattooing. They have no clue how hard it used to be to get into," Monier says. "It's still a hard life. There's no guaranteed income, so it's really feast or famine a lot of the time, particularly in the early years when you first start tattooing."
For Monier, a single father of three, having those lean years isn't much of an option anymore. While an established shop owner like Monier may no longer have to worry about scrounging together clientele or building a name for himself, he has plenty of advice for the young tattoo artists worried about paying rent each month.
"You have to get out and sell yourself constantly. You have to work to survive," Monier says. "I know guys who have been tattooing for 10 years and have to give it up and go work a regular job. It's not all joking and having a good time."
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened while you're tattooing someone?
Well, I think it was the fourth tattoo I'd ever done, and it was on this big ol' girl. She wanted a little ladybug right above her vagina. I had her big 6-foot-3 black boyfriend standing right behind me, and I'm trying to get a good stretch on her skin to tattoo on when–I don't know how it happened, but–my thumb ended up right in her vagina. I looked back at the boyfriend and he was cool with it, but that was probably the most awkward moment.
How do you feel about OC's tattooing conventions?
We do Musink every year. It's kind of a tradition for the shop. I think it's good to make an appearance at the conventions, because it exposes you to other people. I don't travel a lot for them anymore; I stick around here these days since I'm a single dad.
What's the most important aspect of a tattoo?
The end product has to look good, but also the experience. We want to make you comfortable and help you enjoy your time here. Getting tattooed sucks and it hurts, so it's our job to help them get through it, whether that's just listening to them or talking to them.
What do you look for in a tattoo artist to work at American Vintage?
I look for a certain level of artwork, but also that they have an attitude that will get along with everyone at the shop. I know everyone says this, but I'm really fortunate that everyone here is like family. I can count on them for anything. It's a delicate balance to maintain. Everyone has their own quirks, so it's important to not disrupt the balance.
Would you change anything about the tattoos you have or the tattoos you've done?
For the tattoos I have, I would've planned things out better. The younger generation has their tattoos planned out better, but they say you can't trust a tattoo artist with good tattoos. I wouldn't change anything about the tattoos I've done, because the mistakes have gotten me to where I'm at now. I'm still learning now, and I think I'll always be learning.