"I was working at a grocery store when I was 18, and I was spending all of my money on tattoos," says Sterling Barck says. "I was pretty much living out of my car. I was getting tattooed by Kyle Crowell at Costa Mesa Tattoo [now at Torch Tattoo], and he suggested I meet Steve Schultz [Costa Mesa Tattoo's owner]."
That was in 2008, and Barck would go on to apprentice and work for Schultz until he left last year for his current home, White Lotus Tattoo in Laguna Hills. The young tattooer's time in Costa Mesa wasn't the first time he'd been surrounded by ink, as he grew up with it.
"My mom did cosmetic tattoos back in the '90s, so I was always around it," Barck says. "She has tattoos, and a lot of people around me had tattoos, so I always wanted to do it."
Though only working for seven years–a speck of time in the tattoo world–the ink slinger has seen the industry expand and reshape itself entirely.
"The internet is way more prominent than it was when I started," Barck says. "Everything is so much more acceptable than it was before. There are so many more people with tattoos these days. When I was getting started, Miami Ink had just come on the air, so the media had just started talking about tattoos. All of the media coverage was still pretty new."
Although Barck is certainly younger than many other tattooers, his style isn't. He maintains an American traditional style that isn't identical to the legendary tattooers of old (like Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy), but draws more from that than the current "neo-traditional" trend that uses unnaturally bright colors and huge bold lines.
"I'm trying to do the old traditional style, but they're a little more modern than some of those real old guys," Barck says. "At first, I tried to emulate those guys, but over time you pick up your own style. I always shoot for traditional, but some of them end up a little more neo-traditional."
Initially, Barck found his own style in tattooing by doing his best Ed Hardy impersonation, and while Hardy may be the most-known name in tattooing history, Barck believes that his impact and reputation is understated by many.
"There's a common misconception that because of the whole clothing line thing, Ed Hardy's not a pioneer," Barck says. "Really, he paved the way for everybody to do what we do today. He's one of the biggest pioneers."
Have you run into problems with any of the older tattooers in the area?
Not really. It's not like they're out there hazing anybody or anything like that. Just some of the old guys are a little grumpier than others, but they've been fine with me.
How do you feel about the saturation of tattooers in OC?
It's extremely saturated and really hard to stay busy. I'm pretty sure there's somewhere around 500 shops in OC alone, and if you say there's five guys at each shop, that's a lot of heads to keep busy. The surrounding areas don't get much better. There's a lot of heads in LA and a lot of heads in San Diego.
Of the tattoos you have, do any favorites or any that mean anything to you?
Probably my favorite is my big back piece by Eric Jones (of Costa Mesa's Port City Tattoo), but I only have two that mean anything. I have one tattoo from my mom, and one of my daughter's name. Some of my tattoos I wish I went a different direction, but I don't regret any of them.
What's your favorite thing about tattooing?
I really like that traveling is really easy to do. It's awesome. I don't know if I'd be able to travel like I do in any other profession. Also, making your own schedule and looking however you want are both really cool.
Is there anything you think people don't realize about tattooing?
People don't know how liberating it is, but you also have a lot of homework, whether it's drawing up a tattoo or getting ready for art shows, there's almost always homework. There's a lot of behind the scenes stress, both physical and mental. My back and hips are already pretty bad from the constant strain of tattooing. I can only imagine what they'll be like in 5-10 years.
Do you have any advice for someone getting their first tattoo?
Don't get a name tattooed on you unless it's a family member or an animal. Those don't change, relationships do.