For some tattooers, it's obvious from a very early age what they want to do in life. They draw tattoos as a child, learn more about them as a teenager, and then start their apprenticeship as soon as they turn 18.
Tim Shelton, the owner of Still Life Tattoo in Seal Beach, wasn't one of those people. It wasn't until Shelton was in his mid-20s that he even considered tattooing for a career, when his friend Steve Schultz (owner of Costa Mesa Tattoo) took a look at Shelton's sketchbook.
"I always loved tattoos as a kid, but I was pursuing a career in illustration, and then in graphic design, while I was getting tattooed," Shelton says. "It definitely strengthened my art, but one day I just asked myself 'What the hell are you doing?' and I asked Steve for an apprenticeship."
In the decade since his apprenticeship under Schultz, Shelton has watched his tattooing develop into a style all its own, even if he's not sure how he would describe it.
"Well, I started in a street shop where I had to do a little bit of everything, so my style has evolved over time. I think your style is based on what you really like doing, and I love doing black and gray. It's so timeless, but I've got nothing against color," Shelton says. "My style is more of how the tattoo is drawn, I just know it's mine. I don't really copy anyone else's or use many references. I bring all the references out on the table, and then I end up putting them away and just drawing the hell out of it."
Of course, creating tattoo sketches without basing them off of photos or other tattoos has its downsides. Shelton realizes that he may have been able to develop as a tattooer within the confines of a preexisting style more quickly, but the 37-year-old believes it's worth it in the long run.
"It definitely takes longer to develop certain things, but that makes you into a better artist in the end," Shelton says. "I'm still developing now, and I think I'll still be developing until I'm dead or done tattooing."
From an artistic side of things, Shelton believes that although his tattoos and his other artwork, particularly drawings, are related, they're certainly not exactly the same.
"There are similarities in my drawing style to how I tattoo, but you usually have full control over your drawings," Shelton says. "That's the time to make your own weird shit. I do a lot of loose, texture stuff when I'm drawing, but it's pretty rare that I try tattooing like that. They're more like brother and sister than twins, although I'm constantly changing both, and parts of both go back and forth with each other."
What's it like to run your own tattoo shop?
It can be tough sometimes. You have to be like a lightswitch to switch between your left brain and your right brain. I'll be sitting here drawing something up, and then I have to go deal with business shit or problems that come up. Having good people around you helps a lot, but a lot of people aren't cut out for it. I wasn't business-minded before, but I talked to people who owned their own shops and I learned some of what you should and shouldn't do before I did it. I wanted to do it with respect to tattooing.
How is being a tattoo artist different from the other artistic jobs you've held?
When I was doing graphic design, I was doing a set schedule in-house for the company. There was downtime where we'd race little lowriders around the cubicles. Here, you're responsible for your own success. Owning a shop, you're also responsible for the success of others. There's no consistent paycheck, so if something is wrong with you creatively on that day, your paycheck will show it.
What are some of the most memorable tattoos you've done?
When you tattoo memorial pieces on people, particularly when they're so close to the person's passing, it's like being a hair stylist. You hear a lot of shit. Like, I like to do a lot of weird shit, but the serious heavy stuff, those are the moments that stand out. You hear some heavy shit that you purposely forget, but I love that aspect of helping people deal with their problems. Everyone walks away with their head up and feeling better about themselves because of what we do. I think we're all fortunate to do what we do.
How has tattooing changed your life?
I met some of my best friends through tattooing. I'm surrounded by some of the most incredible human beings everyday. I've curated art shows. It's forced me to have a greater appreciation of people. It helps me to understand people better. I've never met someone or done something just to further myself, it just happens. That, and when the economy goes up and down, people still come to you to get tattooed, which is really humbling. When it's slow, it's humbling, but when it's really good, it's also humbling.