Some of the city’s best talk about the allure and acceptance of body art
One of humanity’s greatest artistic traditions is seeing a major resurgence here in the Scenic City, where the ink is as beautiful as the vistas. The practice of tattooing has a rich history that permeates through every culture in the world; the oldest verifiable tattoos were discovered on the skin of a Neolithic mummy in the Alps, but there is evidence of even more-ancient ink on Paleolithic clay figurines that were made 40,000 years ago.
Tattoos are present in historical accounts from the Americas, China, Japan, India, Egypt, Russia, and were developed independently by several indigenous island-dwelling peoples like the Maori. The word “tattoo” comes from a Polynesian word “tatau”; though tattooing was forbidden for many westerners by the Book of Leviticus, in Samoa it is a cultural tradition and rite of passage.
Here in Chattanooga, tattoos are a means of self-expression, beautification, and a way to broadcast one’s social identity. There are more tattoo studios than ever before, and the level of talent and skill exhibited by local tattoo artists is becoming internationally known. We had a chance to catch up with Brandy Burgans, a local tattoo artist who is currently traveling and inking people in Europe.
Originally a long time client of Jesse Britten, beginning in 2004, after college Burgans had an office job that she hated, so she coped with the stress of that by getting tattooed. As the job got worse and worse, she in turn began getting more and more tattoos. It reached a point where they could not be easily covered on her arms. Knowing that Burgans had an extensive background in art, Britten asked if she would be interested in an apprenticeship in 2007. So Burgans began the apprenticeship right away, and quit the dead-end job six months later.
Burgans considers Britten to be one of her major influences to this day. “He inspired me to do what it took to one day open a private studio, and work by appointment only,” she explains. “Locally, my influences are Tim Warner and Lynn Buckner. They both bring a uniqueness to the table that you won’t find in an average tattoo shop. Tim’s background is in photo realistic oil paint portraiture. His work is outstanding, in both painting and tattooing. Lynn is not only a super talented painter and tattooer, but he has to be one of the most zen people I have ever met - he can brighten anyone’s day! Tim Pangburn, owner of Art Machine Productions in Philadelphia, and Tony Olivas, owner of Sacred Heart in Atlanta, are also major players who have inspired me, tattooed me, and personally guided me.”
As to her technique, Burgans uses a variety of brands that she feels work best for her style of tattooing. She speaks highly of the bright, bold colors of Eternal Ink and Fusion Ink. They are solid healers and stand the test of time when cared for properly (always use sunscreen). “As far as equipment goes, my preferred machine and daily driver is a Cheyenne Hawk Thunder,” she says. “Rotary machines are changing the face of tattooing as we know it. As for process, slow and easy wins the race. I found that when I started really taking my time with pieces, it reflected in my work almost immediately—no more rushing to cram in four to five tattoos a day. I’ve actually gained more clients by slowing down—I was worried that if I couldn’t fit everyone in when they wanted that they would go to someone else, but it turns out they appreciate the extra attention and care.”
To Burgans, tattooing is sacred, and humility as a tattoo artist is essential. She says she feels “absolutely honored” when someone wants her to permanently adorn them. Whether it’s a custom original design of hers or a flash piece, she feels it is a really big deal to hold that amount of someone’s trust in her hands.
“I never understood why tattooers would shame clients for their ideas, or give an excuse or inflated price because they didn’t want to do the piece,” she says. “That being said, I’m probably not going to tattoo a significant other’s name on you—I will kindly tell you why it may not be the best idea, and then offer alternate options. Kindness and humility are key in this industry—you have to stand out in every aspect of daily living, even beyond your art and tattoo work.”
What Burgans loves best is tattooing bright, bold color pieces. She notes that she has really developed a passion for fine-detail black and grey work as well. “I have fallen in love with doing intricate designs, and pointillism,” she explains. “I love staying challenged. I have a constant thirst for new techniques and processes.”
Burgans and Britten both apprenticed at one of Chattanooga’s most prestigious studios, Standard Ink. Owner Amber Vickers explains that tattooing has been around for centuries but has progressed dramatically in the past ten years. Newly developed machines, pigments, and healing processes have been game changers. The overall process has become much less traumatic to the skin, yielding tattoos that heal and age remarkably better than before. Also, many tattoo artists now are much more community minded and much more willing to share tips and advice with other artists. She feels this has been crucial to the advancement of the art of tattooing.
“We see people from all walks of life getting all sorts of tattoos,” Vickers says. “It’s always interesting to hear their motivations behind their choices. It’s also great to watch clients interact with each other, finding a common bond with someone they may otherwise not have engaged. Tattooing as a whole has moved into the realm of fine art, and it has been unbelievable to watch. Every day I see work that pushes the boundaries of what was thought to be possible. It’s been truly amazing to get to be part of that!”
She has had her shop open for 17 years on the North Shore. “We have artists that specialize in almost all areas of tattooing, from black and grey to bold color, from fine line to traditional, realism to fantasy art,” Vickers explains. “We offer private rooms, not booths, for our clients’ comfort. Our focus is not only on the art of tattooing, but also on customer service. We want each client to leave with not only a great tattoo that they are proud to wear, but an amazing experience as well. There are so many talented artists in Chattanooga now. It’s a great town for tattoo collectors!”
A few miles down the road from Standard Ink, in Red Bank, is another one of the area’s finest tattoo studios, Black Hand Tattoo. Owner Bobby Tinker’s work has earned him the reputation of being one of the best in the region.
Tinker apprenticed under DeMicheal Williams at Skin Graphix back in ‘99 but says his main influences right now are his “homies” that work in the shop with him: Nathan Harden and Trevor Perez. “We feed off of each other’s creativity and help each other out a lot,” he elaborates. “In terms of composition and technique, I’d say some of the tattoo artists who have influenced my preferred style would be the legends of black and grey, Paul Booth, Tom Renshaw, and Jack Rudy. I remember drooling over their stuff in tattoo magazines when I first started out, and I tried to emulate their style in the beginning.”
He notes that everyone he’s worked with in shops or at conventions has influenced him in some way; he is always trying to soak up techniques from others as much as possible. Other non tattooers whose art inspired him include H.R. Giger, Jeff Soto, Aunia Kahn, and Daniel Martin Diaz.
As for Tinker’s specialty, he really enjoys black and grey realism, wildlife, and horror themed tattoos—if he had to pick one style, he says horror would be it. “I also do a lot of illustrative color and tons of cover-ups,” he says. “I’ve been using Rotary machines for about six years now. To me they are much more efficient and their lighter weights allow me to do more in a shorter amount of time, so for the client that normally means less pain and better healing times.”
Tinker, who is highly respected throughout the Chattanooga body art scene, has some strong advice for people looking for their first (of twentieth) tattoo: always do your homework, check out studios and their health inspection scores, research what you want, and check out portfolios.
“Go out and meet with the tattooers—you don’t want to sit with someone for hours if you’re not going to enjoy their company,” he adds. “If they are booked out further than you like, don’t settle—I cover up a lot of bad decisions every week. Make sure to be open minded when it comes to tattooers’ ideas about your design; most of us pride ourselves on giving you the best composition and design that you will enjoy the rest of your life.”