101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 12)—Brian Everett
THE KING OF ROUTE 66
I first met Brian Everett back in 1997. I had recently been hired by Larry Flynt to run Skin&Ink magazine and was doing my level best to feature the most talented, most respected artists in the business. Everett, along with Good Time Charlie Cartwright, Freddy Negrete and Jack Rudy, was responsible for introducing black-and-gray fine-line tattooing to the tattoo world. Before that, most tattoos were built on thick, black outlines and minimum shading. It was this core group of adventuresome artists that came to the attention of innovators like Don Ed Hardy and, ultimately, to today’s portrait tattoo specialists like Bob Tyrrell, Jeff Gogué, Shane O’Neill, Larry Brogan, Robert Hernandez and so many others. Clearly, Everett merits a place at the top of our list, so I thought, although I dropped by his Albuquerque, New Mexico, shop as recently as three months ago to take photographs for my “Tattoo Road Trip—The Best of the Southwest” book, it would be fun to reprint my initial interview from Skin&Ink‘s September 1997 issue. It’s a sixteen-year-old-conversation, but, by the sound of it and Everett’s erudite responses, it could have been recorded yesterday.
We’ve all heard how Brian Everett learned to tattoo blond-haired women by having Jack Rudy tattoo a blond-haired woman on Brian’s chest. And how he learned to tattoo brunette women by having Jack Rudy tattoo a brunette women on the other side. What a great vantage point for learning; front row center. It’s the way countless tattoo professional learn the trade, by having the master use the student’s skin as the canvas. It’s the way an apprenticeship works in the world of tattoo. Painful yet rewarding. But, in Brian Everett’s case, not quite as simple as that.
From the start, Brian Everett, was already a talented artist. He sold at galleries nationwide and it was Rudy that suggested Everett transfer his awesome portrait skills to tattooing. The hard work and dedication that followed led to a kind of life and style that most tattoo artists only dream of: a beautiful wife, a house full of kids, prize-winning custom cars, a state-of-the-art tattoo shop and the recognition of his genius by virtually every established artist in the world of tattoo.
I’d been to Albuquerque, New Mexico several times. Mostly on the way to Santa Fe, which is an hour to the north, by car. I’ve even traveled the updated version of Route 66, zipping past the Albuquerque off-ramps at 70 mph. Before visiting Route 66 Tattoo, I never really had a good reason to venture off the main highway. Albuquerque seemed like a dreary, uninviting, middle of nowhere jumble of buildings and car lots looking for a town. But, after I finally found the shop at the end of a long and endless row of lookalike storefronts on Central Avenue, I discovered the very happening headquarters of one of most complex and skilled artists in all of tattooing.
“I’m on the road most of the time, traveling from convention to convention. I’m not in the shop that much,” Everett said as he gave me a glimpse of a neat, carefully-written list of clients he had already signed-up for some upcoming tattoo convention a thousand miles away. “I get all the information on what they want tattooed, before I get there. So, when I touch down, I go straight to the convention site, plug in my equipment and start to work. I never look up. I’m at it every day and still at it when the clean-up committee is mopping the floors and hauling away the trash. I hardly do any work out of the Albuquerque shop.”
Everett’s a modern-day tattoo road warrior. And that makes sense, if his huge 1960s Cadillac the size of the U.S.S. Missouri is any example. I ran out of fingers counting, as Brian listed the staggering number of broken-down, refurbished or halfway-in-between classic cars he collects.
But his shop is a different matter. Like any efficient headquarters, it’s the perfect example of what he believes a tattoo shop should be. Each artist has their own room with a door to shut out prying eyes, their own memorabilia, collectibles and equipment. Near the edge of town, the shop is easy to find with its neon sign and crazy quilt mural on the side. Once inside, the long, narrow building features a reception area with a couple gushy couches, a coffee table with magazines and professionally-manned front desk. Cutting through the cigarette smoke, the high-ceilinged walls are covered from top to bottom with flash from a raft of famous artists. Each sheet is carefully mounted on hard stock and slipped into a series of long plastic runners to easily facilitate pulling off the wall and taking into the individual artist’s “operating rooms.”
The atmosphere is energetic, and there’s always a conversation going on about who’s going for lunch, or news of an upcoming convention. The fact that surprised me most was the intensity of the tattoos I saw on practically everyone who came through the door. Usually, I thought, large backpieces and ornate face work is reserved for the big coastal city tattoo scenes like New York and Los Angeles, but, right there, between Gallup and Tucumcari, in this unexpected Mecca for the art of tattooing, is a clientele of very serious collectors. Due, I would venture, to the efforts and reputation of Mr. Brian Everett, sole owner of Route 66 Tattoo, and his talented staff of Jason Willis, Tony Johnson, Mr. Max, Tom De Priest, Tim McCarthy and Shane DeLarian [nowadays it’s Max Vasher, John Howard, Jesso Jones and Gilbert Vasquez].
I’ve seen Brian’s work in books and magazines, but I had never seen an actual Brian Everett tattoo up close. One of our Skin&Ink models, Chassity Ebbole, has a Brian Everett on her shoulder and, when I saw it, I was amazed at how much more vibrant the real-life tattoo was compared to the photographs of Brian’s work in Henk Schiffmacher’s book 1000 Tattoos. Chassity is a beautiful girl, by the way, and to commemorate this, her husband, Electric Ed, asked Brian to tattoo Chassity’s image in that little depression area right above his collarbone, at the base of the throat. I guess this was so Electric Ed could see Chassity’s face every morning in the mirror, for the rest of his life. Imagine how perfect that tattoo had to be. It wasn’t covered up by his shirt or tucked away on his back somewhere. It was right there, baby; for everyone to see. Imagine the pressure. But Brian wasn’t fazed. Judging by the quality of the line and the artistic confidence displayed by the image, it’s perfect work. Brian just free-handed it in. That, to me, is absolute mastery of the craft and precisely why Brian has the reputation he does.
Articulate on a series of subjects and a great storyteller as well, Brian Everett is the kind of artist that lets his work speak for itself, however here’s a rare interview with the man himself.
BRIAN EVERETT: When you’re sitting back at your shop, you’re not plugged into what’s happening with the business, you know what I mean? People tend to forget who you are after a while.
BOB BAXTER: Is the purpose of your traveling to establish business for yourself and also for the people here?
BB: Because they work for you?
BE: Well, they work for themselves. But they work under my name. You know what I mean? Under the Route 66 name. And, I guess, the promo thing is that I want to present Route 66 as a professional standard of tattooing. So that it just becomes an embossed name in tattooing. That this is where you would go to get an excellent piece. Not necessarily just by me, but it could be by whoever is here. Whoever they have tattoo them, they’re gonna get a very high standard tattoo.
BB: Do you think being in Albuquerque makes a difference? Could you have done this if you were born and brought up in Chicago, or Dallas, or..?
BB: You just happen to be here?
BE: This is where my roots are. I mean, obviously in a big city like Chicago or something, it’s probably a little easier to do in some ways, because you have such a large population to draw from. Here the population isn’t that big.
BB: Half a million?
BE: Yeah, right around there.
BB: And the people that work for you, they pay you?
BE: They pay me a percentage. That way they remain self-employed and I don’t get caught up in all that.
BB: And you’ve been at this location seven years?
BE: Going on eight years, yeah. [The total, in 2013, is closer to twenty-four.]
BE: Yeah, right around that time frame. I credit Jack [Rudy] for a lot of that, the help that I got along my way. Because of him, I have certain views regarding respect and integrity for the business. This business, there’s been a real influence of people that have come into this business in a short period of time. Because this business was originally handed down from generation to generation, it was a father-son relationship. You had to be plugged in somewhere to get into the business, and that has obviously changed, since there has been supply ads and stuff like that. And so everybody and their brother decided they wanted to learn how to tattoo and, as far as I’m concerned, many of them haven’t paid the dues. You know what I mean? In the old days, when I got into this business, it was impossible to get any kind of information about tattooing from anybody. You had to really have a dedication and a love for it to battle what it took to get the information you needed to set yourself up. Now, stuff is readily available to people, so that they break in before they are ready. There’s so many fundamentals attached. Being a tattoo artist is more than being a capable artist or even more than being a nice technician. There’s a lot more to being a tattoo artist. It’s a very personal relationship that you have with the client that you’re working on. Even selling a tattoo and how you address the person that you tattoo. Basically, when people come in for a tattoo, they don’t have an experience to compare it to. It’s normally a new frontier for them. They’re stepping out when they go to get a tattoo. So, when they walk into a shop, the environment that they walk into is completely foreign to them. They often are quite uneasy, quite unsure about the whole thing. It’s a big step anyway, because it’s there for life. A good tattoo artist knows how to confront the person, how to make them feel quite at ease with what they’re doing and helps them along. Because a lot of people don’t know what’s available to them, they just don’t have a clue. They know they want something, but they don’t know what exactly. Or they might know why they want it and all that, but they don’t know what they can have. And so a tattoo artist needs to really be able to talk with a person and walk them through the whole process, from start to finish.
BE: Sure, because getting tattooed is an experience. You’re not just buying something like you would in retail store. The whole thing is an experience, and it can be a good experience or it can be a very poor experience. And there are people who artistically are quite capable, but sometimes their artistic ability will take them further than they should be at that point, because they didn’t get the background nuts and bolts of what being a real tattoo artist is all about.
BB: Are you saying that if four people were lined up, you could say “Those three people had a good experience and that one didn’t”?
BE: I think in a five minute conversation you could find out exactly who had a good or a bad experience. And it could actually show up in the work in the sense that, if you have a good rapport with the person that you are tattooing, while first meeting them, then they’re going to be much more at ease when they’re actually getting their tattoo. Their skin’s not gonna be tight, they’ll be relaxed and it will be a positive energy that will flow back and forth.
BB: From what I’ve heard, you’re probably the prime example of that, because of the fact that you’re primarily tattooing memorabilia on people’s arms. You’re tattooing mothers and wives and girlfriends and their favorite rock artists and their dogs and favorite pets.
BE: That’s the one thing I probably cherish the most about my position, is the people that I get. Because I specialize in portraiture, it’s the ultimate compliment, when you can put a picture of someone else on you. So, in just about every case, it’s an expression of love, in one manner or another. And so, right from the get-go, when they have selected me to do a tattoo on them, it’s something that they hold really near and dear to their heart. Now, if I came in with a real arrogant or could-give-a-rat’s-ass attitude, while I was tattooing, their experience would not be good. They might even be happy with the result at the end, but, to me, good rapport is such a meaningful thing, because you’re doing a service and it’s part of the whole thing. And I don’t think you could really just remove the rapport element, because I think it would show up in the work.
BB: I can’t conceive of anybody ever having a piece of your work covered up.
BE: I hope it doesn’t happen, but I’ve had some old ones covered up. I mean, the cover-ups are usually when somebody reaches their forties and they’ve got a skull with an eyeball falling out of it. I’ve had people that I’ve worked on, where the photograph that I’m doing is of someone who’s deceased. And that makes it even more personal, because that person is gone. They’ve lost someone that they love. Often, when I’m doing something as personal as tattooing, it breaks down a lot of barriers that you normally have with someone you don’t know. You don’t share personal information about yourself with someone you don’t know. They’re not worthy of you to share that with. And so, we set up barriers that aren’t penetrated in normal conversations. But, when I’m tattooing somebody, because it’s such a personal experience and because it’s a tattoo of something or someone that they love, these barriers come right down. Like, if it’s a lost child, they’ll share with me all the things about this child in their life.
BB: So, you’ll have a conversation.
BE: Yeah, they will tell me all about this child during the time we’re doing this tattoo. And I’ve had tears in my eyes, when they’re telling me. I’ve had them tell me about how this child came to pass. And it’s very, very touching. It’s a heart-wrenching experience, when you’re doing the tattoo. Tattooing, for me, has evolved to an ultimate experience as far as the personal side of things.
BB: But you must also know when you nail it, and they know when you nail it.
BE: Oh yeah. I normally know, when I’m working on a piece, I work on the piece until I nail it. That’s what it boils down to.
BB: Can you really do that effectively using the tattoo medium?
BB: But you can’t take away wrong lines.
BE: Yeah, but I don’t put a line there that doesn’t belong there. Technically I’ve gotten to a point where I’m very reserved with my line work. One of the biggest mistakes I see people do, especially in black-and-gray work, is they over-dedicate themselves. They go in there and lay this big heavy line, like, if it’s on the side of the nose, to show the bridge of the nose. Well if you ever look at a real nose, there’s never a heavy line for the bridge. They’ve already over-dedicated themselves. And, basically, what I do is build from light to dark, so there’s a soft line like there really is. That’s what gives it that realistic look. But I rarely get in a situation where I put a line where it should have been lighter, because I go very, very cautiously with my line work.
BB: Well you may say you’re doing it cautiously, but you lay down your lines. When you lay it down, that sucker’s in there.
BE: You know what, though? If you really examine the tattoo, most of it isn’t line, most of it is value. The majority of the tattoo is actually done with the shader.
BB: Do you use the shader a lot?
BE: Oh, yeah.
BE: I use a nine mag. And the majority of the tattoo is done with the mag, because that’s what gives me the value. What people sometimes don’t understand, when they’re doing black-and-gray work, is the lack of lines that you might have in a fine-line piece. Because a fine-line piece isn’t going to have the strength that a big bold line would give you, so you have to back it up with value, you know what I mean? Without having the power of the line, if you don’t come in with your heavy value and the strength of your value, you would lose the piece. It would just look scratchy, it would look amateurish, and that’s where a lot of people that want to go to the fine line are. They think that that’s the cat’s meow, this fine-line detailed work. But they miss the point. They miss the point that you have to back it up with value if you want to come across with a nice strong piece at the end.
BB: And you said they way you mix the inks, you mix them as you do it.
BE: No, I don’t believe in pre-mixing.
BB: And the way that you hold the needle?
BE: Yeah, you hold the machine differently with a single than you do a three needle. Some of that stuff I’d rather not go into, the technical end of it. I think that people that want to learn how to tattoo well really shouldn’t read it in a magazine. What they should do is get going and get tattooed from someone. The problem right now with all these people that have recently come into the business, many of them might have learned and had two years under their belt, and then they start teaching their friends. Because it came to them so easy, they give it away real easy, and it loses the integrity of the industry. You know, if you take all the battles that these old guys did to learn how a machine should be set up properly… and so much of this is really valuable information that some people just don’t realize how valuable it is. For me, it’s my livelihood, it’s how I support my wife and my six children. It’s my life. And that’s why sometimes I get involved in other things to give something back to the industry, because I cherish it. I hold it real near and dear to my heart. And there’s far too many people that are coming into this business that don’t hold it near and dear to their heart. They give it away far too easy and they give it to someone who’s not deserving. You see what I’m saying? So they reflect on all of us who really do put our heart into it. And it sickens me how some of these people, they just tread on it. I think in a lot of ways that what we need to do in the business is get a grip back on the industry and teach people not to just give this away. This is something near and dear and it isn’t something that anybody can just jump into. A lot of them are finding out that it’s not all as easy as they think, either. Sometimes they think, well, I gotta work outside and I have do this and that, and I’d just rather sit in a chair and tattoo. Well after you’ve tattooed for twenty years and your back’s shot, you get to where you just can’t do it anymore. I mean, I have numbness in the ends of my fingers
BB: Some of the young tattooists are telling me that, when they’re taken on as apprentices, they’re having to scrub toilets for two months. It’s a methodology to ask if this the life for you. But there are a lot of people that say, “There’s an empty chair, take it.”
BE: Yeah, there are too many that let them in way too easy. And I think the good old traditional apprenticeship is really what needs to come back into the business. So people that do come into it really treasure it and they’re not so irresponsible with it. You know what I mean? I think anytime someone works hard for something, I think they’re much more careful with it. I think they appreciate it more. I mean, let’s face it, if you go to college to get a degree in something so you can pursue a career, you’ve put a lot of hard sweat into it. And you know what you have at the end. That should be true with an apprenticeship, I think that the end result is they have something they’re very proud of and that they’re going to carry on and conduct themselves in a professional manner. So they’ll sterilize properly. They’ll make sure that they have a very sanitized, clean work area. They’ll make sure that they present themselves well to the customers, so that the customers feel comfortable, when they come in the shop. If they do that, then it looks good for all of us. All of us look better in the long run. Even though the art of tattooing has become more mainstream than it has ever been in history, the bottom line is, it still has a stigma of the old drunken sailor and the dirty hepatitis needle kind of outfit. That has been the connotation that it’s gotten in the past. And, in order for tattooing to really move on properly, it takes people to come to work with nice clean clothes on. Colonel Todd said—well, ya know Bob Shaw and Colonel Todd go back a long way—Colonel Todd told me that Bob Shaw said, “A man should look like he’s worth the fifty bucks he’s charging for a tattoo.” And I think that’s a good rule of thumb. You should look like they are in the right place right from the start. Part of the reason I have individual work areas is so someone doesn’t feel like they’re on display, when they’re getting tattooed. It makes the customer feel more comfortable. And it makes it easier for them to have a rapport with their artist. They’re not distracted by feeling like they’re up on stage. There’s some people who’d prefer to have the door closed and some would prefer to have the door open. Some would like to have the interaction with the people walking by while they’re getting tattooed, that’s fine. If that’s what they like then we can leave the door open and they can feel comfortable with that.
BB: Who are the important tattoo arists?
BE: I don’t know about the important people. I can tell you the people whose work that I really respect.
BB: Living people?
BE: Yeah, and y’know there’s obviously people that have since passed, like Sailor Jerry Collins. I never knew him, but Ed Hardy, in his journals, has taken you through a little bit of the road down where Jerry came from and how far he took tattooing, and I really respect that man. He was way ahead of his time. His political views and everything. So, obviously he’s somebody that I admire, the guys from the past. Because really what they did is they paved the road for those of us that are in this generation, you know what I mean? And I’m turning into one of the older guys in the business now because I’ve been tattooing twenty years [by today’s count, that would total nearly forty]. It’s a passing of the baton.
BB: Okay, going back to Sailor Jerry and Colonel Todd and that genre; what’s the next group, who came out of that? Ed Hardy…
BE: Ed Hardy obviously. His mentor was Sailor Jerry, and then Ed took it further down the line. And then after him was Eddy Deutsche. He followed what Ed did and took it to another place. There’s a metamorphosis that goes on in the business and it is passed on from generation to generation. And there were European artists who were predecessors to them. This difference now is that it used to be a better interaction between artists in the old days, and it has been lost now. The letters are gone. Often the European artists and the American artists used to write a lot of letters that became part of history in tattooing.
BE: They’d write letters back and forth to each other. You know, the book that Ed did on Sailor Jerry? Most of that book was a result of personal letters between Ed and Jerry, Sailor Jerry and Zeke Owen. And now with communication changing so much, you pick up the phone and talk to somebody in Europe without a second thought. It’s real nice, because it’s given us much more interaction with the Europeans, but on the down side of it, we don’t have a written record of the rhetoric any more. Part of that is lost. So the next generation won’t have the input that was going on between the American artists and the European artists.
BB: Perhaps we can help keep that tradition alive with this interview.
BE: It would be a good thing, if it did. A very good thing.