LONG ROAD AHEAD
By Rob Rodriguez
I started tattooing in 2009 after having a two-year apprenticeship. I always worked hard and was excited with almost every tattoo I did. As a child, I always wanted to learn about as many things as I could get my hands on. That attitude and way of thinking followed me into my tattoo carrier. In 2012, I had an epiphany.
So many people would come into my shop and tell me how wonderful their tattoos were, and that I was the best. Deep down I knew that they were only saying that because they were just happy with the end result. I couldn’t sit and convince myself that I really was the best just because my customers said so. I felt the need to push myself further and decided to test my metal. I attended the first United Ink Tattoo Convention on Long Island. Not knowing what I was doing really, I didn’t know what to expect. At the convention, I started an eight-hour tattoo on a long time customer, to compete in Tattoo of the Day. I had no idea how hard it would be. I didn’t win, of course, but I was still very proud of myself for being able to start and finish, an eight-hour session at a tattoo convention. The tattoo came out great and she loved it. Also, that day, another customer that I had tattooed earlier in the year, entered his tattoo in Black and Gray Medium. We actually won third place! My customer gave me the award and we took pictures. That night I said to myself, maybe I am looking at this all wrong. I was trying to run when I don’t even know how to crawl.
For a whole month I studied my styles and found that my style of cartoon comic tattooing is the strongest. Mario Barth’s Inked Out New Jersey 2012 was going to be my mark. I drew a custom style biomechanical rip-thru on a customer’s rib. She was able to take five hours of tattooing the night before the contest and, when the day came, we were ready. I will admit I was nervous. At least twenty people had been entered in Best Color on a Female. I saw many bright, colorful tattoos. When the judging was finished three people were called onto the stage, my customer being one. I was so happy that I could not stop smiling. Third place was awarded and I was confused, it didn’t go to my customer. Then second place was given to another person. Finally I realized I had gotten first place! I was so very proud. To have Mario Barth and Philadelphia Eddie among others judging my tattoo and giving it first place beside so many others was a great honor. I even got a little emotional, when no one was looking.
As the year went on I competed in many other contests, but never forgot my first place win at Inked Out New Jersey. I just had to do it again the following year. This time however, I wanted to do something different. I always loved doing tribal style tattoos. With deep-black saturation in the skin, the smooth lines and sharp edges are a test to any tattooist basic skill. When Inked Out New Jersey 2013 came I was ready. By that time I had already won thirteen contests, but Inked Out New Jersey is where I felt I truly belonged. I brought two people with me and there were more than just a few great tattoos in the contest. Once again I placed first, but this time third, as well. That night I went to bed with a feeling I haven’t had in a long time: accomplishment. I also felt that all things come to those who work hard for them, as my grandfather once told me. All I could think about was getting back to the shop and studying. I was excited to see how much better my tattooing was going to get, and it did. The harder I studied the better my work had become.
Inked Out New Jersey 2014 was finally here. My boss told me that I was a “runaway train” and to “keep up the good work.” My teacher and mentor, the first person who ever tattooed me, all of them telling me how proud they were of me. This year was going to be the year that I showed people. Yes I proved that I can win awards, now I had to prove that I deserve them.
During the past year, I experimented and started drawing flash designs. I never entered them in contest, but after winning third place at Bob Baxter’s Tattoo Road Trip, I realized that I really liked drawing flash. By this time I had twenty-six awards under my belt. I had to return to my home at Inked Out New Jersey. I brought eight pieces with me this time: one black and grey, one color, three tribal and three flash design sheets that I had custom drawn. I stayed the whole weekend, Interacting with many talented artists. They were great, fun people. I watched, trying to learn and expand as an artist and as a person. I didn’t win this time for black and grey or color. Still, I wasn’t going to let that get me down. I was proud of my customers and my work, and my customers loved the tattoos I had done for them. Sunday arrived. I had put so many hours of work into the designs sheets that I almost forgot about the tribal contest. I was able to take home first and second place in Tribal. This would now be the third year in row I took first place. To my surprise, and among 20 amazing designs, I was awarded third place for Best Design Sheet. They didn’t just like my designs, the judges said they loved them. My Idea was an American Traditional superhero design sheet and it wasn’t just a drawing, it was a part of me. After taking pictures with my customers and hugging and thanking them for being a part of this moment with me, I finally went home.
At home in the shop, I placed the three awards in my trophy case and stepped back. Twenty-nine awards. Twenty-nine times I worked and studied and struggled. Twenty-nine times my customers have bled for me to compete. Twenty-nine times we have not only tested ourselves but celebrated our tattoos together. Looking at the awards I realized that my customers are not just customers, not just canvases, but family. They bare the marks on their bodies forever and have shown me a truth that has always escaped me. They say I’m the best not because I am, but because they believe in me. For that I will always strive to be better. I can’t wait to see what I will learn in the next year, before Mario Barth’s Inked Out New Jersey.
—Rob Rodrigues, Murda Ink 3, West Babylon, New York
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