The journey begins at a strip mall on U.S. 1. It is here that the uninitiated open the door to a foreign world where ink and skin unite.
The hum of tattoo machines set the rhythm, and a chorus of laughter and excited conversations mingle with a soft ’60s soundtrack to provide the melody.
Betty Boop reruns play on a small television in the waiting room. One’s eye is drawn around the studio by the sketches, signs and anchors that cover the walls. Large cushioned chairs sit at each station, and the artists not busy tattooing or piercing are perfecting designs on paper.
It’s a convergence of an art gallery and barber shop, with each artist subsisting on commissioned work that patrons will carry with them, presumably, until they die.
This is the domain of one of St. Augustine’s most iconic tattoo artists, Sailor Cher.
She once served as a photojournalist in the Navy, and a sign hanging at her station lets you know. It reads “I may be old, but I was in the Navy when it was cool.”
Sailor Cher has been a fixture in St. Augustine’s tattoo community for the better part of a decade. She got her start at Ms. Deborah’s Fountain of Youth Tattoo and Body Piercing Studio and spent time at Mistiso Ink Tattoo Studio before opening her own all-woman shop, Sailor Cher’s Tattoo and Body Piercing, at 4540-3 U.S. 1. She sports a gray mohawk, several piercings and, of course, plenty of tattoos.
Despite what many would consider a hard edge, she said she was getting nervous as she watched a videographer set up microphones and lights. But once the camera was rolling, it didn’t take her long to open up about her career.
“I started out as a body piercer and I worked for many years as that,” she says. “I just did the natural morph into tattooing. I would say it’s like working in a taco shop, eventually you want to learn to speak Spanish.”
She says her art background — with degrees in photography — contributed to her success, but adds that there’s more to tattooing than being a good technician.
“I know some tattoers that are not good artists and I know great artists that are not good tattooers,” she says. “Some things are really emotional for people and being able to translate how they feel into a permanent piece of art that they can be proud to wear [is hard]. I think the people skills are what separate good artists from great artists.”
Sailor Cher prides herself on making her clients comfortable, and understands the intimidation many feel when they walk through the door.
“Some people come in and they don’t think they’re cool enough to be here,” she says. “So they nerd out, or they’re real scared and they’re embarrassed because they’re scared. We just try to make them comfortable and let them know that it’s really normal to have those feelings.”
For years, tattooing existed on the fringes of society. Back-alley tattoo parlors catered to military personnel, bikers and outsiders. Now, tattoos have entered the mainstream, raising questions about the art form’s place in society.
“This is the flavor of the week,” Sailor Cher says. “Tattooing is the thing to do, the thing to be, and for the first time in my life I’m in an industry that’s kind of popular.”
The journey continues a few miles south, where sand and sea collide.
Cyan walls showcase a plethora of framed drawings in a display that merges traditional, American tattoo elements with Asian and tribal motifs.
A crucifix and a Madonna adorn one workstation, and bright fluorescent lights and high ceilings give the studio an open, airy feel.
Soft hip-hop beats play over the sound system, and an artist is discussing his craft with three young men who just walked in off the street.
This is St. Augustine artist Daaron Davis’ shrine to ink, Old Towne Tattoo.
Davis sports a short beard, two full-sleeve tattoos and is often seen wearing a ball cap. He occupies the space where art, surf and punk rock meet.
Davis knew he wanted to tattoo before he enrolled in the Columbus College of Art and Design, but, even with his strong art background, breaking into tattooing wasn’t easy.
“At that time there was not nearly as much information available,” Davis says. “Social media wasn’t there and most tattoo shops didn’t have websites. So I went to tattoo shops and would try to get tattooed and offer free labor. Most people would push me out with a broom and say ‘Get out of here kid,’ but I just kept at it.”
Dogged perseverance is a trait many tattoo artists possess. It’s something they share with many of their clients — some of whom make regular pilgrimages to tattoo studios over the span of months, and sometimes years, to perfect large-scale pieces.
People get tattoos for a variety of reasons, and Davis says everyone’s story is unique.
“Some people get them [tattoos] out of rebellion, some people get them to belong and I think some people get them just for the sake of wearing art,” he says. “I think everybody has their own reasons.”
Tattooing is a collaborative effort. A client provides an artist with an idea or inspiration, and the artist takes that idea and turns it into a piece tailored for that person’s body. In that moment, when a sketch is transferred to skin, something happens. It’s something that can be difficult to explain.
“It becomes alive,” Davis says. “You see the actual design fit a surface, you see it move and bend and breath and it kind of becomes its own thing. … It’s not just a picture on the wall that people can hand down from generation to generation, it’s something that you wear, only you wear it and only you get to keep it.”
For some, tattoos are too extreme, too painful and too permanent. To others, it’s a way of life, and that lifestyle demands sacrifice. Tattoos can hurt in more than one way.
Davis has fought social stigmas and lost friends, girlfriends and freedom, but says he has no regrets.
“I’ve definitely put a lot into it,” he says. “But I’ve gained so much more than I’ve had to sacrifice. Tattooing has been so good to me. It’s offered me the opportunity to work here with my friends, at the beach, doing what I love. I’ve seen a good portion of the country and other countries because of tattooing. It’s made me a better person and even a better parent I would say.”
For those wanting to experience ink firsthand, Davis suggests taking your time to find an artist you can trust and then listening to them.
Skin is an unforgiving canvas. Davis compares it to paper. There’s high-quality stock and there’s the rough, scratchy papers that just don’t hold up as well.
“Tattooing is a little bit of a gamble whether you have 20 years of experience or five,” he says. “Everybody’s skin type is different, everybody is going to care for the tattoo differently and not everybody’s skin receives it the same. Ethnicity, age and sun damage all play a factor.”
If you do choose to take the plunge, you will join a fraternity of ink: a frat held together by a love for ink on skin and a shared appreciation for the painful price one pays to join.
“You definitely have to earn it,” Davis says. “There are a lot of things nowadays with people trying to numb it, or get rid of the pain before they even receive it. That’s kind of silly to me. This is something that’s kind of primitive and it has existed for a long time. For hundreds of years people got them [tattoos] without any sort of remedy. You have to suffer through it to earn the right to wear it.”
IN THE CHAIR
The journey ends at a wall of trophies.
You enter through a hallway that opens up on a tidy workspace, nestled into a shopping center on Ponce de Leon Boulevard.
A low wall, resembling a shallow bar top separates the workspace from the waiting area. A line of plaques from conventions past are ordered overhead, and a plethora of trophy skateboards — and one surfboard — serve as testaments to the skill of the artists that work here.
Sitting in the back, an artist munches on her lunch while her husband preps needles and ink for the day ahead.
This is the showcase of husband-and-wife tattoo artists Pepper and Bart Andrews.
Pepper has been tattooing since she was in high school, spending half of her school days in class and the other apprenticing under a local tattoo artist. Bart has been in the game for 16 years, but points out that art has always been in his blood. They run an old-school parlor called Unify Tattoo Company and Fine Art Gallery.
They have been in the business a long time, and offer some insight into what it means to be a tattooer. For starters, Bart says there are no shortcuts in his line of work.
“If you want to learn how to tattoo, get an apprenticeship,” he says. “If you have to scrub the toilets, scrub the toilets. … You’re learning a skill that can be passed down from generation to generation. People want to go get a certificate saying they can do something without having to earn it. Anybody can go and open a studio, that does not mean you know how to tattoo.”
Pepper adds that confidence is key when learning to tattoo. She tells of people practicing on fruit and pig skins, but says inanimate objects will never prepare you for the transition to skin.
“If you don’t have the balls to be able to sit down and work on an actual person, you are not ready,” Pepper says. “You have no business holding a tattoo machine.”
As tattooing enters the mainstream, shops are becoming more visible and information is easier to come by.
“I feel like now the community is a lot more open and fellow tattooers are willing to help and guide,” Pepper says. “Before, everything was a heavily guarded secret.”
According to Bart and Pepper, the increased visibility is a blessing and a curse.
“Back in the day it was a little easier because there were less tattooers,” Bart says. “Now there are more people that are not tattooers getting involved in the tattoo industry that are in it only for capital gain, and they don’t have any love for the craft. … That’s the downside to the professional industry now.”
For those aspiring artists, Bart offers a word of advice.
“Be patient, don’t expect everything to come to you at once, work hard at your craft, be good at what you do and the living will come.”
Maybe that’s something all of us can learn from the masters of ink.