The only stories you ever hear when it comes to tattoos are about how someone got their first one or a story behind the inspiration for one.
There’s one in this issue of The Surge, matter of fact.
But what about the person doing the tattooing? How did they get there? How did they learn to do this amazing art? What’s their story?
Meet Joe Winkler.
Joe began his apprenticeship at Elite Ink Tattoos on Seaboard Street in Myrtle Beach in May 2014.
“I started getting tattooed there, and also began to hang out and got to know the artists. I did a bit of drawing there as well. It was a gradual thing, but I wanted the opportunity for an apprenticeship from the very beginning, but it wasn’t available. After some persistence, almost 18 months worth, one day out of the blue, I was finally brought in to the office with the owner of Elite, Robert Lanz, and all he said was ‘Are you ready?’ I didn’t even know what he was talking about at first, but I immediately said ‘Yup.’ Right after that, the studio manager Michael McDonald showed me around and I started the next day. I put aside any social life I had and was there every moment I wasn’t at work.”
Becoming a tattoo artist wasn’t always the path he thought he would take. Joe graduated in 2008 from The Citadel with a degree in civil engineering and went straight in to work at a Myrtle Beach-area engineering firm.
One thing I believe in is if you’re given the opportunity, don’t hesitate because it may never come around again.
Working on small projects such as parking lot drainage and assisting with roadway design, he was content to grow in the business.
“The original plan was to eventually work with my family’s construction company and turn it in to a design-and-build company, but things don’t always go the way you plan,” he said.
When the recession hit and his engineering company downsized, he began to work for his family-owned construction business alongside his dad.
Even while working as an engineer and in construction, drawing is something that Joe has loved since childhood.
“I never took an art class that wasn’t required for school. I found people whose artwork I appreciated and asked myself how they did it. I began to break it apart and through experimentation with new and various media I figured out how to use what worked best for me to get the same result. You get a sense of understanding from breaking it down and figuring it out for yourself.”
Eventually, he found that charcoal worked best for him because it was challenging and messy, but allowed him to get the levels of depth that he wanted in a portrait.
For Joe, if there was ever an opportunity to create a career from his passion for art, he was going to go for it.
“One thing I believe in is if you’re given the opportunity, don’t hesitate because it may never come around again,” he said.
In the first few months of his tattoo apprenticeship, he found he was doing everything but tattooing.
“My first priority was to make sure the artists had what they needed, observing the artists as they tattooed, and cleaning the shop.”
When you start at the bottom, there is no place to go but up.
“By spending time with each artist, I got to know what kind of artist they were. Eventually, I began to gravitate towards those that I really wanted to learn from.”
From the time spent sitting in with the artists, he learned how to do everything from setting up the stations, to breaking down and cleaning up safely.
“Tattooing is only half the battle, the other half is maintaining a clean work environment to protect yourself, your coworkers and your clients,” Joe said.
When he finally picked up a tattoo machine, he says the first person he tattooed was himself.
“I was surrounded by all the artists that were teaching me. It was a bit nerve-wracking being observed by well over 50 plus years of experience. Now I have a terrible-looking Elite logo on my thigh.”
Once his mentors felt he was ready, it was time to begin practicing. For Joe, at that point, tattooing was almost placed on the back-burner.
“I lost my father at the same time I was to start really tattooing. It was a shock to my whole being. My dad was everything to me and it was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. He was my role model and my best friend and losing him was like losing a part of myself that I will never get back. The shop was understanding and said to take all the time I needed, but I was back three days later because I believe that my dad wouldn’t want me to curl into ball and die, he would want me to remember that he taught me better than that.”
Tattooing thus far has been an amazing opportunity for me to learn and discover what kind of artist I’m meant to be.
The first people he started tattooing were his friends who were supportive of his art and career. Through each new tattoo, he was under the supervision of the other artists who were there to answer his questions and offer constructive criticism.
“I started with something simple, and once I produced consistently solid and clean tattoos, I moved on to things that are more challenging, such as tattoos that include shading and color work.”
He said it was difficult to learn from other artists at first because of the way he taught himself to do other forms of art. He had to learn how to be taught.
“Learning from a professional is the only way to learn how to tattoo,” he said. “This art form makes you follow the standard. You cannot jump straight in to a piece because you want to do it.”
In February, Joe began to take paying clients and walk-ins who wanted simple and small things, always working to perfect each piece. The practice really began to come in when the summer season arrived.
“Tattooing thus far has been an amazing opportunity for me to learn and discover what kind of artist I’m meant to be.”
One year after doing his first tattoo, Joe is finding his groove. He’s been excited and proud of each piece he’s worked on and has already had some interesting moments.
“The first time I ever did a butt tattoo, it turned in to doing four in a row. It was pretty random.”
Just last week, Joe had the opportunity to do one of his largest pieces yet, a realistic skull and rose on a shoulder.
“This is a huge milestone for me because it really required me to use everything I’ve been taught. It showcases something approaching what I want to do.”