Tattoo Artist Keeps Historic Designs Alive - NBC 10 Philadelphia

Tattoo Artist Keeps Historic Designs Alive



    Tattoo Artist Keeps Historic Designs Alive

    Tim Sellers' canvas is holding very still.

    Sellers, a tattoo artist who goes by the nom de needle of ``timmytatts,'' is inking a large heart on the right forearm of customer Chris Palmore _ and not a cartoon valentine. It's anatomically correct, all vivid muscle, with arteries, veins and everything.

    Wearing black gloves, timmytatts moves his tattoo machine in deft strokes while applying pigments between boldly rendered lines. Reggae music chugs along from somewhere in the shop. He wastes little time, wiping off excess briskly before dipping his machine again into tiny cups of ink.

    At last, timmytatts is satisfied. He sits back, his creation complete. The heart glistens in all its cardiac glory, another artistic display guaranteed for life.

    "How's that look to you?'' timmytatts asks, cleaning Palmore's arm with water. "There it is.''

    Palmore, already sporting several tattoos, looks at his latest body decoration and nods. "I really like it,'' he says.

    Timmytatts strikes again.

    Out of the Tattoo Mark's Studio Two shop in downtown State College, he works his magic. Sometimes, he creates "neo-traditional'' images like the heart: contemporary subjects done in an old-fashioned style.

    Mostly, though, he loves the real deal, preserving a traditional East Coast style, resurrecting flamboyant and often elaborate designs that have adorned arms, legs and torsos going back to the Spanish-American War. He's not just a tattoo artist.

    He's a tattoo art historian.

    On the walls and ceiling of the shop owned by a friend hang his "flash'' _ his collection of design sheets bearing historic and classic early 20th century tattoo art.

    It's a vivid gallery, an Americana museum really, of pin-ups, cowgirls, cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and Popeye, twisting snacks and dragons, flag-clutching martial eagles, geishas, mermaids, clipper ships in full sail, menacing dreadnoughts and other survivors from tattooing's past.

    They're all available, ready to be reborn on flesh and live once again.

    "To me, they're tattoos, and everything else is a mark on the skin,'' timmytatts said. "That's a tattoo, but not really. It doesn't have the same power, I would say, artistically.''

    His art may be skin-deep, but his knowledge of tattooing history is anything but superficial. The shop display includes cases of antique tattoo machines, vintage tattooing ephemera and acetate stencils that tattooers once used, with charcoal and petroleum jelly, to apply design guidelines on skin.

    That's not surprising from someone who gravitates to old things: 78 rpm records, blues and rockabilly music, clothing, movie posters, advertisements. He collects facts and stories as well.

    At the drop of hat _ a fedora, in his case _ he'll recall high society's infatuation with tattoos in the 1920s, or the 19th-century Japanese influence on Western tattooing, or how itinerant tattooers used to ply their trade with traveling circuses.

    With professorial fluency, he can discuss the lives and work of tattooing titans like Cap Coleman, Bowery Stan Moskowitz and Crazy Philadelphia Eddie.

    "While I do all sorts of tattoos, my interest in tattoo history and tattoos is the folk art of tattooing,'' he said. "Keeping that alive is just what I like. Not everybody is into that, but I am.''

    Discovering historic tattoos

    Now 44, timmytatts has been into tattoos since his high school days in Souderton, outside Philadelphia.

    Back then, he was just Tim, a young rebel seeking a look.

    "We were into punk rock, and being into it, it sort of gave you a different lifestyle,'' he said. "I was just trying to look cool, trying to be very different. It was just rock and roll.''

    School, on the other hand, didn't captivate him. One day, he skipped class to drive to Chicago and catch some punk rock shows _ a precursor to dropping out in the 11th grade.

    "I had a different sort of childhood,'' he said.

    In the following years, he started tattooing on the side while working odd jobs and scuffling to make ends meet. The extra money helped him eat, but he gained more than better meals.

    He found a calling.

    "I was just surprised people were paying me to tattoo,'' he said.

    By 1994, he had progressed enough to start tattooing professionally in his hometown. Timmytatts had not yet emerged. His early work consisted mainly of elementary stuff: swirling "tribal'' patterns made popular at the time by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

    He didn't know much about tattooing history or traditional designs. In the pre-Internet age, a classical tattoo education was hard to come by.

    "Tattooing was still very secret,'' he said. "Not a lot of people would tell you what was going on, and they would kick you out of their shop if you asked. It was really quite closed.''

    Around 1996, a breakthrough occurred.

    "Somebody asked me to do a sailor girl tattoo on them, which was not the norm of that time,'' he recalled.

    "And so, there were some books laying around that had some old tattoo designs in them which I really liked. I found the sailor girl and did it. I really starting poring over those books and said, `Wow, these are really great tattoo designs. This is the real thing.' And it didn't stop from there.''

    He learned the craft and refined his technique, helping put himself through Penn State and earning an art education degree. For a year in Florida, as he started a shop, he worked as a substitute teacher.

    But as much as he values knowledge, the classroom frustrated him. He had more patience with intricate designs than indifferent students.

    The choice became clear for him. He embarked on a path that led to him receiving a "Heart of An Old Tattooer'' award two years ago in Las Vegas from a group of legendary old-timers.

    "I can make an enjoyable living tattooing, so I just stuck with tattooing,'' timmytatts said. "It just made more sense to me, and less hassle.''

    Old-time images continue to live

    Like his heroes from the past, timmytatts has rambled, tattooing around the country and in Europe before settling in State College.

    But his time in Florida left a mark on him.

    His antique collection started one day in the Fort Lauderdale tattoo shop where he was working. A customer gave the shop owner a grocery bag full of old tattooing equipment, given to him by a neighbor who had known an old tattoo artist.

    Timmytatts realized that the gear had belonged to Owen Jensen, a noted prewar stylist.

    "He had married a circus sideshow lady that was the fat lady, called Dainty Dottie, who also tattooed,'' timmytatts said. ``They were West Coast tattooers from California.''

    The shop owner had little interest, but he liked one of timmytatt's autoclaves, a device that sterilizes needles. He proposed a trade.

    "Boy, when I got those machines, I was so happy,'' timmytatts said.

    Another encounter opened a bigger door.

    At a convention seven years ago, he was tattooing a classic skull and anchor design, called a "Davy Jones' Locker,'' when he heard a voice behind him say, "Oh, you're keeping that old-time image alive.''

    Turning around, timmytatts beheld a retired legend: Bowery Stan Moskowitz, a celebrated New York tattoo artist who began in the 1940s.

    "It was him and it was the most amazing thing,'' timmytatts said. "All I could think of to say was, `Stan, can you tattoo me later?' "

    Bowery Stan did on the spot, fashioning a ``battle royale'' of a snake fighting an eagle on his fan's leg for free and then signing his work. Much later, timmytatts reciprocated with a gypsy girl.

    But that night, the pair went to dinner and struck up a friendship that endures to this day. They continue to do conventions together, a partnership timmytatts likens to ``Mick Jagger coming up to some young guitar player and saying, `Hey, let's go on tour.' "

    "It was nice because he took me under his wing in a way,'' timmytatts said. "There's a lot I learned from him.''

    As Moskowitz introduced him to old-timers or their families, timmytatts absorbed everything like ink into a bicep.

    He learned by heart the iconic prewar and 1940s styles of artists such as Eddie Peace and Cap Coleman, a Norfolk, Va., tattooer.

    "He was really the godfather of tattooing on the East Coast,'' timmytatts said. "He standardized a look that was carried on up till about the '80s.''

    Many of timmytatt's design sheets show historical designs straight from the hand of Coleman and his contemporaries. Some display designs were lifted from the grainy pages of vintage pulp magazines.

    Whatever the source, timmytatts has a deep admiration for the master talent revealed: the ability to transfer art to skin, to suggest the essence of a curved nose, the line of an eye, a ship's rigging, without overdoing the detail.

    Some customers, he said, find the classic designs lurid and crude. He sees them as timeless, waiting for the right person.

    "This is what I collect because it has to do with tattooing as art history more than anything else,'' he said.

    "If someone has the right mind and they see it and they say it's beautiful and they see it for what it is, and then I tattoo it on them, to me, everybody wins. Because they like it and I give them a little bit of back story on the design, the artist and where it came from. It makes what a tattoo should be: a special occasion.''

    Knowledgeable and passionate

    Tyler Kulp, 31, got his first timmytatts tattoo 12 years ago.

    It was a snake wrapped around a rose, an adaptation of a design Kulp brought in from a rock album sleeve, a ``neo-traditional'' piece of art.

    "When I brought him the tattoo, he was very forthright in saying, `I know you like this, but it isn't a tattoo,' " Kulp said.

    Kulp liked the end result so much he came back _ over and over again.

    With more than 40 tattoos, he's now a walking advertisement for timmytatts and Justin Sellers, who works with his older brother in the same style. Timmytatts did both of Kulp's arm "sleeves,'' a chest eagle piece and a Cap Coleman cowgirl on one arm, among other pieces.

    "I was really blown away by it all, just the vivid colors and the bold lines,'' Kulp said.

    But as someone who shares timmytatt's appreciation for retro Americana, Kulp admires the mind controlling his friend's steady hand.

    "He's so knowledgable and passionate about his work that I always felt comfortable, in that he was going to do the best work possible,'' Kulp said. "Because he wanted it to be great, too. He was committed to the art form.''

    Timmytatts, to be sure, doesn't feel bound to history. Now and then, he enjoys a little stylistic mixing, a bit of fusion, some creative license.

    But he'll always be drawn to the proven designs that have withstood the test of time _ and will stand up to time's cruelty to skin. He can't say the same for the trendier pieces some customers request.

    "They don't understand that the immediate look that can be achieved today may have a lot of detail, but you won't see anything later,'' he said. "It'll just be blobs because there's too much in it.''

    With Chris Palmore, his heart tattoo customer, timmytatts thought about the future in a different way.

    "Just stop back in a week,'' he said as Palmore left the shop. "I'll check if everything is healing. I'd like to know that everything is great. The sad thing about tattooing, you spend some time and do a great piece and you never see it again.''