The Art of the Tattoo: Jeremy Garrett
New York's Jeremy Garrett aka NYARTMAN has been tattooing professionally for more than two decades.
Read our exclusive interview with Jeremy to learn how he got started in the biz — and hear about one of his worst tattooing experiences. Then, check out some of his work below.
When was the first time you saw a tattoo?I grew up in the South, in Memphis, Tennessee, where tattooing has always been legal as far as I know. Seeing folks with tattoos was not unusual.
How did you get into tattooing?Art has always been my passion. I've been drawing from as early as I can remember. It seems like as soon as I reached 13 years of age, I became a trouble magnet. At that time in my life, I often fit best with the "wrong crowd." When I was about 14 or 15, I ended up tattooing a couple of friends of mine using the traditional, tried and true method of pin and ink — a sewing pin and Indian ink, that is. Because I could draw, I guess I was nominated for the job. I can't remember what it is I actually tattooed, probably a skull or something like that. Anyway, it was pretty gross and I didn't do any more tattooing until I got into college, but I did continue designing tattoos for friends.
During my second year in college, I had a friend who wanted a tattoo. Tattooing was illegal in NYC at the time, and they really didn't have a way to get to a tattoo parlor upstate or out of state. They offered to buy me a tattooing starter kit if I would tattoo them. I agreed, but I thought they were joking. Anyway, a few weeks later they gave me the kit. Well, this pretty much freaked me out and I was then on the line to live up to my end of the deal. I kept putting it off for about a month or so.
One day when I was in class, I was complaining to a college buddy of mine, Danny, about my situation. I was worried because I had no real experience tattooing. I was also terrified of possibly doing permanent damage to my friend, and I was also freaking out about doing a terrible job. To my surprise, he said, "Don't worry about it. I know how to tattoo and I'll show you how."
Typical with many tattooists, Danny started me out tattooing on pig skin. As it turned out, I learned how to tattoo pretty quickly, which is sort of unusual as anyone who's tried tattooing knows. It wasn't very long before I started tattooing professionally. Although I had a fairly natural transition into tattooing, in my opinion, it is by far the most difficult art medium to master. And like golf, it's a skill you constantly work at perfecting.
How much does your graphic design work influence your tattoos?My graphic design background has not influenced my work as much as my majoring in comic book design and illustration. However, my graphic design background has definitely helped me to better brand and market myself.
You have a sign in your studio about the Torah forbidding tattoos. How do your religious beliefs impact your work?My rabbi asked that I put the sign in my studio to hopefully dissuade fellow Jews from getting tattooed, or at least deter them from asking me to tattoo them. For the most part, I keep my religious beliefs to myself and try to be the best person I can be. So it doesn't really impact my work too much. Though, throughout my tattooing career, I've caught a lot of flack from others in the industry because I don't have tattoos. It's sort of ironic that those tattooists, who are generally known to be such non-conformists, turn around and give me grief for not conforming to their ideals. After 21 years of tattooing professionally, if they still have a problem with it, then maybe they should seek professional help.
Has your style changed over time?My style has certainly developed over time. It was pretty grungy when I first started, largely due to the heavy influence of my instructors like Marshall Arisman [and] Frances Jetter, as well as comic book artist Kent Williams. That style didn't actually lend itself to tattooing and I had to refine it a bit. Not too long into my career I got turned on to the work of comic book artist Joe Madureira. What an incredible artist. When I grow up I want to be Joe Mad!
What’s your favorite piece?I pretty much hate all of my work. I'm your typical self-loathing artist. Believe it or not, art has never come easy for me and I've always struggled with my work. Perhaps I feel this way because I'm constantly trying to improve myself as an artist. Recently, I've been trying to find more time for my personal work and get back to creating some good old-fashioned shock art. I've been feeling patriotic and I'm developing a growing need to practice my First Amendment rights — you know, to make sure I still have them … maybe piss some people off in the process. Either way, it ought to be fun.
Any horror stories?No, not really. I try to avoid those situations. I do remember one time I had an old World War II marine come to me wanting flames tattooed all around his bulldog tattoo. He was pretty liquored up and determined to get this done right then and there. I initially turned him down and told him that because of the alcohol in his system, it would cause too much bleeding and it would push the ink out of his skin. That's what I was always told, anyway. I told him to come back when he was sober and I would be happy to do the work then. He promptly said, "I was drunk when I got this tattoo and I'm going to have the flames tattooed while I'm drunk." I'd never tattooed anyone drunk before, but because he was a vet he sort of reminded me of my grandfather, so I agreed to do the work. Man, what a mess. You're really not supposed to bleed very much at all when getting tattooed, [but] this guy bled all over the place to the point where I could barely see what I was doing. Two weeks later, he showed up at my shop stone-cold sober and informed me that he needed to have me tattoo him again. Then he pulled up his sleeve to show me his tattoo and it was as if I never tattooed him. The flames were completely gone. That was the first and last time I've tattooed anyone drunk.
What separates you from the other custom artists?Well, besides my good looks, I would have to say that it's probably my stubborn determination to be the best tattoo artist I can be. That means treating my clients with the utmost respect, listening to them and trying to make each new project better than the last one.
You’re very into your original designs. Do most people let you have creative license without any input?During my first ten years of tattooing, I only focused on paying the bills. I was living on my own in NYC with no family to fall back on, so I tattooed whatever the client wanted me to do and I did my absolute best. I needed my clients and I needed them to speak kindly of me and show off my work. I didn't have the luxury to be picky with the type of work I took on.
I've always believed that tattooing is a very personal thing and many people have an almost spiritual connection with their tattoos. For this reason, I've always wanted the client to have as much input into their piece as possible; bad decisions are costly and depressing. I'm so grateful to have finally gotten to the point where I only do custom designs — based on my client's input — but in my artistic style. It's an incredibly satisfying job and I have absolutely fantastic clients. They really are some of the coolest people I've ever met. Just about every one of them I consider a friend.
You do laser removal yourself. How did that come to pass?I do some cover up work; however, I very much appreciate it when I have the opportunity to tattoo virgin skin.
Do you think reality TV is doing the tattoo industry a disservice?I really don't watch tattoo shows. I don't even own a TV. Timothy Leary said, "Those who control your eyeballs control your brain." I willfully control my own brain today. Until this year, I had only watched about 10 minutes of "Miami Ink" and I couldn't stand it. There wasn't anything inherently wrong with the show, but for me it was like watching work. Since then, my clients have been bothering the hell out of me to watch "Ink Masters." Finally, I gave in and watched the first season so they would leave me alone about it.
Although those shows aren't my cup of tea, it seems they've created a huge interest in tattooing. I think they've done an incredible service of legitimizing tattooing as a highly skilled form of art. Unfortunately, from what I've seen, I don't think they've done much to dispel the negative stigma attached to those who choose to get tattooed. I can't speak for other tattooists, but the vast majority of my clients are working professionals. I tattoo lawyers, financial executives and police officers all the time. I've tattooed one of my former doctors, and even tattooed a certain prominent city official who has asked to remain nameless. Those who still think tattooing is some sort of low-class cultural phenomenon might want to keep those opinions to themselves.
You seem to revel in the underground arena. Do you ever want to see your name in lights?My mom sure would like to see my name in lights. But would I? I'd be more interested in seeing myself in a "Trailer Park Boys"-style mockumentary about me: "NYARTMAN, Your Not-So-Average Ink-Slinging Superhero." Now that's something I could get excited about. You heard it here first, so don't go stealing my idea.
Have a look at Jeremy's custom work below.