Cliff Raven Portrait by Charles Gatewood

Cliff Raven

Portrait by Charles Gatewood

Perhaps you wonder about the process of learning to tattoo.

I was remarkably fortunate to get the attitude adjustment and technical grounding that set me on my way in this career from Cliff Raven, who gave me just the image of what I wanted to grow up to be like. His guidance and advice was always pertinent, direct to the point, accurate, and while unfailingly kind was often more true than I was prepared to hear. His death on my birthday in 2001 leaves a void in my life that can never be filled; he was my spiritual mentor and artistic avatar.

If my work ever approaches his level of craft it honors his memory, and I work hard to live up to the faith he placed in me by welcoming me into this ancient tradition.   Starting with doing my first tattoos, a koi and a Celtic anklet, and then being willing to teach me, he changed my life forever. 

He told me that tattooing has three parts: Art, Craft, and Morals. He could see from my portfolio that I had a bit of artistic talent, and my pen and ink drawings showed a certain hand-eye coordination vital for this work. The morals, well, you either have them or you don't. So it was Cliff's job to teach me the craft of tattooing. He insisted that it "is something you ARE, not something you DO." And said I needed to make a serious commitment to it, to give it everything I could, and that in return tattooing would be good to me. And it certainly has.

After Cliff retired from tattooing he spent the last years of his life running Raven's Bookshop in 29 Palms, California with his partner of 27 years Pierre Mitchell (known throughout their tattoo career as Bob Raven, his brother.) Modern descriptions sometimes call Raven a gay icon or leader. In truth, he was from a "need to know" generation in which his sexuality was strictly not discussed, and when it could have been dangerous for him should some of his clients have learned it.

Cliff Raven, Tattoo Artist, Wikipedia

Chrysanthemum Flash in Both Black Graphic and More Conventional Styles by Cliff Raven

Chrysanthemum Flash in Both Black Graphic and More Conventional Styles by Cliff Raven

I have decided to feature some of his flash on this page.  In particular, most of these pieces illustrate Cliff's innovative use of black graphic images, years before "tribal" tattooing became a fashion.  He referred to the style as "pre-technologic-black-graphic" - a moniker far superior to "tribal", don't you think?

Eagle Flash in Both Black Graphic and More Conventional Styles by Cliff Raven

Eagle Flash in Both Black Graphic and More Conventional Styles by Cliff Raven

'Pre-Technologic Black Graphic' Tattoo Flash by Cliff Raven

'Pre-Technologic Black Graphic' Tattoo Flash by Cliff Raven

Below is a video featuring Cliff.  Forgive the poor quality and audio issues as it was transferred from a VHS cassette:

To be able to hear again the voice of my mentor is a great pleasure. In the video below he was captured probably in the 1970's before he became one of the first to adopt gloves and barriers in the early 1980's, when he taught me to tattoo. He was a scholar, and a gentleman, who fully embraced the peculiar side of life. His grasp of human nature, informed by much experience, made him very wise:

Hanging or Swinging . . . ahem . . . Rooster . . . . Tattoo Flash by Cliff Raven

Hanging or Swinging . . . ahem . . . Rooster . . . . Tattoo Flash by Cliff Raven