February 2007-FEATURE ARTICLE
Artist Interview: PAT FISH
by: Craig A. Perras
Text Transcription follows image slideshow below.
THE QUEEN OF KNOTS: Pat Fish
CRAVE: How did you discover tattooing?
Pat Fish: When I was a little kid we would go down to Long Beach and stroll along The Pike where Bert Grimm's shop was. I remember the sounds coming out of the tattoo shops, the sense that a thoroughly adult thing was going on inside. If I got up the courage to stick my head inside the doorway, surely they said "Scram, kid!" which only made it that much more intriguing. No one in my family had a tattoo, it was utterly outside my experience.
CRAVE: Were you into Celtic art before or after you started tattooing?
Pat Fish: I was an orphan being raised by Russians and every night I'd go to sleep praying "And God, when I find out who I really am, please can I be Irish?" So I always loved Celtic art, with an innate sense that it was my lineage. Now that I have met all my blood relatives I find, much to my delight, that on both sides of my genetics I am a Pict, the original tattooed people of Eastern Scotland.
CRAVE: What was the initial attraction to Celtic design?
Pat Fish: I find it the most beautiful and fascinating form of art. It holds my attention better than any other style, and I love having the chance to give my fellow Picts and Celts a permanent embellishment that allows them to externalize their inner aesthetics, making something of their secret selves visible for the world.
CRAVE: And what is it that first attracted you to the art-form?
Pat Fish: I had been making my living as a journalist and I'd supply drawings to go with my articles. I found that I liked the art part best, so when I turned 30 I looked about for a way to do art full time. Tattooing seemed like the most legitimate art form available. It requires you to do your best every time, it really MATTERS to the person commissioning the piece, and I could continue my life-long committment to self-employment. I like it that the artist is in direct contact with the client, and that it isn't for "investment value" or resale. The power tattoos hold is in their importance and relationship to the wearer. Every person is different, every commission tests my ability to listen to what they say they want and then work with them to achieve that in skin. So I contacted Cliff Raven and got my first tattoo, and with total hubris showed him my portfolio and asked him to teach me, which he graciously agreed to do.
CRAVE: Did you start out as a painter?
Pat Fish: No, I have always liked to draw, using for the final product pen and ink. Painting with a brush always felt too imprecise to me.
CRAVE: Do you have a formal art education?
Pat Fish: Yes, I took a B.A. in Studio Art and a B.A. in Film Studies at the Universty of California at Santa Barbara. I also have a teaching credential for the California Community College System where I taught adults how to draw for several years.
CRAVE: How long have you been a tattoo artist specializing in Celtic design?
Pat Fish: I started tattooing in 1984 and working with the Celtic patterns was always my goal, although in the beginning years not many clients wanted it so it took a long time for me to slowly develop the style I prefer to work in now. One of the most satisfying things about doing art for a living is that exposure to new techniques can open up whole new challenges. In the past year I have been delighted to meet and befriend two artists whose styles are quite different from mine, and I am working now to test out incorporating some of their methods in my own work where appropriate.
CRAVE: Does tattooing totally satisfy you creatively or do you cross over into other mediums of artwork when you have free time?
Pat Fish: I design all sorts of things, but usually the starting point is a tattoo design. I have an online store with my desisns on t-shirts at my LuckyFish CafePress Store, and last summer someone in Japan printed hand towels with my Pictish Octopus design on them to sell at the Yokohama marina! Some guys in Florida bought some of my designs to use on thong underwear... hard to predict what might be next! A friend and I are currently collaborating on a series of pillar lamps that have a shade that looks like stretched parchment, and I'm designing the patterns of sacred symbols. That's the sort of thing that I love best, when my art school ability to research into ancient symbols can bring them alive again, whether in skin or functional art.
CRAVE: Describe an average day in the life of Pat Fish.
Pat Fish: There are two kinds of days. Four days a week I take my Irish Wolfhounds Angus, Fergus and Orla to the each to the leash-optional zone so they can be the biggest and fastest on the sand. That wears them out enough so that they will spend the rest of the afternoon and evening sleeping in the back of the tattoo studio while I work. They are allowed to come forward and shake hands with customers to congratulate them on a tattoo well achieved, or to pose for photos, but mostly they have their own room in the library where they hang out and I join them when I get a break. So on those days I open the studio at 2PM and often stay until midnight. My clients are mostly from out of area, many from out of state, so they are usually wanting a major Celtic piece and I can only do two or three a day. If they have seen one of my designs online in my flash sale site , LuckyFish Art, that makes it very easy, we just size it up and make decisions about custom color or shading options to make it unique for them. Three days a week I ride my gaited mule General Tobe, often on the same beach where I take the hounds. Sometimes we do trails up in the mountains, depends on who wants to go riding with us. Then I come home and spend the rest of the day putting recent flash designs up for sale on my site. I believe I was the very first to think of the idea of selling designs one by one online, to the public, instead of just selling sheets of flash to shops. I started the site in 2001 and add several new designs each week, and now I have almost 1,300 patterns for sale. The immediate download delivers a line drawing, shaded version, and usually several different color ways for examples. There are lots of other flash sites online now, but by concentrating mostly on Celtic art I have a niche of people who are looking for ways to celebrate their connection to their heritage.
CRAVE: Where do you see tattooing ten years from now? Do you think it will be as popular then as it is now?
Pat Fish: Absolutely. I know it is supposed to go in cycles, and the popularity of certain designs certainly does, but since I started 22 years ago it has only gotten more and more popular. If you look at all the little kids coming up who beg to wear decal tattoos.... well, I don't think there will be any lack of clients.
CRAVE: Who are the tattoo artists who have inspired and motivated you?
Pat Fish: Cliff Raven was my mentor and image of what I wanted to be. He was unfailingly kind and generous to me, and taught me the mechanics of the trade as well as the importance of the role we play in society. He said "There are three parts to tattooing: art, craft, and morals." I went to him and asked him to teach me after I already had a universty degree in art, so he taught me how to adapt my pen and ink style to the medium of skin. But much more importantly, he made sure I understood what a sacred responsibility the act of tattooing someone is. If they trust you to bring their vision to life you have to do your best. And he also told me not to do things I felt were regrettable, that I had to feel responsible for the work I did. As a result I don't do Satan images or many of what the public might think are the stock in trade of the average tattoo parlor, the evil stuff. I focus on what I believe I can do well, and challenge myself to improve with each one, to keep the work evolving.
Currently I am stretching my own style because of the work of two fine tattooists who work in pointillist style:
Canadian Cory Ferguson and Canadian Colin Dale, now living in Denmark.
I have been tattooed by both of them, and I find in the dotted style a way to remind myself of the kind of pen and ink rapidograph drawings I did when I was in college. They both inspire me, so when I am designing new patterns I often try to do different versions of how it could be rendered, seeing how dot shading can add another level of dimension.
And then there's Lyle Tuttle, the very first tattooist I ever talked to. He is my role model who can find a way to get a laugh out of anyone, can make any gathering a party, and whose knowledge of the details of tattoo history is beyond encyclopedic. He is never at a loss for something to add to a conversation, has lived several lifetimes already and remembered every good time. He epitomizes the exhuberance of a life lived in the public eye. From him I have learned to celebrate the moment, and my life is much the better for the time I have spent with him.
CRAVE: If you could write governing laws, how would you deal with the increasing number of scratchers tattooing out of their homes?
Pat Fish: I don't think laws can stop them. It is a fact that people will always be operating at all levels of this industry. What I do to impact the situation is to play two videos for every client, before and after the tattoo, as a way to make them into informed consumers. In them I explain why entirely disposable equipment is the only acceptable option, why patronizing a legitimate shop is crucial. And I think they have a ripple effect, as each person is now capable of warning their friends who might be thinking a cheaper option is better.
CRAVE: Tell us about the people who work with you in your shop?
Pat Fish: I have one employee, Colin Purcell, who greets the public, helps them with aesthetic design choices, explains the limitations of the tattoo process when they want things too small or too intricate to be successful. He is incredibly patient and having him there frees me up to be tattooing and tossing my input over my shoulder as they consult. Once he gets the client's desires clarified then I can step in and start to do the custom drawing and give my input. He is not an apprentice, he's more of a shop manager who does "everything else" so I can focus on the drawing and tattooing.
CRAVE: Describe a tattoo that you are presently designing for a client, and the process in which a design goes from your head, to paper, then to skin.
Pat Fish: I have a client who has the concept of filling his arms with all the possible Celtic animals. So we started out with the worst bit first, covering up a blob of an old Celtic knot on his wrist, that he'd gotten done too small by someone who had apparently smudged the stencil and then just kept on going. To cover it we opted to put the tail of a salmon of knowledge over the blob, obliterating it, and curving the body of the fish all the way up the forearm. Then we started looking at the blank skin, finding places for other creatures. I like to think of the process as "The Obvious Next," so I try to move in a logical manner across the surface and fill in the next best area. At one point he told me he'd let me do whatever I wanted next, and I lept at the chance to do the one and only Celtic knotwork mule. That indulgence endeared him to me. At this point I have some tracings of areas we are going to do, and a bird picked out from a manuscript that I will tweak to fit one space. Eventually the whole arm will be a bestiary. He just sent out his wedding invitations with Tattoo Santa Barbara listed as the gift registry, and we're hoping that instead of giving appliances his friends will send deposits for he and his soon-to-be wife to use for their next tattoos.
CRAVE: What is your favorite equipment? Machines, power supply and such?
Pat Fish: I've used Micky Sharpz machines and power supplies ever since I first tried them out back at the Dunstable conventions. They are wonderful. And if I work them so hard they get to a point where I can no longer tune them I can send them off to R.J. Musolf of Sharpz USA and he can always make them like new. I respect the fact that they require proof of a business license and studio address before selling equipment. It shows their old school ethics.
Pat Fish: I have used only Unique ink for most of my career, nothing else I have tried can compare. For black I like Talens.
CRAVE: Any special projects you'd like to discuss?
Pat Fish: Last summer I was fortunate to spend time in Scotland, traveling through the Pictish lands and seeing the magnificent collections of carved stones in the Edinburgh and Meigle museums. I am working with the photographs I took and reference material to create flash for the patterns I saw, in the hope that clients will appear who want something that dates back to the third century B.C. I love the way tattooing can connect us to the ancient times, to our ancestors. When I started tattooing it was my highest goal to learn how to recreate knotwork and zoomorphic animal patterns in the ancient illuminated manuscripts, to bring them to life in skin. Now I also do gravestone rubbings and copies of the patterns on standing stones, take inspiration from old Viking jewelry, swords, anything that is left. In art we are always, in John Kennedy's words, "Standing on the shoulders of giants." When I find a set of interlocking spirals on an old piece of jewelry, for instance, and can pull them out and make them into a pattern fit for an arm or lower back, I get a very special pride in knowing that I have forged a link with that long-ago craftsperson who first made that design in metal.
CRAVE: What purpose do tattoos serve?
Pat Fish: I see tattoos as an externalization of aesthetics. They are a way for people to show the world what they give their allegiance to. So when I do a Scottish clan buckler, family crest or Celtic knot, I feel like I'm giving that person a way to show their link to their own identity. In our society now if you put the words "Brown Pride" as a tattoo you are considered noble, if you put "White Pride" you are a racist. So with my designs I give the people descended from Northern Europeans a way to connect to their pride with a wonderful artform, in a way that is as permanent as their own blood link. The Picts of Scotland were known worldwide as tattooed warriors, often serving as mercenaries for hire in wars far from their own lands. Their tattooed faces made them easy to spot in battles, and I feel a deep connection with those sages and shamans who were pricking in those patterns so many eons ago. I am their descendant, and when modern warriors come to me I do my best to see that they leave with an embellishment that makes them stronger. Just as the dedication tattoos keep the memory of the dead alive, so too a well chosen tattoo that links the bearer to their ethnic heritage serves to give the wearer a sense of their place in the continuum of time.
CRAVE: By what occupational term do you prefer to be called?
Pat Fish: I have an analogy about the words used to label those who tattoo. There are three: "tattooer, tattooist, and tattoo artist" -- flinging aside such lowlife terms as "ink slinger." A tattooer is like hiring a band to play at your party. Sure, they can sort-of play covers, but not any original music of their own. When everyone says good night no one mentions them to the host. A tattooist is a band that can play covers well, but not much in the way of original tunes, and maybe the guests enjoy dancing to the music but no one remembers the band. A tattoo artist is the band that plays covers, also has lots of original material, and when your guests leave the party they compliment the host on the entertainment. I say always get the best tattoo you can afford.
Tattooing has given me an occupation that is never boring, always a source of amusement and misanthropic perspecti0ve, and provides a constant challenge to live up to the expectations and whacky concepts of the consumer public. I savor the fact that it is a way I can participate in the modern Celtic revival and fulfill a personal affinity for my heritage and racial history. It has given me an opportunity to feel ever challenged to develop myself as an artist and technician, and I have had the privilege to meet and know many role models and heros who have enhanced my life by their example and advice.
BE ART ! GET A TATTOO !!
CRAVE: Any advice for the next generation of tattooists?
Pat Fish: TANSTAAFL. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Tattooing isn't something you do, it is something you are. Learn the old school techniques, but don't limit your subject matter to what you see being done around you. Learn to listen to your client and really hear what they are trying to describe, what they see in their mind's eye. Collect all the reference material you can on the kind of designs you want to do, so you can show them to your clients and suggest ideas to them. Never tattoo images that you feel are against your personal ethics. That lost client will always be able to find someone else who has lower standards. Tattoo for the sake of making art, of stretching your talent and capacity to create, and the money will be there to support you. Learn to say no when you know the request is something you can't do well, and be willing to refer to other artists if you know they can do it better. Be aware that no one can do everything, and let your enthusiasm for what you do want to do show, so that it attracts the right people to you for you to practice and learn. Be grateful that you have artistic talent, don't take it for granted, aways seek to challenge yourself to new skills. Remember that the average person has very low expectations when it comes to tattoos, so don't let it go to your head when you exceed that.