Inked Icon: PAT FISH
Article by Marisa Kakoulas
Pat Fish is a veteran tattooist internationally renowned for her powerful and intricate Celtic knot-work tattoos. She is also known for being quite outspoken, calling bullshit on issues she believes harm the tattoo industry and collectors. In this interview, she raises some of those controversial issues, like potential dangers in some colored tattoo inks as well as the ethics of giving clients exactly what they want. Fish also shares some of the lessons she learned from her mentor, the legendary Cliff Raven, who changed her life—and how her pet mule has done the same.
INKED: You’re called the “Queen of Knots” and the “Queen of Celt” in the tattoo community. How did that get started?
Pat Fish: Lyle Tuttle gave me the name “Queen of Knots.” And the title “Celtic Queen of the West Coast” came from a Skin & Ink magazine article. When I started [to tattoo], I was 30 years old. You can really do what you want ’til you turn 30, but at that point, you better specialize and choose a profession, something that you are. I put myself through college doing research interviewing, and then I got hired by the local weekly newspaper to interview people. I did it for over a decade. But after a while, I got to where I didn’t want to be edited anymore, where they’d brutally cut my work to make room for more advertising. I finally just decided that I wanted to do art full-time. At that point, I thought that tattooing seemed to be the most legit way to do art. That’s when I went on my quest to find who I should learn from, and the rest is history. Now it’s almost 28 years.
Why Celtic tattooing?
Simultaneously, I decided some-thing else I really needed was to find out my true identity, because I was an orphan and lived all my life with a chip on my shoulder that somewhere, in some office, was the truth about where I came from. I put a private eye on to find out who I was, and it turns out that I’m Scottish. It just made sense to me that everyone else in the world has ethnic pride — has an identity — and here I was finding it out and at the same time learning to do this new skill. So I decided to specialize in Celtic art, bringing back that tattoo tradition of the Europeans.
Like what traditions?
People think that the Europeans started getting tattooed when Captain Cook came back from Tahiti with tattooed sailors who had gotten souvenirs when they went and explored. That isn’t true. The Pictish people were known for their tattoos. It turns out that I’m a Campbell, and the clan Campbell are Picts. It’s an extremely small ethnic group. I thought it was something I should explore, and one of the ways to do that would be to bring back alive this tradition of the heavily tattooed Pictish people — to bring these designs back to life in skin. One of the better choices of my life was to learn to tattoo and then to specialize in this.
How did you come to meet your mentor, Cliff Raven?
I only knew one person who even had a tattoo; this was in 1984. When I decided that I was going to learn to tattoo, that friend told me to study with the best. It really matters who you learn from. He said the best were Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven, and Ed Hardy was in Japan. Cliff Raven did my first tattoo and then taught me how, so it was very simple.
What was your initial experience with Raven like?
Well, I called his house and Pierre answered and said he was already asleep. This is, like, 8 o’clock at night, and I thought, "This isn’t the wild and crazy tattoo life that I imagined."
Pierre was his boyfriend, correct?
Pierre was his husband for 27 years. One of the great romances I ever observed.
No one really talks about Raven being gay.
No, he wanted it to be a secret. He was from a “need to know” generation. But he tattooed tons of gay men. He was doing all kinds of gay porno tattoos, but he didn’t advertise those out to the world.
So you call Raven —
So Pierre says, “Why don’t you call at 7 in the morning, and you can talk to him.” Pretty different than my hours, oh my God. I mean, my studio opens at 2 PM. I called the next morning and made the appointment. With all the hubris of youth, I took my portfolio of art from UCSB [University of California, Santa Barbara], and I went out there and got my first tattoo. He drew it directly on me. I just thought, Wow what a great guy! He really acted like he liked me. Then Cliff just agreed to teach me the craft. He had sold Sunset Strip Tattoo and was working from his bookstore in the desert, so I drove out there to study with him.
What are some of the great lessons Raven taught you?
Cliff Raven taught me that there are three aspects to tattooing that are equal: art, craft, and morals. He was a great influence on my life. He treated people exactly like I try to treat my clients now, where we spend tons of time in advance of the tattoo, and go through all my archives of images. Depending on what they want, I’ll say, for example, “Go through this file of 300 Celtic bands and pull out the ones that appeal to you in some way.” If they pull out 10 designs that they like a whole lot, then we’ll go through them and I’ll say, “Well, you only wanted it two inches wide, so we have to veto these five.” And we just keep culling through until we get down to something I can then take and combine for something unique.
Your work has moved toward pointillism and other new directions, but still largely keeps to the traditional Celtic designs. Where are those influences coming from? Conventions?
Absolutely. When I worked at the NIX Tattoo Convention up in Toronto, I met both Colin Dale and Cory Ferguson, and I was stunned by their pointillism. All the time when I was at UCSB art school, I was using pointillism, using dots to do my shading. But I had never done it in tattooing. Why not? I don’t know. So I started exploring how to pull that into my style. Also, I had a pretty strong feeling that the governments of the E.U. and the U.S. were going to outlaw colored tattoo ink, but I was wrong. I figured, well, maybe it will just happen that I have to adapt my style so that black ink is all I’ll have, and it’s good enough. I can’t imagine why [colored ink] is still legal. It’s just wrong. It’s a hugely dangerous thing to have something that nobody knows what’s in it. There’s no oversight or MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheet] provided. Here we are hoping for the best and sticking it in our clients.
Don’t you think that there would be an epidemic, with so many color tattoos, if the inks were dangerous?
I think the big risk is that there are so many more suppliers today than there were in the past. It used to be that you would get powder and put it with your own preferred suspension agent and there you go, you have your ink. Now there are, what, a hundred ink suppliers and [hardly any] of them have any MSDS, and even the really famous ones have ended up with fungus in a batch.
Beyond health issues, there are also moral issues to consider in tattooing. For example, there was a lot of buzz over a woman get- ting a huge “DRAKE” tattoo — in honor of the singer — on her forehead and whether the artist should have done it. What do you think about that?
I interact with a lot of the older generation of tattoo artists and they say, “Somebody is going to do that tattoo. Why do you pretend that you care about that person? It’s money.” My attitude is that I’d rather have a client angry with me over a tattoo I didn’t do than something I did. I have morals, and I have to be responsible in this life for everything I do. If I really feel that it will make them a person who relies on welfare because now they made themselves into a freak and can’t get a job, then I need to step up and tell them no. I’ve had people come in and thank me later for not having done a tattoo that I refused to do. That’s a nice moment.
You have a lot of people flying into Santa Barbara from all over the world to get tattooed by you. But is Celtic work still as popular as it was, say, 10 years ago?
I’ve been selling my designs online now at luckyfishart.com since 2001, and there was a point where people were buying a lot more Celtic stuff than they are now, but it’s hard to tell. Right now the trend is words. People will call me and go on and on about how much they love my designs and then just ask for two Gaelic words on their arm. Give me a break. For me, words age badly and look goofy. Unless they are really big, they don’t have a graphic quality to them. I usually decline to do it, which is hard to do in this economy.
What makes a good tattoo?
I think tattoos should be an externalization of one’s aesthetics — a clue to what your internal life is like. With a lot of guys, it’s fair warning. If they have Satan all over them, then think twice about getting in bed with them! I would encourage people to think outside of what they perceive a tattoo looking like when they go to their source material. I like to tell my clients that anything that can be a pen-and-ink drawing can be a tattoo with the style that I do. People should be looking at real art and things that have stood the test of time or ended up at museums. Right now I’m doing something from the Chauvet Cave. It’s 35,000 years old. There’s a Werner Herzog movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams where he was allowed to go film inside it, and the horses, bison, rhinos, and woolly mammoths drawn on the walls of this cave are beyond belief. They are so alive and so fabulous. The last couple of nights I’ve been taking screen captures of the horses and rhinos so I’ll have stills to work from because someone from out here wants to get one of the horses. These are the oldest drawings we know of, and they are breathtaking.
So what do you do for fun? I hear that you ride a mule. Tell us about that.
Well, in advance of turning 50, I started saying to myself, "You've got to make a change. You've got to do something on your 50th birthday that is as important as what you did when you turned 30." I decided I needed to get more physical, and I wanted something to challenge my brain. Well, I always wanted a pony. [Laughs.] So I thought I’d get out there and buy myself a horse. I used to weigh twice as much as I do now, and you can’t weigh more than 220 pounds and even rent a horse. But I was committed to the idea of learning to ride. I wised up and got a mule because a mule can carry more weight. I rode the mule for six or eight months and realized that if I was going to be any good at this, I needed to cut my weight. I started eating less, and now I weigh half as much. I’ve been riding seven years now, and I’m getting to where I can ride pretty well. And it turns out I have a mule-compatible personality. You can force a horse, but you have to negotiate with a mule, and I like that.
Would you say that you’re an eccentric?
Yes, I think that I am a genuine eccentric. My childhood was very differentiated from any kind of family or heritage. From the age of 2 or 3, I always thought of myself as being a separate person, separate from any kind of support system. I developed the personality that I have really young and didn’t accept many people trying to change me. I don’t do things in order to seem strange. With tattoos, I don’t do it so that people will notice me or to create a personality. I do it because I want to be an artist, to be a craftsperson. When I was a kid in high school, I had the really good fortune of meeting Ray Bradbury, the author. I was in my local chapter of Quill & Scroll, the high school journalism club, and it was the Ray Bradbury chapter, so every year he would do a little presentation. He said something that changed my life: “Inside yourself, you have an internal gyroscope, and it leans toward things that you love. And so you never have to have a stupid job; you never have to do something you don’t like because all you have to do is listen, and you will feel it humming and leaning you toward things you love. All you have to do is find a way to do that for money.” That rocked my world. I think about it a lot, all my life.