SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT Aug. 2004
And how does it happen that one day a person wakes up and just KNOWS that today is the day for their first tattoo? “They are touched by Endorpheus and Endorphina, the god and goddess of tattoo,” says Pat Fish, owner of Tattoo Santa Barbara. In their grace since she established her studio in 1984, Fish has adorned many thousands of souls with beautiful enhancing artwork to please the demigods. Says Fish, “People aren’t just buying Art, they are BEING ART.” Fish has held court at her studio, just above the State Street underpass at HWY 1, for two decades, granting requests both simple and ornate from clients who travel to lovely Santa Barbara from across the globe to get Celtic tattoos, her specialty.
Santa Barbara’s most venerable tattooist, Fish has a reputation that precedes her. Like the Tattooed Lady of bygone fairs, she is an enigma strange to some, fantastic to others, and a popular draw. Where once you paid to enter the sideshow and see the tall ships and roses tattooed on the Tattooed Lady, now you pay to have the Tattooed Lady tattoo you. Clients come from all over the country for a Pat Fish original. She is recognized throughout the industry as the Queen of Celt, for her devotion to bringing traditional Celtic Art to life in skin.
Besides tattoos, she’s locally known for her surreal 1959 Cadillac Hearse, and her supernaturally large Irish Wolfhounds, Orla and Nemo. Fish is the definition of local color. Her defining features are her size, her ruddy cheeks, long delicate nose, round chin, and half-moon eyes. Her arched eyebrows and snow-white tan, together with her theatrical flare, give her the air of a mischievous silent film diva. She has tattoos on her forearms: on the right, a full arm sleeve of the reverse wave from Pompeii’s House of the Fishes; the Aberlemno circle from the cross at Restennet Priory in Scotland; Tibetan flames; monarch and swallowtail butterflies; and a Hopi Indian rain pattern bracelet; on the left, interlocking knotwork to the elbow. She has 13 in all, including one she did on herself at Stonehenge. With her wild, reddish brown hair, painted skin, and the hellhounds at her side, Fish cuts a figure straight from Scotland’s pagan past. “They say the Celts believed in reincarnation so strongly that they accepted deferment of payments for debts into the next life. I think tattooing has been my occupation in many lifetimes,” she says.
An audience with Fish is a privilege, and while most callers are well-received, those who come in asking for piercings are summarily dismissed. After all, a queen is entitled to speak her mind; and Fish is infamous for sass. At first meeting, she can appear difficult, but that is only because she expects potential clients to be able to articulate their desires. “It comes of being my own boss forever, and having a parade of people come in the studio all day long who want the same designs over and over. It is true I often encourage people to go to another, cheaper studio if all they are looking for is the lowest price. That is not what I am offering,” she says. To the ready, willing, and serious, the non-refundable price of admission is $200, the deposit on a life-changing “inksperience.”
Jim Switzer, a 50-year-old electrical engineer for General Motors’ Advanced Technology Center, received his first tattoo in 2001. “I had separated from my wife and I needed somehow to mark a place in time, a new beginning. I had wanted a tattoo for a long time, and being freer... I went for it,” he says. “It’s a Star of Protection. It protects me from being a blank, and from being an uptight white-collar asshole. It was liberating!” Jean-Paul Lu Van Vi, the 33-year-old chef and owner of DISH restaurant, befriended Fish through their mutual love of food and art. They are each other’s regular customer. Lu Van Vi has three tattoos by Fish. “They encourage me. They represent my dreams and the things I have accomplished. They are a reflection of my inner self, and a record of my life,” he says. “I’m very proud of them and the friendship I have with Pat.” Lu Van Vi says, “Pat is who she is. A true artist. Original. Not fake. She will tell you the truth, and she won’t put anything on your body that doesn’t belong there. You should know what you want and what represents you when you go to see her. Be prepared. Her time is precious.”
Says Fish, “I like having the one-on-one contact with such a wide cross-section of the public, and getting to touch them at a vulnerable point in their lives when they are wanting something they may have only a yearning for, but no exact picture yet. I call myself an Agent of Completion; I bring those dreams to life in skin.” Clients that work with her find in Fish, and her work, an unmatched combination of talent, quality, and compassion. Trust is a premium in a business where it is often required that the client literally bare their chest. “If you get a tattoo from me it may cost twice as much, but I back that with 20+ years experience and brag that it may take half as long for me to do it, and look twice as good when it is done,” she says. “I’m genuinely interested in the people I am tattooing. With them I am having a pleasant conversation while I install art. This has been a wonderful education into so many diverse lives.”
Tattoo parlors are presumed to have their share of tough customers, but walking into Tattoo Santa Barbara is, happily, a visit to an active productive art factory. The studio is a spacious 1,400 square feet and partitioned so that customers can, in fact, belly up to the dividing bar, sit on a stool, and chew the fat with Fish as she works. Most likely one of the employees will intervene as a go-between. Old School Lance spent most of his working life in carnivals and with the circus as a barker and roustabout. He’s a showman, like most Leos, and has the bitterly proud look of a one-eyed tomcat. He is blond and blue-eyed, wiry, leathery, and covered in faded tattoos. He volunteered for Vietnam in 1965 and served with the Air Cavalry as a door gunner, receiving two Purple Hearts. Now he mans the “dweeb counter” at Tattoo Santa Barbara and is acquiring a full bodysuit. His backpiece shows a tall ship besieged by pterodactyls and kraken, and serves as the cover of this issue of The Independent. When his bodysuit is completed he plans to retire to Eastern Europe and travel with circuses there, where, as Fish explains,“the exhibition of human oddities is still allowed.”
The entrance to the studio is furnished with flash, or ready-made art. A portfolio is mounted by the door. Fish likes fish (thus her chosen surname) and the studio’s most eye-catching decorations are aquariums of saltwater exotics, African cichlids, discus, koi, lionfish, rainbowfish, shrimp, blue crayfish, and a large mouse-eating Argentinean ornate amelanistic horned frog. Flying fish—with real feather wings—hang from the ceiling. The rest is filled up with giant psychedelic posters, kitsch, stereo equipment, an iMac, books, pictures, mirrors, and Nemo and Orla, who combine for over 300 pounds of dog. The back is occupied by archives, which include an extensive photographic record, hundreds of reference books, and 12 filing cabinets of original art. Almost always a customer stands at the counter, sifting through the contents of one of those files. “There is no doubt that there is a spirit that touches people, and they come in the studio and they “gotta get a tattoo” right then and there,” Fish says. “They often don’t know what has come over them, but they know it is time.” The files exist, she says, “because very few people are able to articulate their inner needs and desires. It is enough that I can get them to point at a picture in my reference material and say that they like it. I do my best to do what people want, but the why is usually a big mystery. ‘Your body is a temple, and I’m here to paint the walls.’” Says Fish, “People want meaning in their lives, and acquiring a tattoo with symbolic meaning satisfies that urge. A lady two weeks ago got a tattoo the day before her 88th birthday. Her daughter sat disapproving at the dweeb counter making a prune face, which of course made it all the better for her mom, who had gone to a Joseph Campbell “Mythic Hero” weekend at Pacifica University and decided after raising nine children she deserved a mark of power. Bravo!”
Fish says that for a decade as the only shop in Santa Barbara, she learned quickly that her customers would come from all walks, classes, and occupations. “What has changed is that now they may be more likely to dress to show their tattoos off,” she says. “Five years ago I put a sign on the front of my house: This is the bungalow that suns on buttcracks bought. I did so many of that one tattoo, over and over!” I do what I can to present other options, so not everyone ends up with the same tattoo.
Switzer, who now has four tattoos by Fish, says one of the things he enjoys about them is “the fact that I had the guts to get it and you, the onlooker, just wish you did.” He adds, “I enjoy the head turning, the whispers, like the time I went into a Von's to get items for dinner with a black tank top on and a studded dog collar around my neck. I had a whole range of reactions. I even had people leave the aisle I was on. It was a blast!”
After drawing up the tattoo to the client’s specifications, Fish passes the design through a machine that creates a stencil of the line art on transferable ditto paper. The stencil is applied while the client stands straight, arms hanging loose on both sides, to ensure exact placement. Once everyone agrees that the placement is optimal, the real fun begins. The client then sits or lies on what resembles an antique doctors' examination chair. It reclines at varying angles and swivels to allow operations on either side. Equipment is arrayed at the work area that includes one-time use needles and ink bottles, bandages, wipes, and medically sterile tattoo machine parts. The electric tattoo machine itself, essentially unmodified since 1894, resembles a crude instrument of torture—and the high-pitched buzzing, and occasional sparks, do nothing to improve its image. Conversation is the best means to keep the mind distracted. If you are busy gritting teeth, Fish is content to deliver monologues about her trips to Ireland; or her pets; or her mail art projects as an art student at UCSB; or she can tell one of thousands of tall tales from the tattoo world.
Fish outlines the image first with seven needles soldered very close together to draw a precise line. For filling in large areas, and shading, seven or more needles are used that are soldered to form a fan, which works like a paintbrush in the skin. The length of a given session depends on the size and complexity of the image, and the stamina of the client. Color is sometimes added during another session. A fresh tattoo is like a third-degree burn. It can take several weeks to heal. When Fish is finished, she wipes down the skin and directs you to the mirror. You are now ART. “I’ve always loved the phrase: ‘A tattoo is a thing of beauty that will last forever,’” Fish says. “Very few things we can purchase last as long as we do.” She watches your face as you look at your new tattoo. As you turn around, with an ecstatic smile, she beams with pride. And before you begin to wonder how your parents and friends will react, it is good to be reminded of something Fish likes to say: “A tattoo is always for the wearer. Observers are incidental. They will attract people you’ll be happy to meet, and scare away ones you don’t want to know.”
In the 19th century, except in the protected zone of the circus or carnival, the Tattooed Lady risked raised eye brows, suspicion, and slander. In America, tattoo gained great popularity with Navy crews during World War II. Tatau is a Tahitian word meaning to mark, or strike. Among native peoples, it was mandatory long before it was taboo. Tattoos are intrinsically archaic and many recall a tribal or mythic past, linking the wearer to an ancient bloodline. “When I listen to my clients tell me what they want to achieve with their tattoos,” Fish says, “I find that they have a great yearning to be connected to a flow of history, to be a part of the continuity of human life.” Fish traces her own lineage back to the Picts, an indigenous tribe that lived in Northern Scotland at least from the 1st Century A.D. to the 9th. They were named by the Romans for the images and designs they wore tattooed and painted on their bodies. These “pictorial,” or painted people were known as fierce mercenary soldiers and gifted artisans.
Celtic art is defined by its intricate knotwork, braids, spirals, and circles. Everything is interlaced, every line is infinite: in zoomorphic designs, hounds interlock, chasing each other; deer are entangled by the horns; form is created from seeming chaos — or is it that each reveals the other? Traditional motifs were exemplified by monks, illuminating medieval Bibles, and were painstakingly painted on vellum. At Fish’s studio, Celtic and Pictish art is applied, perhaps, as it was originally intended: as a permanent tattoo.
Fish moved to Santa Barbara on St. Valentine’s Day, 1975, and went on to earn degrees in Studio Art and Film Studies from UCSB. After graduating, she taught a popular right-brain/left-brain drawing course for SBCC’s Adult Education for many years. Fish started the tattoo studio in order to “do art” full time. Tattooing is still a guild craft, learned through apprenticeship. Fish sought out legendary California tattooist Cliff Raven, then of Twentynine Palms, after seeing his work —a koi fish tattoo— on a postcard. “Cliff was one of the first tattoo artists to use the forms of the Japanese bodysuits and bring that use of space and line to the West. He designed for the musculature, and he did fine art on skin. I went to the best I knew of when I decided that I wanted to learn,” Fish says. They met in 1984, when Fish paid for her first tattoo. “It is a large green koi that circles my left shoulder. I wanted my body to be the tank, and the fish to be turning around the corner inside,” she says. “I took my portfolio to show him, and Raven thought that my pen and ink drawings showed enough art skill to do the job, and our personalities were compatible, and so he said he’d teach me.”
She began her career as one of the few women in the country in the craft. “When I started 20 years ago there were at most a dozen women tattooing in the USA. Now there must be thousands,” she says. Raven died in 2001. His picture watches over Fish’s work space. Says Fish, “Cliff taught me everything I had the wit to know to ask to learn, and the craft skills that make it possible to achieve in skin what you can draw on paper. He also became a kind of spiritual mentor to me because he was an incredibly wise man. He taught me that there are three equal aspects to tattooing: Art, Craft, and Morals. One is not enough without the other two.”
Research is the foundation to Fish’s art. She has made frequent trips to Ireland and the Celtic Isles to pay homage to the work of her ancestors, whose tradition she carries on “in the skin of modern primitives.” Many of her designs are taken from chalk rubbings of high cross gravestones, or from rocks bearing spirals and Neolithic petroglyphs, or are found floating in the margins of the Gospels. She has taken courses in Illuminated Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin, where the famous Book of Kells is kept. Crosses are among her most requested, and spectacular, products. The Celtic cross marries the cruciform of Christianity with the symbols of native celestial religions, synthesizing the beliefs of two cultures in art. Their rendering on flesh requires a skill in line placement, detail, accuracy, and craftsmanship on the level of a Master Illuminator, and that only by the grace of God.
And how is it that Fish came to this occupation, which now seems such an obviously right choice? An important choice was made when she was quite young. “I made a geas with Celtic Gods when I was 17 that I would never watch TV again. In return for that sacrifice, I asked that I be able to be self-employed for my whole life. I still watch a lot of movies but I refuse to participate in the TV system. It is a sales medium for something I don’t want to buy into. And as a result, I have time to read, and do art, and have a better life. Tattooing has given me a marvelous way to meet so many people, and to enhance their lives with my art.”
Fish has kept her word. So have the gods. Fish has tattooed thousands of people of all shapes, colors, and sizes. “I am glad every day that I chose to live an artist’s life,” she says. “Every day I get to see people look in the mirror and see their new tattoo and I know I have done my best.”
Pat Fish’s studio, Tattoo Santa Barbara, is located at (2007) State St. Thousands of original designs are available for purchase on her image sale website, luckyfishart.com and an extensive portfolio of her work is available on her main website luckyfish.com
You can purchase many of the designs featured in the article at the online design store: LuckyFishArt.com