JANUARY 2003-FEATURE ARTICLE
PAT FISH: THE CONTROVERSIAL QUEEN OF CELT
by Danielle Oberosler
Featured myself and my tattoo mentor Cliff Raven:
Nestled in the heart of Santa Barbara is Tattoo Santa Barbara, home of the woman who speaks her mind, the inimitable Pat Fish. On the weekends, the area is alive with tourists. Located at the base of State Street by the pier, Pat overlooks the gateway to some of Southern California's most colorful shops and patio restaurants. The architecture is Spanish, with shadowy archways and red-tiled roofs lending an air of romanticism, especially when set against the panorama of coastal hills and flowering flora. The perfect weekend getaway, Santa Barbara is your typical, artsy California beach community—in love with the sun and bent on enjoyment. The perfect location for a high-end tattoo shop.
Pat Fish is known for her Celtic tattooing. Dubbed the "Celtic Queen of the West Coast," Pat's a smart businesswoman with a lion's share of savvy. Aside from her location, Pat has taken advantage of the computer age and built a brilliant Web site, www.luckyfish.com, which unabashedly promotes her special brand of tattoo-related goodies. Pat Fish moved to Santa Barbara on Valentine's Day, 1975, working her way through college as a researcher for the Gallup and Harris polls. Winning degrees in art and film from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Pat wrote for the local newspaper. She often illustrated her work with pen and ink. Professor Pat also received her teaching credential, teaching art at a community college. "For three years, I taught adults how to draw. It was fun. I taught a class on right-brain/left-brain drawing. Most of my students were probably good at math and heard a rumor that they could learn to draw in my class. I devised a lot of curriculum that was entertaining. We had a good time. I used to say, "If you can write a check that's legible enough to cash, I can teach you to draw."
In 1984, Pat decided to be a full-time artist. "My pen-and-ink line drawings probably looked like Xeroxes, but I wanted to sell them as fine art. I took that particular skill and translated it into tattoo art. I really enjoyed doing embroidery as a kid and consider tattooing to be embroidery on the skin." Her most important influence, however, was the late Cliff Raven. Cliff taught Pat that there are three parts to tattooing: the art, the craft and the morals. The art is something you love. The craft is how deep the needle goes and how quickly you move your hand. The morals is your commitment to really sterilize and autoclave everything. Having a knack for pen-and-ink line drawings, Celtic tattooing was a natural transition for a lady of Irish decent. "It was what I always wanted to do," said Pat. "When I started tattooing, I didn't see Celtic art being done. It held my attention the most, and it was the most challenging to draw. I figured I'd make it my specialty and learn to do it well."
Pat feels every artist should have a specialty, and saying you do everything well is leading your customer astray. She has an extensive filing system of Celtic artwork, some of which has been copied from gravestones in Ireland, where Pat spends one month of every year. Although Tattoo Santa Barbara is located in a majestic tourist spot, Pat claims the majority of her customers come after visiting her Web site. "A great number of my clients are in the computer industry, either from L.A. or San Francisco." Perhaps that explains why she doesn't have a portfolio of work on the counter—it's all on the Web! Local customers who walk in wanting Japanese symbols, for example, get pushed to an employee. "That's what employees are for!" laughs Pat. "College students cast about for something with meaning. The great default is something written in Japanese. It's low commitment, and they can feel wicked and tattooed. Frankly, a tiny kanji looks better than a miniscule rose. We call those 'zits on sticks.' The most common tattoo we do, besides kanji, is suns. Especially on girls' lower backs. For the last four or five years, we've done at least one a day. I hung a sign on the front door of my house that says, 'This is the bungalow that suns on butt cracks bought.'"
Pat is extremely organized. Not only has she set up a virtual library of tattoo stencils, she tallies up how much money each flash set makes per year. For instance, she knows that Leo Zulueta's 1981 flash set makes up 15% of her annual income. The extensive paperwork that's filled out for each customer has a space where she can log what design was sold. Each design is categorized. For example, suns, moons and stars are in the Celestial category. At the end of the year, Pat totals up how many celestial designs were sold and knows they made up 26% of her business. "We work out of files. I have a file of just suns. That way, I don't have to keep drawing the same thing. After the customer looks at 500 different suns, one-third will pick the same sun. It's the logo for this generation—Leo Zulueta's tribal sun. Then they can make it even more meaningful by putting a kanji in the center! My mantra about that is, 'The baker doesn't complain when the muffins sell well.' So, if we bake another dozen kanji, we're happy to do it!"
As far as competition goes, six other tattoo shops have come and gone in Santa Barbara, one of which was Freddy Negrete's Ratatattoo. Now Pat says there are two and a half other shops in town, with the half representing an undesirable. Pat works every day from 2 to 6 p.m., leaving herself with zero days vacation. "That's why I take a month off to go to Ireland every year. I travel, I have a lot of friends there, and I work the Irish Expo every year." The Expo takes place in Middleton, Cork, where the Jameson Whisky Distillery is. It's put on by a bike club called the Rebel Riders M.C.C. and is the first-ever annual tattoo Expo in Ireland. I thought, If they're gonna do that, I'm going to be there and help make it an international event. We had a wonderful time. About 6,000 people came. They're pretty enthusiastic about tattooing in Ireland, but it's not widespread in their culture."
As we read in her own Skin & Ink article, Pat doesn't often work at tattoo conventions, because of her latex allergy. This year, Pat worked at the Madhatter's Convention wearing a personal air purifier around her neck, and requested a booth near the front door where she could get a constant flow of fresh air. "In Ireland, it was a huge hall, and we were all spaced out around the outside edges. Again, I put myself at the front door. As long as I have fresh air, I'll be fine. But I still won't do very many conventions."
If any rumor about Pat is true, it's that she goes everywhere with her dogs, huge Irish Wolfhounds named Nemo and Orla. They hang out in the tattoo shop and resemble gigantic muppets. I could see where a potential customer might be discouraged from getting a tattoo in a shop with dogs as big as camels, but Pat dismissed the idea. "They mostly hang out in the back. I think it's traditional that women tattoo artists, who may be in their studios alone at night, have dogs. They're not actually in the tattoo area while we're working. But they are present. If someone came in late at night, they'd definitely be a visible presence. I've never had someone pull a gun on me, but I think the dogs level the playing field."
Pat hasn't always had a pristine tourist location by the pier. Her first shop in Santa Barbara, though only eight blocks away, was in the drug district. In those days, she had a savvy junkyard dog that could smell trouble. "She was a discerning angel that made it possible for me to tattoo, as a woman, alone all those years. That location was the only place I could rent at the time. Sixteen years ago, landlords were reluctant to rent space to a tattoo studio. Bikers used to come in full leathers and line their custom bikes in front of the shop. I thought it was tremendous. I really like it when bikers come in. It's everyone's preconception of a tattoo parlor, but it's actually rare."
Pat Fish has been tattooed by Cliff Raven, Don Ed Hardy, Alex Binnie, Ian of Redding, Leo Zulueta and Trevor Marshall. "When you're in the industry, you want to buy time with your heroes. Spending time with the people that I really admire allows me to gracefully purchase knowledge of their technique and style. I was particularly pleased to get work by Alex. I amassed more time with him in those two days than I had in the ten years we've known each other." It's easier to be conversational with an artist when you're getting your arm tattooed.
Reflecting on her relationship with customers, Pat likes the old tattoo dictum, "The music should be as painful as the tattoo." "If the customer is getting a lover's name," says Pat, "we put on Patsy Cline. If we have a German customer, we'll play abrasive Mexican cantina music. It's distracting. It's all for the Clockwork Orange effect—being imprinted with music they've never heard before." Next time her customer hears that music, they automatically reflect on the moment, maybe even feel the itch to get more ink!
But, in most cases, Pat feels the reason someone decides to be tattooed is the tattoo goddesses have touched them. "They come in here saying, 'Today's the day! If I don't get tattooed today, I never will!' What made them get to that point? You only hear of the tattoo god, but there are goddesses. I've named them Endorpheus and Endorphina. I visualize them as mosquitoes that spin on a ballet toe on your skin. When people are touched by them, they come in here with that look in their eyes. Now, if I can only get them to articulate what they want." She points to her files. "That's why we work from files, because most people cannot articulate. All they can say is, 'I'll know it when I see it.'"
Pat feels that people walk into the shop unsure of themselves and without tattoo etiquette. She attempts to make customers feel at ease by playing Celtic music and "giving the Howdy!" "I think everybody should be treated with respect, because many times they're coming through the door terribly frightened. They're manifesting fear of pain. People avoid pain but, if this is what their social group is doing, they want it, no matter what." As for Pat's reputation for being abrupt, she says it's her nature. She prides herself on being honest. "I'm likely to tell you something you don't want to hear and think that I'm complimenting you. Meanwhile, you're scandalized," she laughs. "There are rumors around this town that I'm mean and abrupt. The best way I can counteract that is with my charming employees! We make a good team. They're much better with people who are afraid or getting their first tattoo."
She shrugs, "I can't tell blank people apart. They tend to look the same to me. Young girls come in to get a kanji, and it's better if someone else deals with them. I can't tell they're not the same girls who came in yesterday." Is it good that Pat judges people based on their tattoo choices? "Absolutely!" she says. "They're putting it out there for the world to see!" I enjoyed talking with Pat Fish. I found her honesty refreshing. She is articulate, keen and highly amusing. From what I saw, rumors of her being rude are deceptive. Pat Fish is merely a salty character. I'd expect no less from an old-time tattooer by the sea.