NOVEMBER 2007-FEATURE ARTICLE
QUEEN OF KNOTS, CELTIC SPECIALIST: PAT FISH
by: Christina Diaz Text Transcription follows images.
THE QUEEN OF KNOTS: Pat Fish
When we hear the name Pat Fish, we visualize an opinionated, outspoken, perfectionist artist. When Pat and I talked recently, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, yes, Pat is sometimes controversial, but she's also savvy, passionate, and a little bit country. Our chat was set on a ranch nestled in the Santa Barbara mountains, just up the street from her home. We sat and watched her two mules, General Tobe and Rudebaker, sashay around their corral. In between feeding them carrots and admiring the view, I found out what drives The Queen of Celt.
CHRISTINA DIAZ: How did you acquire your love of Celtic art?
PAT FISH: I was adopted, so, until the age of thirty, I went through life having no ethnic heritage. That's when I finally discovered that I'm a little bit Irish but mostly Scottish. So, now, I make my living by being a professional Celt. It's pretty charming to me that I have this heritage of tattooed northern Europeans. As a child I was and still am extremely dyslexic, I can write backwards the same as writing forwards. I can do things with my left hand as well as with my right. All my life I made it a priority to be able to be ambidextrous. It's why Celtic art is the perfect specialization for me, because I see the negative space underneath the knot work, where others often have trouble seeing the knots. It's something that everybody should figure out, how to make a living using their unique genius.
CD: With two degrees, a teaching credential and a 17-year stint as a writer for a local newspaper, you had several career options. Why was tattooing your final career choice?
PF: When I turned thirty, I sat for a whole day in front of a mirror and had this big emotional event where I just kept thinking ,What do you want to do? So I thought, Okay, the main thing I want to do is, I want to do art full time. I really thought about all the articles that I wrote for newspapers and realized that seeing my words in print didn't really do it for me. I preferred seeing my illustrations that accompanied the articles. I liked seeing those in print more. I also didn't like being edited. I hated it when they would knock out one of my paragraphs to make room for an ad. It got me furious. I don't really like compromise, so I figured out a way I could do art where it was just me. One person working alone. I decided that tattooing was one of the most legitimate forms of art, because it matters a great deal to the client and you get to relate one-on-one with the person you're working with. The style I always drew in college and the kind of artwork I liked the best was pen and ink, and it seemed to me they looked like tattoos. I have a really steady hand, so I thought maybe I could learn.
CD: In the last couple of years, the tattoo community hasn't heard much from you. What have you been doing recently, what are you doing now?
PF: I've been writing for a magazine called Skin Trade that goes to people in the industry. I have been spending a lot of time on the days when I am not physically tattooing , putting images up for sale on my Yahoo store site, LuckyFish Art. At this time I have about thirteen hundred images. I've been doing it for six years. Whenever I tattoo a new image that I haven't done before, I bring home the line art, put it up in the computer in Photoshop. I pixel it until it looks as optically perfect as I can get it and rework it into a nice, sellable graphic. Then I make the line version and a reverse-line version, if it is left-facing or right-facing. I create a shaded version and a couple of colored versions. I do that, wrap it up into a zip file, and then it goes for sale on the site. God bless it, because the sales from those images provide the funds I need to take care of The General, my mule. Unfortunately it takes up a couple of hours on each of my days off. But I really like it. When people in Europe or on the East Coast want some nicely done Celtic line art, I can provide them a lot better chance of getting a good tattoo when they buy my image to take to their local artist.
CD: You apprenticed with Cliff Raven. How long was your apprenticeship?
PF: Cliff wasn't running Sunset Strip Tattoo when I learned from him. He had moved out to the desert to 29 Palms. I didn't actually work for him in a shop. I hung around with him. I would take my friends out there and would work on them in front of him. Or I'd spend the day out there and he'd say, "I think it's about time you learn how to solder needles, kid." That would be that day's lesson. I let him tell me what I needed to learn and he gave me a list of things that I had to buy.
CD: Do you recall the very first tattoo you did?
PF: Yes, I did a much-too-big butterfly on a friend's hip. It was probably six inches across. Doing something really tiny is so beyond you when you are first starting out, so I did a great-big butterfly. I remember Cliff shaded one half of it and I went back and tried to match the shading on the other half. It was heart-stopping.
CD: Have you ever tattooed yourself?
PF: Oh, yeah. It's not even as big as a dime. It's really tiny. I used to go to work at the Dunstable Tattoo Convention in England every year, and I would get "special access" permission for six people to go into Stonehenge. Now, there's a big fence around the stones, so you can't actually get inside, but I know how to get permission to go inside. So each year I'd take with me the people who were nicest to me at the show. That last year I borrowed a bunch of hand tattoo equipment from Lionel Titchner down in Oxford, went in with six friends, and I put tattoos on each of us while sitting on top of the slaughter stone. I put a little one on my own foot, and ever since I laugh at it, because the ones I put on my friends are still dark and crisp and the one I put on my own foot is this little, faded tiny thing. I'll tell you I learned that tattooing yourself by hand hurts like hell. But it's a nice memory of having been there.
CD: Cliff Raven taught you the art of tattooing. On your website you state that: "I was remarkably fortunate to get the attitude adjustment and technical grounding that set me on my way in this career." Since you were given the chance to learn from an artist you admired, have you or would you teach the trade to someone who admires you?
PF: I've tried a few times, I would say that one of my faults is that I am a rather gullible person and, so, twice, someone that I hired as an apprentice showed me a portfolio that I thought was marvelous , and it turned out that they didn't even draw the drawings. Months later they confessed in tears that their friends drew them. I tend to take people at face value. Everyone I thought was going to be an apprentice and learn from me was merely looking for a quick way to make a bunch of money. I was heartbroken by it. I had high hopes for each one of them and thought it was going to work out. I would love to pass on my knowledge. I think it would be great. But the only thing that happened was, it slowed me down a lot. I put a ton of energy into trying to get them up to speed and correct what they did. In each case, after a few months, they got cocky and acted like they already knew everything. Then they started stealing from me. I caught every employee that I hired doing tattoos and not putting them on the books and taking 100% of the cash and not giving a cut back to the shop. I don't know why I ended up hiring those people and not seeing that was going to happen. Every time they had a dishonest streak in them. But I don't say that I wouldn't try again in the future. My dream is to find somebody who already knows how to tattoo really well, and wants to become very proficient in doing Celtic tattoos. They could come to work for few months, do a course with me, and then go back to their world.
CD: How were you dubbed "The Queen of Celt?"
PF: I think Bob Baxter came up with that name. Now the banner I use at tattoo shows says "The Queen of Knots." Lyle Tuttle came up with that name.
CD: Is there anything you won't tattoo?
PF: I will never do anything that has to do with Satan. I won't do demons or gargoyles. I really have a feeling that those could become a regrettable tattoo or a monkey on your back. I think that I'm not in this world to create more evil or more negativity. Cliff was the one who set me straight on that, he made it clear you always are responsible for the art you put on people, so make sure you are proud of it.
CD: On your site, you have a list of likes. You state that you like breast-cancer-related tattoos. Can you tell me more about that?
PF: I had a wonderful woman come in from Camarillo a couple of years back, and she had had a double mastectomy. Instead of doing an areola re-pigmentation so that you get the fried-egg look, she wanted to put two little pink flowers to represent where her nipples had been. But the breast on one side looked like a canteloupe and the other looked like a mango, both totally misshapen. So, I did the two little pink flowers, and then I told her that we could do a whole bra of flowers and butterflies so you would never be able to see that they didn't match. That was a breakthrough for me, because she came back in about a month later and said "Let's go for it." Then she started coming in every two weeks for three or four months. Her husband would sit quietly out in the front, and we would do as much as she could handle. Months later I got a call from her daughter saying, "I just want you to know something. My mom didn't smile for six months after the operation. She felt like she got a death sentence, and every time she looked in the mirror she felt terrible. Well, my mom is back now. You gave her back her beauty, because she doesn't see herself as scarred anymore." It's rare for me to submit to that level of involvement with somebody, but it's the potential that this business has for healing. It's pretty profound.
CD: Now that you can use an air purifier, do you still encounter reactions to latex?
PF: I don't use the air purifier anymore. I'm not sure if I still have the latex allergy or if it just went away from not being around it for so long. I think I caught it early enough. I have talked to people who say thank God they read my article about latex allergyonline because they think it saved their careers. They had noticed the same symptoms, so once they made the connection they went and got themselves nitrile gloves.
CD: I've read that you attended the Irish Tattoo Expos. Yet you have not attended a U.S. convention in years. Will you ever change your mind?
PF: I used to work the Mad Hatter's show a lot. I just don't know what I think about conventions anymore. Many of the shows in America are in Indian casinos. Personally I'm uncomfortable in casinos. If you're going to see Satan on Earth, a casino is his temple. Everybody losing their money and being desperate. It's so grief-filled. I don't know if I see too much point in those expos. People get a much better selection if they come to my studio. They can choose from all the images that I have in my archives and library, it is all available there. I can size it up, make custom combinations of image elements, many things that I couldn't possibly do at a convention.
CD: With over twenty years in the business, does your artwork still challenge you or have you perfected this trade?
PF: The challenge comes from changing the method of representation. I think every time I tattoo an image it gets better because I'm able to get a better result. The more you practice anything the better you are. It was getting a little formulaic for me a couple of years ago. Then I met Colin Dale from Denmark and Cory Ferguson from Canada and got tattooed by both of them. Their technique was so exciting for me, because the way that they're using dots to create tone and shade was exactly what I was doing with my pen-and-ink work before I tattooed. I had never transferred that into tattooing. Consequently, I have since started shading with dots. It heals better, plus it's more mysterious and interesting looking. The tattoo comes out better and it's a challenge to use that new technique with the Celtic and old school and tribalesque patterns. So, that made a huge difference in my career because, all of a sudden, I was doing a whole different stylistic method and I could reapply it with every tattoo.
CD: Holistically, what do you think of the industry today?
PF: I think people in general have an extremely low expectation of tattoos. I think that way too many people are joining the industry who don't have artistic ability, and they get inflated egos, because the people they're interacting with tell them that they're really hot shit. They think they're doing great tattoos. If those same tattoos were drawings on paper and submitted to an art class they'd get a D. They're poor quality. This is not across the board in the industry, but I think that if you have ten shops in every town, where you used to have one, you'll get at least two or three shops where the work is mediocre. People don't want to spend the technical study that it takes to be able to do it right. Overall, tattoos have always been a popular medium. You could always get it done in your kitchen by somebody who didn't know what they were doing. Now there are people who just came from working at McDonald's and are making a hundred dollars an hour and thinking they are God's gift to tattooing. It's painful for me to look at the pieces that come into the studio on people who have had them for years and years and only now are they waking up to the fact that they're really crap. But I don't believe that there should be tattoo schools. There used to be a pretty strict apprenticeship thing. Now people just open up a shop. Lots of times it's an investor, somebody who doesn't have artistic ability, but has the money to do it. They know it is a growth industry and they know it's going to make them money. I think that, at some point, the government will come down on tattoo shops. There's no reason in the world why some random biker or ex-con can be doing a medical procedure on the unwitting public without any oversight whatsoever. Nobody ever checks the autoclaves in tattoo shops. The most they do is ask for a record of spore test strips. But they never come in with an autoclave test themselves and run it through and then independently send it off to a lab. So the public comes in and resumes the Health department is regulating a tattoo shop as well as they would a restaurant, and it's far from true. We've got a health emergency. It isn't so much AIDS as it is hepatitis. Hep C can live for months on a countertop under the right conditions. The tattoo industry will tell you that it could never happen. People want to think that less regulation is better. My problem with regulation is that it's usually stupid. They don't do the kinds of things that would make a difference in improving the situation. What I would love to see the Health Department do is come in and videotape the artist working, because that could radically change the artist's methods. If they could sit down and review the video, and say "Hey, look, you just scratched your nose with the back of a bloody glove." People are unconscious to that kind of thing, until you show it to them. Something like that is going to have to happen. I don't know how, really, it is such a renegade industry. It's difficult to know what's the best way to have it happen. But truly, the public needs to be protected from people who don't know what they are doing, so the best action is to educate everyone to correct methods for working with blood. It's not about artistic ability at that point. There really isn't any way, any standard, of knowing how a tattooer is trained for hygiene or cleanliness. So the public has to be an informed consumer, and look for themselves at the shop environment, with a discerning eye.
CD: How would you like to be remembered?
PF: I hope that my enthusiasm for Celtic tattooing has caused a lot of people to get Celtic tattoos, and made it an art form that artists will put in their portfolios and try hard to do well.