Portrait of Pat Fish by Shayne McGuire
Shop interior photo by Colin Fraser.
English Translation (from French):
(« LUCKY FISH »)
By Claire Artemyz
I met Pat Fish for the first time at the Cobh Festival in Ireland. I had heard of her intricate and interesting tattoo work before. She is a tall, russet-haired woman from Southern California. She ties her hair with a Japanese hairpin or covers it with a wool hat that almost makes her look like the French Marianne. She came with her inseparable and faithful assistant: Colin Fraser. She smiles easily and looks at life with humor. Here is her story.
Firstly, there is her name, which she invented: Pat FISH. Fish are everywhere in her Californian studio in Santa Barbara. They bring her good luck, and have insinuated their way into everything around her, even in the name of her website: luckyfish. Her carefully decorated studio is full of vivid colors. Her two Irish Wolfhounds are there. They never leave their mistress, except when she goes out for a ride on her mule. Her tattooing style is very personal and as strong as the character she built for herself. Let’s listen to her now.
When did you start tattooing?
I started when I was thirty. It is a moment in your life when it is very important to be sure that what you are doing for a living brings you happiness, balance and fulfillment. At that time, I was a journalist. I worked for the local monthly newspaper. I interviewed celebrities and interesting people around town, tried to get them to tell their best stories. It was an endless job, as there are many famous people around here. I was a journalist for about a decade. However, I felt deep down in myself that I needed to start working full-time on my art. Tattooing appeared to me as the best way to do this. No need to worry about art galleries. It was a way of being in touch with many interesting and special people. Getting a tattoo is a very important act to each of them and a very personal one for me. Every time, it is a renewed challenge.
What did you study?
I graduated from the University of California in Santa Barbara with diplomas in Studio Art and Film Studies. Before that, I took the Comedia del Arte class at the Del Arte Mime School and I studied “human ecology” at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
What did your parents do for a living?
I was adopted. This is important for the rest of the story. My adoptive father worked in the die cast metal industry and my adoptive mother in a school cafeteria. At some point, I managed to meet my biological parents. My father was a truck driver and my mother a nurse.
Where did you live with your adoptive parents?
We lived in Pasadena, in the suburb of Los Angeles, which is the place where I was born. I went to school until I was 16. From then on, I decided to live on my own. I worked in a factory. When I had managed to save enough money, I took a plane to Washington State to study at the Evergreen State College, the main “alternative” university in the country.
Did you study drawing?
In school, I was good at drawing and at oral expression. But I was bad at math. I was dyslexic, but nobody was paying any attention to this problem at the time. Drawing was comforting. In high school, I had an excellent teacher who pushed me. I kept on drawing at university. I did ink drawings, emphasizing the lines.
Tell me about your first tattoo.
I was thirty years old. I made a decision to change my occupation, and I thought it would be good to learn how to tattoo. Since I figured nobody would take me seriously if I was not tattooed myself, I decided to go for it and see if I liked the process of getting them. This first tattoo is a fish. Cliff Raven did it. I wanted to make my artist name FISH meaningful. I wanted to feel as though my whole body was an aquarium with a fish swimming on the surface.
How did you choose this specific tattooist?
My friends gave me two names. These two people were the best at the time: Don Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven. Ed was in Japan. That’s why I chose Cliff, which turned out to be the best choice I could make.
Do you still have this tattoo?
I love this tattoo. Anyway, I have never covered any of my tattoos.
Tell me about the first tattoo you made on a client.
It was a butterfly on a girl’s thigh, after having practiced for a month. I asked Cliff what equipment to buy and he showed me some basics and there I was, ready to start.
How was your first studio?
I learned from Cliff for several years, as I saved money and practiced, then opened my first studio in a disreputable neighborhood, across from a Mexican transvestite bar. It was the only place I could find. Every other place I had checked out had refused to rent the space to me before that one. During the first ten years, I was the only tattooing studio in the whole city. Times have changed! Now there are lots of other studios here, and I was able to move to a much better location where I have been for 18 years.
And what about your style? You seem to have specialized in Celtic art.
Ever since I was very young, these kinds of patterns have appealed to me. My first art memories are of when I used to draw lines and make them cross each other and weave in and out. Today, I see it as the reflection of some kind of unconscious memory linked to my biological ancestors. I did not know anybody who tattooed this kind of patterns. I had to learn on my own. It was as though I was bringing the art of my ancestors back to life again on the skin. I don’t feel good around portraits and images of death, so I don’t do them. I am very happy with the style I chose.
How would you describe your style? How did you choose it?
I like to make lines dance. I like the way it emphasizes the muscles and the shapes of the body. It was fabulous when I learned that from both sides, I had Scottish and Pictish biological origins. Right around the same time I was learning to tattoo I started looking for my biological parents and when I found them they were both Scots. The Pictish “pictorial” people were known for their tattoos. Through my art, I am bringing my ancestors back to life.
What about your colors?
I have always used colors a lot but now I prefer black. It’s perfect for lines, shades and points. I like the way black heals up. The long-term result is more reliable.
What do you think about hand/machine tattooing?
I like to be hand tattooed. However I have almost never done it on others. I would like to, but for now I like how fast machine work goes.
How is being a woman in the tattooing world?
It is difficult for many women but it was not for me. Cliff Raven helped me and supported me a lot. He liked my drawing style a lot and thought it would make interesting tattoos.
As far as I’m concerned, the personal aspect, the fact that it is linked to one’s story, has a vital role to play in tattooing. That is why I consider it very important for someone to choose a pattern that is linked to one’s “genetic history”. I am proud to bring Celtic art back to life in people’s skin.
Can you conclude on your work in a few words?
I see my self as an agent in a person’s fulfillment. People have the idea of a personal change, of something that they want to engrave on them and that will be part of their own aesthetics. I realize this transformation for them. It is a very pleasant way to make a living!