Mobile is a city of artistic expression, from the graffiti covered back alleys to the art galleries downtown and flash filled walls of the many local tattoo shops. Tattooing is one of Mobile’s quickest growing artistic ventures and currently home to 10 tattoo shops.
As tattoo culture in Mobile has grown, a new generation of artists has emerged and established itself. For young tattoo artists, early recognition is often the deciding factor determining if they establish a client base and become successful.
Tyler Johnson, Dustin Moeler and Tyler Betancourt are among that group.
Just about any young person who wants to become a tattoo artist has to go through an apprenticeship, doing various tasks such as cleaning the shop, cleaning and maintaining equipment and setting up the mentor’s workstation. Apprenticeships can last from one to four years.
Every artist has their own reason for starting their apprenticeship and for Tyler Johnson it was family ties. Johnson started an apprenticeship under his uncle Chip Baskin. Baskin is a Mobile resident and is a part of the older generation of tattoo artists in Mobile. He has 17 years of tattooing experience, has traveled internationally and has worked in countries like Iceland. Baskin is a talented artist with a versatile skill set.
“I got lucky, Chip’s my uncle,” he said. “He’s really traditional, I had to go through an apprenticeship. I started it when I was 16, I graduated at 18 and started tattooing at 20,” Johnson said. Both Baskin and Johnson work at Skyline Tattoo and Piercing.
Other young people try more conventional career paths but decide to tattoo instead.
“I went to college and didn’t like it so I started an apprenticeship,” Betancourt said.
Some people really don’t have a reason as to why they started tattooing.
“I painted a shop once and got tattooed, then it was game over,” Moeler said.
Both Betancourt and Moeler work at Kaoz Tattoo and Piercing. Betancourt, the lesser experienced of the two, apprenticed under Moeler.
After transitioning from an apprentice to an artist, young artists are first faced with the issue of becoming recognized and creating a client base. Young artists have to rely heavily on word of mouth to become known and have to constantly keep tattooing to remain relevant.
“Tattooing people, word of mouth and the Internet,” Betancourt says are how he gained initial success tattooing.
“All word of mouth pretty much and passing out business cards,” Tyler Johnson said.
Despite still relying on word of mouth, tattoo artists in modern times have found new ways to promote themselves through the Internet. Most now have Facebook and Instagram pages to display their art and provide future clients with information about themselves.
“I’ll finish a tattoo, take a picture or video and upload it onto Instagram which links to Facebook,” Johnson said.
“Take pictures and post it, it’s usually not even me. Most of the time it’s other people posting the work I’ve done,” Betancourt said.
Unlike his peers, Moeler doesn’t use the Internet or social media as a promotional tool but does recognize its potential.
“I’m really bad about keeping up at it, I don’t think about it a lot but when I need to,” he said.
Most older generation tattoo artists in Mobile use the American or Neo-American traditional style of tattooing. The American traditional style of tattooing utilizes bold black lines and a limited color palette. Younger artists in Mobile have brought a new aesthetic style to the scene, whether they are imitating the old style or innovating it.
Dustin feels his style is completely different than the older tattoo artists in Mobile.
“I treat tattooing as a painting instead of line, black, color. It helps me a lot but makes old people mad,” Moeler said.
Betancourt thinks there is a difference is style between the old and new generations in Mobile.
“There’s a vast difference, it adds fresh blood to an old pool,” he said.
Asked if he thinks his style of tattooing is different than older artists in Mobile, Betancourt said, “It’s not, I just use new machines.”
Meanwhile, Johnson feels like there are generational differences, but every artist has an individual style.
“Each individual tattoo artist develops their own style from different places,” he said.