Pushing the limits of tattooing
by Crash  trieye@aol.com
Photos courtesy of Timothy Hoyer

Tattoo Art by Timothy Hoyer

It has been my privilege to do these interviews over the last several months, and the artists I've dealt with have had a profound effect on my outlook regarding this movement we call tattoo art. Timothy Hoyer, and the featured guys before him, have changed the rules of tattooing. These are the guys who first ventured to create fine works of art on living canvas, and inspired other artists to do the same. Before the artists got hold of this primitive ink insertion equipment, the artistic possibilities presented to the general public (at least in the United States) were indeed limited. And trust me, I have lots of respect for the traditional styles of tattooing as well as the tattooers themselves, upon whose shoulders we now stand (without whom this current escalation in technique and artistic development could not even be possible). But times change. The '90s marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.

OK, enough of that crap ... in addition to being one of the most influential and talented artists to emerge during that period of growth and change in the early '90s, Timothy Hoyer has the distinction of being one of the nicest guys in the business. This reputation of quality, friendliness and respectability has provided Mr. Hoyer a massively diverse clientele base, which, in turn, has enabled him to consistently grow in his style. In fact, it has become near impossible to actually nail him down to any particular genre of tattooing ... unless FREAKIN' AWESOME is a legitimate niche.

You are very well known for doing painterly styled tattoos. What is your art background?

I don't really have any formal art background or training, although a did have a really good art teacher in high school who pulled me into the back room and showed me some really amazing stuff that I probably shouldn't have seen at that age ... some really intense, graphic stuff from Peter Paul Rubens, Egon Schiele ... those artists definitely had a huge impact on me at an early age, the emotion and the raw power. The feelings of those images stayed with me from that point on ... it was something I wanted to be able to harness and understand.

I know you have worked with some amazing artists during your career. Can you tell us how long you have been tattooing & how did you break into the field? Did you do an apprenticeship?

I've been tattooing for about 11 years. I remember seeing people with tattoos very early on in life and always wondering what they were and how they got there. I've always drawn, ever since I was a kid. I didn't have any brothers or sisters and I grew up in a household where my father was gone a lot, so drawing was how I spent most of my time. I latched on to comic books at a really young age, and I'd spend hours in my room copying the characters, the poses, and trying to invent my own. I still have boxes of comic books that I drew as a kid. Later, I did a few hand-poked tattoos on myself and a few friends, just experimenting and trying to figure it out. I got my first real tattoo in a tattoo shop around that time as well, and I really started getting interested in learning how to tattoo the right way. I couldn't find anyone that would offer any kind of help. Eventually I decided to try to figure it out on my own, and just ordered some equipment .... not really the right way to go about things. I spent a frustrating couple of years trying to figure things out. I was living in New York City at this point, and working out of my house. So I eventually got a job at a street shop in New Jersey, where I worked with Elio Espana. His help, combined with the constant repetition of the tried-and-true classic tattoo designs, helped me fill in the gaps in my tattoo knowledge.

What is the rest of your work history to date? If I'm not mistaken, you eventually worked with Marcus Pacheco at Primal Urge around '93 or '94. How was that whole experience?

Well, let's see ... I met Marcus when I was in New York and he was working out of his house in Brooklyn ... we started hanging out and did some conventions together, some of the first ones I did. We were both trying to expand and learn from each other, push each other in new directions. Then about the time I started working in the New Jersey shop, Marcus moved to San Francisco to work for Lyle Tuttle. He eventually opened the first Primal Urge location in SF with Aaron Cain. When he and Aaron parted ways, he asked me if I would be interested in moving to SF and working at the new Primal Urge ... I jumped at the chance, being pretty fed up with the whole state of New Jersey at that point. So I moved to SF and ended up working at Primal Urge for almost two years. It was a really great experience ... and we had a great crew in the beginning. It was Marcus, Jeff Rassier, Elio Espana and me. Everyone had a very different style, and we were lucky to be in an environment where the clients were giving all of us an opportunity to go wild and try new things - to explore and see exactly what could be done that hadn't been done before.

Quite an impressive list of talent ... wasn't Elio Espana involved with The Ink Spot shops? I may be getting confused ... but his name is real familiar? Where is he working now?

Yup, that's right! I worked with him at Ink Spot 2 for most of the time I was there ... and then at Primal Urge after that. Now he has his own shop in Brooklyn called Fly Rite ... he's doing very well there. I try to go out and visit him every time I go to New York to work.

And now you own and are the only artist at Alive Gallery in Richmond, Va. When did you open Alive and why on earth did you go to Richmond to open your studio? I ask because most artists tend to migrate to the bigger cities of the U.S. to ensure a maximum client base.

Actually, I'm not the only artist. I also work with Amy McFadden, who I taught. You'll be seeing more from her before too long. When I decided to leave SF, I drove around the country to make a decision about where I wanted to end up. Richmond worked out great at the time; it was a good size, very close to lots of major landmarks on the East Coast. The client thing really wasn't an issue; the majority of my clients were already traveling long distances to come to SF. I don't think it really would've made a whole lot of difference where I was. And at that point, after living in SF for two years and New York and New Jersey before that, I was getting pretty tired of the big city thing.

Tattoo Art by Timothy Hoyer
Tattoo Art by Timothy Hoyer.

I am curious as to what drives you artistically. Obviously color is your primary interest, in my opinion, more than subject matter.

Actually, I would say it's the other way around. I'm much more interested in the subject of a tattoo and what kind of feelings and emotions I can get across with it. I like to try to show things in a different light. I like to put things together that are opposites, and yet have some kind of a pleasing resonance together; beautiful images that are also violent or gory, finding beauty in things that wouldn't traditionally be thought of as beautiful. I want to work on subject matter that is dynamic, that has a very powerful intensity to it, in a pleasing way. Color is one tool to use in getting these kinds of things to come across on the skin, but it's really only a tool. The backbone of a tattoo has to be a strong idea and a strong composition. The best color scheme in the world isn't going to make up for a weak idea or an awkward drawing.

Yeah, true. Very well put. What I meant was that your work really transcends any particular tattoo style. You are not limited to any one genre of tattooing (such as portraits, demonic figures, biomechanical, American traditional or Japanese designs). Instead, your work moves freely through all of these styles seemingly effortlessly. Your understanding of and use of color sets you apart from most. This is no superficial asset to an artist, and few can claim it. Do you attribute this to your other artistic endeavors or did you develop your color theory primarily as a result of tattoo designs?

Thanks, those are very kind words. I have learned a lot about color from painting and about how to get certain feelings or effects across. Obviously there are lots of things that work in painting that don't really work well in tattooing, and as far as tattooing goes, I like to keep things bold so they'll hold up. The color scheme of a tattoo is something I try not to think about too much beforehand, because it always seems to work best when I just go on instinct. I always know what kind of general feeling I'm going for and, of course, I make sure I have a thorough understanding of what the client wants. As I'm working on something, there's always a little voice that tells me what the next color is, what's going to work. If I let go and just follow that, things work out the best. I know lots of people that work the opposite way - that like to have everything planned before they start. This is just what works the best for me. I have to get out of the way and let the tattoo take on its own life. If I try to plan things too much, it seems to drain the energy out of it.

You mentioned painting. How much art do you do outside of tattooing? Do you paint regularly? And if so, what mediums do you use?

I try to paint every chance I get. I paint pretty much exclusively in oil right now.

How difficult is the transition between the two mediums?

I think the more things you do at once, the more you start to see the parallels between them and how everything fits together. You can learn so much about one thing from all the others. Obviously, painting gives you much more freedom because you're not dealing with someone else's skin ... and you have no responsibility other than to yourself, so you have the freedom to explore subjects that would never work as tattoos. But tattooing teaches you a lot about laying out a painting, about composition and strength of design, visual power. I just try to always be open to learning whatever I can, at any time. You never know when you're going to stumble onto something by accident.

What subject matter really intrigues you most at this point, in both painting and tattooing? What are your favorite images to create?

I think my favorite things right now are images that place opposite things together in an unexpected way - dark with light, violent and beautiful. There are a million ways to see everything in life, it all has to do with your point of view. For instance: blood seems to turn up a lot in my paintings (and in my tattoos for that matter), but very often for me it doesn't carry a negative connotation. I use it as a symbol of life, of purification. Sometimes people have a hard time with that, they don't understand. People aren't used to thinking anymore, they're taught by television and movies that everything's black or white and nothing has meaning beyond the obvious associations you make. It all comes down to visual power. I'm concentrating mostly on large projects now, backs, sleeves, bodysuits, etc. I've been doing a lot of Japanese tattoos, and I'm really trying to learn about it, trying to crack the code and figure out the right way to draw things. It's the kind of thing you really have to study, and once you learn a little bit you start to realize that 99.9% of the 'Japanese' tattoos you see in American tattoo magazines are totally fucked ... and it's because people didn't have the respect to realize that these images are drawn a certain way for a reason and you can't just do it 'your way' and have it look right. So they end up tattooing cherry blossoms with 4 petals, backwards wind, and water that looks like piles of dirty tube socks.

I have been working on Japanese stuff for the last few months, and you're absolutely right. This stuff is a lot deeper than it looks! I have only gone through a few dragon images, but I've really dug into what they stand for ... and, man, it is a lot of work just to understand a few of the images. It's really fun, though. People like Chris Trevino blow me away ... his shit rocks, man. I can't think of anyone who comes close to him right now as far as that Japanese stuff is concerned. Who else do you see as leading the pack?

As far as Americans doing Japanese, Eddie Deutsche kind of carved out the path that everyone else is following now ... Chris is definitely one of the best ... Tim Lehi is great, Jeff Whitehead, Colin Stevens ... Chris Garver does great Japanese, he just moved over to Japan to take Wascho's place at Three Tides in Osaka.

Tattoo Art by Timothy Hoyer
Tattoo Art by Timothy Hoyer.

What about in the other styles of tattooing? Who do you think has made the most profound impact on the medium for the various styles being done now? Who are some of the newer guys you see coming up in the art form that impress you most?

Hmmm ... as far as influences on the medium, Eddy Deutsche again ... Guy Aitchison blazed a trail that has inspired a lot of people and changed people's expectations about what a tattoo can be. As far as the new people go, I'm always running into people that are doing great stuff. I was just over in Europe and met Rudy Fritsch and Amanda Toy. They're both doing really nice, clean, solid work. Mike Rubendahl from New York is really good ... I don't know, I meet people all the time. There's a lot of good work being done right now.

On the technical side, what tools are you currently using (pigments, machines, needles, power supplies, etc)? And what have you used in the past?

The first tattoo machines I ever had were ordered out of the back of a magazine and were from S & W, which I found out much later was Stanley and Walter Moscowitz out on Long Island. I think I still have one of those ... it's pretty funny. I'm a nut about machines. I really like to collect and tinker with things. I've got a drawer full, probably about 40 or 50 machines if I actually counted them all, but there's only 4 or 5 that I use on a regular basis ... it changes all the time depending on what I like at the moment. Lots of people give me machines to try out. Right now I'm using a couple of liners that Aaron built and a bulldog shader from Adam Ciferri. There's another Juan Puente shader that I use for black and gray sometimes. I mix my own pigments from powders.

I saw that you just recently produced your own tattoo machine line with Aaron Cain. How was that experience and are you satisfied with the results?

The whole experience was totally amazing. Aaron, on top of being a hell of a tattooer, is an amazing craftsman, and he's been working with metal for many years. The frame was carved out of wax, which was something I've never done before. It was pretty intimidating in the beginning, especially seeing what Aaron and grime had already come up with. Aaron offered lots of help, though, and the wax is very forgiving. If you make a mistake, you can add some more wax and start over. Right now, there's a prototype of the machine, but I haven't seen it yet. Aaron says it's a little on the heavy side, so we're going to be using this frame as a shader and I'm designing another one to be used as a liner, which will be a little smaller and lighter.

Yeah, I thought it was going to be a swan machine? (laughs)

That was the original idea ... but we figured that it was exactly what everyone was expecting, so we changed it. Besides, I think someone already did a swan one.

Where do you see tattooing going over the next 10 years or so?

I think we're just starting to see the beginnings of government inserting itself into the business, which I'm sure will only get worse in the next few years. Who knows, maybe we'll all be tattooing out of our kitchens in a few years. As far as the art form goes, I don't really think there's any such thing as a peak - it's all just kind of a constant progression. As new people enter the business, they bring in outside influences from their own unique experiences, which are infinite ... it's all a cycle.

What kinds of clients are you hunting for?

The people I enjoy working on the most are the ones that like what I do and come to me with an idea they know I'll enjoy and be able to sink my teeth into. I'm lucky to have really good clients who trust me and know that I'm going to do everything I can to give them what they see in their heads.

Speaking of the clients, how do you feel about working conventions? Obviously, you still are, though many artists have given up working the convention circuit at all anymore. I find this most discouraging for the collectors that may not be able to travel around the world just to get a particular artist to work on them for a day, as it proves very costly. Why do you think so many artists are dropping out of the convention scene?

I'm pretty burned out on conventions right now. If I travel, I'm much happier working in someone's shop than at a convention. I think one of the main things has to be the sterility issue, which of course is pretty much non-existent at a tattoo convention. Many people have had the experience of trying to walk through a crowded hall and accidentally getting bumped by someone's fresh, bloody tattoo. That kind of thing really gives me the heebie jeebies. When you think about an entire hotel full of tattoo fans touching their new tattoos and then going out and touching the elevator buttons, the doors, everything ... it's kind of scary. I think the other reason that people seem to be dropping out is the lack of really good conventions in the States anymore. R.I.P . Tattoo Tour.

Well, you do a lot of large scale pieces for your clientele, do you prefer doing the bigger stuff or do you get just as much satisfaction, artistically, doing smaller, one day pieces?

Smaller stuff can be fun if I'm working a convention or on the road, but the big stuff is definitely more rewarding for me right now. Clearly, the more space you're using for a design, the better you can make it fit the body, and the more dynamic power it will have ... the more visual impact. I try to think of the tattoos I put on people in relation to their entire body, not just the specific area or the tattoos immediately around the area.

What's the most important tip you have learned in the last year or so that may benefit other artists out there.

Hmmm ... I would say don't be afraid to try something you haven't seen before. Don't be afraid to take chances with something you think will work, as opposed to copying something someone else has done. Your own ideas are going to flow from you more naturally than someone else's. Trust yourself, and draw as much as you possibly can.

There seems to be a very definite downturn in the tattoo business this year, and everyone seems to be affected by it. What do you attribute this to? Will the art form survive if the current conditions remain?

I know what you mean ... I think part of it is a general slowdown in the economy, and of course, people need to put food on the table before they need a tattoo (most people, anyway ... god bless the ones that think the other way around!). We're basically in a luxury industry - we give people something that they buy for their own enjoyment. And I think part of it is simple supply and demand ... there are so many shops now, and there are only so many customers to go around. Things are definitely heading towards an implosion in the industry. We'll just have to see. Like Paul Rogers said, 'The cream always rises to the top.'

What thoughts, dreams, hopes or suggestions would you like to leave impressed on the tattoo collectors out there; the new batch of tattoo artists rising up; and the historians who will one day look back on this movement and ask 'What the fuck were these people thinking?'

Wow, I don't know if I'm really qualified to answer that question ... tattooing has been around almost since the beginning of the human race, and I'm sure it will continue to be around. I just try to do the best I can and produce work that's interesting and has some merit. I really think everyone who really cares about tattooing is doing the same thing, which is all we can really do. It doesn't really make any sense to worry about what people will think in the future. After all, tattoos aren't for everyone, and shouldn't really be understood by everyone.

Well, thanks for the time Timothy. I hope things continue to go well for you in the future.

For those of you wanting to get some work by Mr. Hoyer,
you can reach him at:

Alive Gallery
16 S. Auburn Ave.
Richmond, VA 23221
(804) 254-9006
email: alivegallery@hotmail.com

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