Culturally Conscious Tattoos
Scott Rowland • March 19, 2015 • Art •
An Interview with Chance Isbell
There’s a very enchanting, some claim addicting, aspect of the tattoo experience that can manifest a harmonious adaptation of the naturally existing body. It’s not like a t-shirt that can be changed on a daily basis, but a body part that will always provide a glimpse into your psyche. And little compares to the experience of connecting with a passionate tattoo artist like Chance Isbell to collaborate on a new piece.
Unfortunately, mainstream perception of tattoos in America has not always been the most forgiving to a culture flourishing in spite of such stigma. Between the counterpoints of a desire to keep the craft underground and the vane misconception of a tattoo’s worth, it takes a true artisan to embody the humble, conscious side of the tattoo culture.
Well-rounded and easy-going, Isbell is known to comfort his clients by connecting with their intention, suggesting subtle enhancements, and then drawing up beautiful illustrations.
Only when both sides contribute in the creative process will a personal symbol transmute into a balanced and meaningful image.
ALOC: Could you give us a brief description of your career and what drew you to this particular life path?
CHANCE: Sure. I wanted to be an artist growing up, as cliché as that sounds. Nothing really prepared me for how intriguing I found the application of tattooing and the culture that surrounded it. I do feel that several people lent invaluable information shaping my style along the way such as Thomas Asher, Doren Clifford, Eric Inksmith and Mike Wilson. I was very lucky to work amongst a talented collective of influential artists at Inksmith and Rogers during the next seven years of my career, but Nick Wagner was the first person to tattoo me, and ironically gave me an opportunity to break into the industry a few years later. I genuinely wouldn’t be tattooing if he didn’t take the time to structure three years of rigorous technique training, needle making, cross contamination awareness and general tattoo etiquette. We ended up working together several more years at Black Hive, which he opened in Jacksonville, FL. That was a great time to grow as an artist and as a person, but ultimately I decided the best place for me was in Colorado with my son. After the move, I was fortunate again in life to find a family of top notch artists, and genuinely great people at Mantra Tattoo in Lakewood, CO.
How would you describe the tattoo scene in the 1920s and 30s? What kind of reputation did conventional wisdom convey back then?
The original tattoo artist wasn’t necessarily a highly sought out service before World War II, as far as I know, but there was a certain percentage of people that were drawn to the weird and the macabre. These were people who liked the idea of collecting tattoos in secret, or admired them within a small audience of likeminded folk. It was still kind of a taboo in a lot of people’s eyes. Regular society was under the loose impression of the “Tattooed Man” as a circus attraction, a criminal, and I suppose a lesser individual to some.
It’s good to know impressions have matured a bit. As far as you know, what were the big factors contributing to the surge in the tattoo industry after World War II?
When the war was finally over, I think a lot of people made it home, and many of them wanted to show off their tattoos like badges of honor. Something as simple as taking pride in where they’ve been, what they’ve seen and what branch of the service they were in. People like August “Cap” Coleman and Franklin Paul Rogers are respected and undisputed as having major influence to the growth of the industry. It really evolved from a combination of a lot of people, tinkering with machines and perfecting inks and needles throughout the years. They were trailblazers, modern day pirates and true artisans of such a unique and rich part of American culture today. Tattoos were actually becoming real works of art. I suppose it wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s when exposure to the art was becoming mainstream in music and cinema, gaining a reputation with outlaws and bikers and bleeding into other avenues of pop culture.
Who were some of the artists in the scene contributing to this rise in popularity in the ’60s and ’70s?
There are more underground people who carved a path to even name here, but as far as making it publicly noticed and popular I would have to say Lyle Tuttle. He was known to work on artists like Janice Joplin and was even on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. Lyle was one of the first artists to work on people in the public eye that really caused a buzz, which really brought tattoos into the public spotlight. Ed Hardy was another big contributor, but not as much in a public sense. More so he helped build standards of what a great tattoo could be, producing excellent designs and layouts based on Japanese tattooing. I would say he debatably became known to the general public because of a clothing line featuring his designs, but he was well known already within the circle of tattooing. Sailor Jerry and a lot of the pioneers were a huge push for the industry. It just wasn’t common knowledge because a lot of tattooers considered what they did to be sacred and best kept out of the public eye. I believe that a lot of tattooers still feel that way. Tattooing really seemed to get watered down once it became publicly accessible via the Internet. Luckily there are so many talented people who picked up tattooing to balance out the latter, artists who dedicated themselves to the craft and are genuinely doing some really mind blowing stuff. Individuals like Bob Tyrrell are doing stunning photo realism on one side of the spectrum, and gents like Thomas Hooper tackling insane geometric patterns and incorporating pointillism into tattoos. The craft is being pushed artistically to its limits. As far as popularity, who knows where it’s headed in that aspect.
Considering your humble response, how would you compare Mantra Studios to the initial “tattoo parlor” concept that emerged during this time period?
The main difference between a custom and a “parlor” or street shop, really boils down to the artists that work there. The custom shop will have a backbone of illustrators that tend to collaborate with their clients to create an original piece every time. The street shop mentality involves simply executing tried and true tattoo designs as simple and efficiently as possible, usually to accommodate the heavier traffic of walk-in clientele or people who just want something small or fairly simple. There are a lot of classic designs that never go out of style though, things that can be done on a small or large scale images like roses, clipper ships, script, skulls, swallows and pin-up girls to name a few. I try and balance illustrative and traditional images and tackle either style to fully appreciate the full spectrum of tattooing, more so to keep a healthy respect for the roots of it all.
Have you ever refused to give someone a tattoo they requested?
Unfortunately, there are limitations on my services for a select few ideas. If someone comes in with the idea of marking themselves in a socially inappropriate way, I don’t want that weighing on my conscience. I try to be logical with hateful tattoos or a client making impulsive decisions for shock value. For example, if you come in for your first tattoo and you want something on your face, I would hope that individual fully understands how detrimental that will be to their future employment and public appearance. I’m not saying I won’t do it, because my job ultimately is to provide a service for people, but you have to be confident in your idea in this line of work. I personally try my best to regulate where that fine line gets drawn.
Is there any particular piece on your body that is especially meaningful?
I was reading an article about Paul Rogers and about his time spent with the circus. I noticed that he had a beautifully done elephant tattoo on his knee, and the article mentioned he would give his son elephant rides as he bounced him on it. I had just had a baby boy myself and the idea resonated with me. I was fortunate enough to have a really excellent artist, Mike Wilson, tackle the idea. He put an amazing amount of detail and made it fit perfectly. One of the many reasons I enjoy what we do as tattooers, you can create great experiences with the craft on a personal level with each other.
Isbell has dedicated himself to providing well thought out tattoos in the safest environment possible.
“I was taught by my peers to be conscious about tattooing in a sterile environment, which I maintain to honor in the process of repetition in my set up and breakdown of all my disposable tools,” states Isbell.
Isbell has a conscious attitude built to deter irrational, spur of the moment decisions in honor of the humble tattoo tradition. If you want a lifelong symbol full of intrinsic value, beautifully placed on your body, Chance Isbell is the man.Chance Isbell