Scars as Art: An interview with tattoo artist Andi Fitzpatrick
Artist: Andi Fitzpatrick
Words & Photos: Walter Cabal
Andi Fitzpatrick is a tattoo artist at Envision Tattoo in Grand Terrace, Southern California. She specializes in what’s called a neo-traditional style. The traditional tattoo style includes bold lines and a balanced ratio of black, red, green, and gold as its primary colour palette. Andi uses varied thicknesses of line, and a broader colour palette adding a new dimension of depth, and modern artistry while utilizing the historical tradition of tattooing techniques as a background.
I met with Andi in her studio and we spoke for about five hours about her craft as she was tattooing a client. It was a slow, reflective, and respectful time. We both spent time listening to each other, listening to the hum of the tattoo machine, and checking in with her client who was happy to have a meaningful place to rest her mind while being tattooed.
Thanks for taking the time with me, Andi!
Yeah, no problem!
Because you operate in an industry that’s mostly operated by men, you’re contributing a broader understanding of how female artists are expanding within the art community. What’s the culture like surrounding female tattooists and your craft?
Female artists can get mistaken because of the way they’re portrayed on TV. Alex who works at the studio with me is another female artist, and I feel comfortable talking with her about my personal struggles. Sometimes it’s with my own security level, but female artists still find ways to put in the hustle. I think because there’s this kind of “prove yourself” thing, girls can tend feel like we have to work a little harder. Tattooing is pretty male dominated, and it’s really hard to get noticed. You really have to want it. Even though I feel like some other people are way ahead of me for how young they are, I try to keep improving. I want to never stay satisfied and keep learning new techniques. More than ever before, I’m taking a step back in tattooing and re-visiting fundamentals. Things like my composition and my light sources are really important.
Andi briefly raises her head from her humming machine in a quiet pause.
I want to keep going back and getting better at the simpler things.
I nod my head in understanding as she resumes her work. The sound of our gears turning is represented by the tattoo machine’s quiet humming in the air.
Do you tend to get more female clients over male clients?
I think there is a comfort for female clients to have a female tattoo artist, because there have been a lot of women who have had male tattooers make sexual advances, which really sucks because you’re already in a vulnerable place letting someone create a piece of art… on your body. It sucks that some women have been pressured in those kinds of situations. It can even happen outside of the studio.
My husband and I both have a lot of tattoos. No one ever grabs him, but I’ve had people grab me. One time there was this older lady - she wasn’t being creepy or anything - she just took my arm and asked me “what’s this?” It’s like folks are saying: “Oh you look like the kind of person who doesn’t care”.
I try to remember that it’s a real blessing to work with something that you love, but you can’t take advantage of that. I think getting a tattoo is a super humbling experience.
Can you tell me a little more about how getting a tattoo is a humbling experience?
Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror from other people’s eyes, and I realize some people don’t understand that not every tattoo has to have deep meaning behind it, and being mistaken can be overwhelming. My tattoos being highly visible force me to be responsible for all of my actions. I say that getting a tattoo is a humbling experience because it forces me to focus on other important things than just what people think of me.
What’s one of those important things for you? Do you feel like you’re contributing something greater to people’s lives when you tattoo a piece on them?
I guess I try to promote understanding. This job is so weird, because it’s portrayed really strangely in the media, especially for female artists. How a tattoo can promote understanding, that, I’m not sure – but I think what promotes it more is the interaction between the client and me.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a therapist’s job, I’m not an actual therapist obviously. [We both laugh]. But I think that goes back to the TV representation of what a tattoo artist is — especially about what a female tattooer is. People will come in and tell me their whole life story. You don’t hear about that a lot on TV. I try to listen, as best as I can, and I try to be understanding of them, too. It’s a very intense job at every aspect, because I create these emotional bonds with my clients. You’re trying to make them happy, but you’re also trying to make yourself proud and happy with your work — and you’re trying to improve without putting that over your client’s needs… all at the same time. It’s a huge balancing act. And it’s all self-regulated. It’s a lot sometimes.
Tattooing is super intimate, because you can literally be in someone’s face, like literally breathing their same air, you know? You’re so close to them. For me when you think about it, I’m literally breaking open their skin, and they’re suffering in front of me. This is a really vulnerable thing to do, you know? No one wants to ever seem weak in front of anybody. And sometimes if my client is getting a bigger piece done, they can’t always make it through. That’s kind of a weird bonding thing. Even if there’s no verbal communication, you can understand them. Sometimes I can get tired before they do ha! But you learn to try not to quit on people.
I’ve had my own tattoos for a total of 10+ years all together, but I feel like I’m being re-taught that tattoos are actually scars that are intentionally interpreted as art, as beautiful, and as sometimes even full of meaning. I am sitting before an artist that shows scars to be worn as colourful and beautiful works of art.
You mentioned that being an artist can be a huge balancing act, and that it’s all self-regulated. Self-discipline is a hurdle for every artist, especially dealing with all the emotional weight that comes with being creative. How do you press through that?
If I can wake up early, like 6 AM, I feel more productive. It gets my brain prepped, and I actually pep talk myself. I find that there’s a pleasure in having self-discipline, and it makes me feel better. When I create a schedule that requires me to be so busy that I don’t have time to be depressed I can have a good momentum. Sometimes I’ve just woken up and wanted to cry, but, no one’s gonna hold my hand and tell me what to do. I have to do it myself you know?
It’s important for me to keep taking art classes. I watch some artists who have technique videos on filigrees and cherry blossoms – but even with these resources there’s really a big self-discipline that comes with it all.
For a while there was no Instagram, and word of mouth is always going on in the background. You had to honestly hope you worked at an amazing shop and even then, as a shop we would pass out fliers. That can get super awkward. Ha! We’d pass fliers out in the mall until we got kicked out, and even though I was still starting out, I realized this kind of effort would get returns for you. I actually learned a lot from that and from very tough apprenticeships.
When I was twenty, I began apprenticing, and I remember working like thirty days in a row with like no day off. Apprenticeships can go for six months to a year, to forever. I apprenticed for like two and a half-ish years. Sometimes I’d work from ten in the morning or earlier, depending on who was working, until sometimes midnight, and sometimes back-to-back days like that. I was learning tattooing while also cleaning up all the needles with like other people’s fluids on them, and I barely had time to paint or draw. But I learned about how important will power is in your work. There’s a humility in trying to do what’s best in your experience.
I’m just not naturally one who doesn’t care. I care about the way people have their tattoos done, and I care that people have their tattoos for a long time.
How has being an artist helped you get through life?
In creative work, especially in this industry, I’ve experienced a lot of ups and downs. After you’ve been doing it for about six years like I have, you have to admit to yourself that it’s not as exciting as it used to be. But being a tattoo artist has helped me to understand that it’s up to the artist to create the excitement. You have to make it exciting, and if you don’t do that — and I’ve coasted before — you’ll lose that enthusiasm.
One of the things I like about you, Andi, is your refusal to idealize your work and your insistence on progression.
Ha! ‘Cause it’s not all idealistic all the time. People will paint it that way sometimes. Because I can wake up when I want, and do the kind of work that I love. I do have it better than most people, but I’m not going to put the lifestyle on some kind of pedestal. It’s tough work though. I know I can get better. I can be a sensitive little cry baby sometimes, but I’m not a quitter... that’s for sure.
Andi’s quiet demeanour contrasts with the death metal screams of In Flames’ Colony Album blasting through the radio. Her authenticity contrasts with the artificial lights in the shop. All the while I still felt the gravity of being in an artists’ studio, who creates works of art on the organic canvas of the human body.