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ONE OF NYC'S MOST RESPECTED TATTOO ARTISTS ON LEAVING THE BIG APPLE

ONE OF NYC'S MOST RESPECTED TATTOO ARTISTS ON LEAVING THE BIG APPLE

By Pete Pabon

I met Luke Wessman back in 2012 at the legendary Max Fish bar in the Lower Eastside. He was in the process of hanging work up for a solo art show. At the time, I really didn’t know much about his time on Miami Ink or NY Ink at Wooster Street Social Club, and the little I did know was from his “Self Made” video I came across on Youtube. We had a few friends in common and eventually became friends on our own in the past few years.

If I had to describe Luke to someone, it would be genuine - who you see on TV, and interviews, both in magazines and online, is who he is day in and day out. He is a true gentleman in every sense of the word. He doesn’t let the fact that he’s worked with some of the more reputable tattooists and shops change his ethic towards his work and artistry. He treats customers the same way across the board, be it celebrity or walk-in, with respect and sincerity. Always looking to better himself both in his work and as a person, be it traveling and tattooing, working on art or his popular @lostartofthegentleman Instagram account where he brings back the old values of what it meant back then to be a respectable man. There is nothing contrived about him in any way, whatsoever.

The times I spend with Luke always leave me wanting to better myself when I walk away, so it’s hard to see him move back to California, but I’m glad to call him a friend and say that I got the chance to sit down and talk to him before he left to share it with you all. Read on to hear his wise words on the affect of social media on old school mentalities, the speakeasy-style secret tattoo parlor he’s planning to work at in California (the opposite of “catering to soccer moms”), and what the Lost Art of the Gentleman means to him.

PETE PABON: Who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
LUKE WESSMAN: I’m Luke Wessman, I was born in Tennessee, but I’m from Southern California.

How’d you wind up in California?
My parents had me on a hippie farm in Tennessee and then when I was old enough, they hitchhiked to California and I spent most of my life there. I’m a tattoo artist among other things.

How did you get into tattooing?
I got into tattooing just by being around it in the neighborhood. My older brother’s friend was tattooing all the thugs and gangsters in the neighborhood and I kind of was a skinny little white kid that wanted to try to look tough. I was a skinny little kid and as an attempt to build some armor, I thought tattoos would be a good thing to do to look a little tougher.

Back then, 20 years ago, it definitely was a tougher look. I don’t think it really helped me, I was still pretty skinny and scrawny. So I started getting them - I started getting them all the time, and then became friends with some guys that were tattooing at a local shop. From there, I got introduced to classic tattooing and next thing I know I’m apprenticing. Next thing I know I’m tattooing military and navy guys on payday weekends. Next thing I know I’m tattooing in Miami Ink and New York Ink.

“I THINK ART IS A GREAT PLACE FOR SOCIAL COMMENTARY AND HEARTACHE.”

What was the name of that shop?
The one in San Diego with the military was Lucky’s Tattoo Parlor. It was a really old, famous shop. The owner made it very famous, he comes from old tattoo royalty in a way. He worked for Bert Grimm in Long Beach, which is a very well-known shop by most any tattooer. So then he went down to San Diego to open a shop of his own from Long Beach and my path just took me there to his shop. I could run on all day long. My journey was long and crazy.

That makes sense, San Diego, because it’s a port city and a lot of bases are there.
Exactly, back then, when you’re thinking, “I’m going to open a tattoo shop,” you’re thinking, “I’m going to go by a military base.” You weren’t thinking about college. Now, you think college towns are good because there’s a lot of young people. But back then, it was military. “We’re going to set up by a base and do these moto tats and make a living. 1st and the 15th.” So I caught the tail end of that, which was cool.

How have your experiences affected your tattooing and art?
My experiences, I think, affect my tattooing and art directly. I do paint a lot of simple kind of tattoo-y stuff, but I always reference things that are going on in my life. I think art is a great place for social commentary and heartache. It’s such a great outlet. Through different times in my life, you’ll see that in my work as far as art. But with tattooing, I just do what the customer wants with my style and my aesthetic. I’m pretty open to a lot less of my own opinions - my style, but less of my own opinion on the artwork.

Particularly because of the shops I worked at, Miami Ink and NY Ink were very customer-based - travellers and novices. They weren’t people that knew about tattoos and tattooers, they just wanted a souvenir, which was fine. To me, that was just like a cool, classic style of tattooing. “Come in, we’ll give you what you want, we’ll do it good.”

I always say, like Jay Z, I had to dumb down for my audience to double my dollars. I had to take a little bit of my own artistic integrity out and tattoo people based on the nick-knacks that they wanted based on a reality show. Or their love for the show or something, but not really being into the culture and wanting my particular art.

“I ALWAYS SAY, LIKE JAY Z, I HAD TO DUMB DOWN FOR MY AUDIENCE TO DOUBLE MY DOLLARS.”

I’m pretty sure you get to do your stuff too, in between every now and then. And people who specifically come for you and your work.
Yeah, people definitely still come for my shit. More now than ever - I think I’m on the radar more than I’ve ever been with social media and shit like that.

How much has social media affected you and your artwork and tattooing?
[Social media] first dropped you down, and then if you used it right, it can pick you back up. Because at first, if you come from an old school mentality, you’re not trying to put yourself on blast, you’re not trying to [say], “Look at my shit.” You’re hoping that people find you and you just grind. That’s the old mentality; a respectful mentality I believe. But at some point, the future and technology just kind of took over and Instagram took over. So who was hot on Instagram, who knew how to put the best filters on their shit and promote their shit the best, became the most sought after artists. And a lot of guys that were badasses that didn’t want to do Instagram felt the hurt of that.

So for me, at some point I had to go, “Okay, I’m going to embrace this shit and not be a stubborn old dude.” Not that I’m old but I came from old mentality tattooing. And I just embraced it full on, I said, “This is how I make my living, this is where it’s going, I’m going to be as smart as I can and use it to my advantage like a lot of these youngsters are doing.” So I think it’s helped me a lot.

For example, Tim Hendricks and I went to Australia last year, both of us had never been there. We posted on our Instagram that we were going to go there, next thing we know we’re booked up solid. And that to me is just an amazing example of the power of social media and how it’s helped me pay my bills.

After spending the last few years in New York City, what prompted you to move back to California?
When I first moved to New York, I said to myself that I was only going to live here a year. Two years in, I started thinking about moving and then also about how much I love New York. But at some point, depending on your mentality as a person that chases growth, I felt like I started to spin in my wheels here. I met an amazing amount great new friends, great people, solid people that I’ll know for the rest of my life. But from a business perspective, I was spinning in my wheel, I wasn’t growing as an artist, I wasn’t growing financially, I was just in one spot. I’ve definitely always looked to shake my world up to kind of progress or change. And I think it was just time to force myself to change and reinvent myself because I think there’s some forced growth in that. Which I don’t necessarily always want, but I think something great can come out of that. I can stay in the same place forever, but then I’m going to see the same shit and do the same shit.

You didn’t feel like you were growing.
I was just dying to grow and do something different. Whether it was artistically or just creatively, I needed something. And then in California, because I’m from there, I have a strong group of friends that are waiting for me to come back and be part of my life and for me to be part of theirs. They’re all great people, some are well-known tattooers, some are just old friends I grew up with, so I have this really strong roots there that I just want to get back to and reset. Plus, the winter sucks here. [Laughs] It’s fun at first and it’s beautiful to see the snow fall.

It makes sense, you want to challenge yourself. You don’t grow as an individual if you don’t push yourself. It’s really easy to get complacent.
I’m still at a place where I can challenge myself. I don’t have a family, I’m not stuck down with anything, I’m free. I can work in Brazil one day and be in Spain the next and just keep expanding my horizons and future. I’m not tied down. Not that it’s a bad thing but my friends that have kids have to think for other people. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have to think for only myself and be selfish the last five years of my life. I’m trying to take advantage of that, not that it’s better or worse, it’s just an open path still.

Is there a difference between the tattoo culture in here in New York as opposed to California? Spending time here and then going back to California and working.
I think there are some subtle differences in tattooing from coast to coast. Not as much anymore because I think that things like Instagram really level the inspiration that clients want. They see it and it’s all right there in their hands on each coast. They see artists from everywhere so stuff that’s popular is easily seen on both coasts now. Whereas - maybe even when I first got here when Instagram wasn’t as popular - I felt like there was much more Japanese tattooing being done here than the West Coast. Where I grew up in my area, in Southern California, there were a lot of black and gray, religious, day of the dead [tattoos]. Obviously, there was everything but there was a bigger difference when I first moved here, I think. I don’t know if it was just the circles I was running in, but I see more Japanese work being done here and in Miami too.

Without giving more than you need to give away, what’re your plans when you get to California?
My new thing I’m doing in California right now just kind of changed last minute. I was working on some other projects and life has a way of switching stuff up. So now I’m doing this - I feel like in this modern time it’s something a little different. It’s like a speakeasy tattoo shop, it’s illegal, it’s not in a place that it’s supposed to be, it’s hidden, the address is never going to be public, and it’s just going to be word-of-mouth. It’s going to be based on relationships and friendships and keeping it hush.

“IF YOU KNOW MY FRIEND, YOU CAN GET IN. BUT IF YOU’RE A DICK, I’M NOT GOING TO TATTOO YOU. I DON’T NEED YOUR MONEY LIKE THAT.”

I’m excited about that, I feel like, for me, that’s going to take it all the way back to how I want to control my tattoo shop and my vibe and my clients. I went from the extreme of just catering to soccer moms and celebrities to, “I have a private shop, if you’re a friend of my friend, and you want something I want to do, I’m going to do it.” So I’ve taken it to the whole other extreme.

I like the idea of it being something different because everybody and their fucking mom have a tattoo shop now. Everybody’s pretty good, so mine’s going to be something different. It’s going to be hidden, it’s going to be a little bit more special; just something different for modern day tattooing. Taking it back.

Making it a little more exclusive.
Yeah, a little more exclusive, more of an exclusive vibe. And then based on friendships - the power of friendships like, “If you know my friend, you can get in. But if you’re a dick, I’m not going to tattoo you. I don’t need your money like that.” It’s a little undefined, I’m kind of defining it as I go. But the main thing is it’s hidden, it’s never going to be public where it’s at. Hopefully it works out - well, it’s not going to “work out the way I planned it” because I’m kind of planning it as I go.

But it seems like it gets to a point sometimes where you do things long enough and you don’t love it as much and you want to get back to when you used to love it and why you used to love it.
Yeah, I lost some passion for it for sure and it’s definitely the right kind of job to be full of passion for. It’s very important for people and as an artist creating on people. So I’m just totally reinventing myself here and what I’m doing. So secret shop, hidden behind a book shelf door, in a weird space that is going to be not public, and I think it’s just going to be fun too. For me, tattooing is about the whole experience - it’s about the stories that are being exchanged, and I think I’m going to give my clients a different kind of experience and a nice space and some cool story. It’s just going to be different with tattooing. Aside from that, I’m working on a book for my The Lost Art of the Gentleman stuff. And some other side projects.

“FOR ME, TATTOOING IS ABOUT THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE - IT’S ABOUT THE STORIES THAT ARE BEING EXCHANGED.”

Yeah, The Lost Art of the Gentleman kind of took on a life of its own too. Did you start it around the same time you started your own personal account?
No, a couple years in to having my own account, I just started posting some romantic stuff based on being single in New York. I like to think of myself as an old fashion romantic dude. I posted some stuff and then I thought, “Man, my friends are going to give me shit for this romantic sweet stuff.” And they didn’t really and I was like, “Okay, I’m not getting shit for it, this is cool.” I posted a couple more and started doing it regularly and got a really nice response and was like, “I’m just posting this honest, romantic shit and people like [it].”

Then I created a little hashtag that kept everything together (#lostartofthegentleman). Then people started hashtagging it all over the place, running with it. And I said, “You know, I need to build its own account so it at least has a home for this particular thing that I’m doing. Everyone’s doing gentleman stuff in their own way, I’m doing it more based on character and morals than suits and watches.” So I started its own Instagram account two years, maybe not that long ago, and it’s just been growing really nice, man. I’ve had some interviews with some different women’s magazines and it’s kind of taken on a completely separate life of its own away from tattooing, which I love. It’s a great outlet and it’s interesting because it’s coming from an unlikely source, a big tattoo guy.

I think it’s who you are because I know you personally so I can say that. You can come off as intimidating.
Yeah, if you don’t hear me speak and you don’t know me, I’m a big ass dude with face tats and hand tats all over my fingers.

I guess the armor didn’t work.
I would judge a person like me if I saw me, but then you hear me talk and you know I’m not trying to puff my chest out or be a tough guy.

That was my attitude when I got my sleeve back in ’98’… my attitude was like, “If people are going to judge me by my sleeve, then I don’t need to deal with them.” If you’re not going to take the time to get to know me as a person, then I don’t really need to deal with you. But yeah, the Gentleman stuff, I think people need that. It’s what’s lacking now in society, especially with Tinder, Grinder, and all that other nonsense.
The magic of love is gone.

There’s no romance anymore.
And then the Gentleman thing is just a nice term for being a classy man. A lot of people’s representation of a “gentleman” stops at a suit. Mine ends at the suit, mine’s all the brain shit, the mentality, the character, the integrity. But then, at the end you’ve got some style and that’s part of it for me. But other people start at a nice watch and a suit and haircut and that’s a gentleman. To me, that’s just an accessory. The deep shit is what really makes a gentleman.

It’s fun to see the great response from the Instagram thing and now I’m working on trying to put this book together just to have something to hopefully be shown back in New York with a book gallery and doing book releasing shit.

Yeah, I think women will appreciate it too.
Yeah, it’s cool, it’s funny I have such a diverse audience with it that you wouldn’t expect. You have random model women and model guys hit me up on the street, “Oh, you do The Lost Art of a Gentleman.” Then I’ll be in Cali at a car show, low rider, gangsters everywhere, face tat dude will come up to me and be like, “Hey holmes, I really like that shit you do with The Lost Art of the Gentleman.” It fucking makes me feel real good man, it makes me feel like I’m doing something right - and I love that it’s reached such a diverse group. I ain’t trying to save the world or anything, I’m just doing me and it just happens to be like this.

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