The West Texas Tattoo Convention held their 11th annual event from Friday, February 28th to Sunday, March 1st. The convention had over 3,000 people attend it, most of them pursuing new ink from some of the 150+ vendors. Scores of others were getting their first tattoos.
The old idea of, “tattoos are only for sailors and convicts” has given way, over the last 20 years, to a more artistic appreciation of tattooing. Originally tattoos showed that you belonged to something or displayed a reference to the fact that you had accomplished something, most times it was something difficult or that required courage. While that is still the case with some tattooing, people have started appreciating it for its beauty and meaning.
The art can be traced back to almost 3400 BC and each tattoo means something different to everyone. Now tattoos are a display of artistic expression and are quickly becoming a rite of passage for many. There was one artist whose story you could read from his wrists to his neck to his other wrist. It began with the city he was born in and the day he was born on. Then there was a portrait of his mother, then the day he was married was tattooed above that. Next was a portrait of his wife and a vine of roses. The next date was the day his grandmother passed away, the date his daughter was born followed that, the date his son was born, etc. Mixed in the art were tattoos of Koi, cars, flowers, etc.
One of the vendors at the convention over the weekend was Houston tattoo artist Neil Roberts. Many tattoo artists are taken under the wing of an experienced tattoo artist as an apprentice, someone to guide them and show them the ropes. Roberts says that learning the right way is important, “If you make a mistake on something, even an errant line, that mark is there forever.” The basic standard of tattooing is perfection, nothing less.
Roberts is an artist at Battle Royale Tattoo in Houston, Texas and had to fight to earn respect and find his path in the world of ink. This was Roberts’ first year attending the convention, “It was amazing. I did 2 large-scale custom tattoos the first day and I did 3 custom tattoos the second day. For being a first-timer at this show, I couldn’t have asked for a better time.”
Roberts has been a tattoo artist for 14-years, originally hailing from northern Utah and beginning his artistic trek in Las Vegas. Roberts says that the biggest change is the number of people getting into tattooing, “That changes constantly. There is always someone who is younger, someone who is better, and you have to keep up. We’re just trying to make good, clean, solid tattoos as we can because there is always someone younger and hungrier.”
Some people get interested in becoming tattoo artists in their teens or twenties, but for Roberts, the passion for drawing masterpieces on people began at a much younger age, “I was 6 or 7 years old. I grew up in a small town, Logan, Utah. I didn’t see a lot of tattoos because the area is predominately Mormon but one day I saw a biker guy with tats on his arms. I saw that, recognized it and was drawn to it. I thought it was really cool. It was so cool to see something outside the box at such an early age. It stuck with me and I drew, and drew, and drew and painted and strived… and I sucked so bad early on,” he says with a chuckle. “I wasn’t good and it takes a while to find your stride. I’m thankful for the guidance that I picked up along the way because I didn’t have a formal apprenticeship. I’m a self-taught tattooist. I tried to get an apprenticeship but I got turned away at every chance. I did work a lot to get where I’m at and I’m humbled and I’m grateful for it. I’ve tried to maintain nothing but a positive attitude and not get into the rock star mentality and get involved in the partying lifestyle that can come with tattooing. It’s a very artist-free-love-culture and you can get swept up in that and lose sight of what is important.”
While Roberts was working in Las Vegas he was invited to come to San Angelo, to Trufant Bros tattooing to be a guest artist, “In 2013, before moving to Texas, they invited me and it just so happened that I wanted to see about moving to Texas and was going to be in Houston. I told them that I’d be in Houston for 10 days and they invited me to come up here while Alex was out of the country. It was a great opportunity to be able to meet them and be able to work with them. They are some of the most stand-up guys in the business and they have made such a great thing happen for a small area in Texas, to bring in world-class tattoo artists from Germany, Amsterdam, Japan, England, from all over the globe.”
Another tattoo artists came up to Roberts while he was doing a new tattoo for a customer. Roberts handed him a custom drawing that he had done the night previously specifically for that artist, “That was Chummy from Tattoo 13 in Oakland. He works for Freddy Corbin and he’s been an idol of mine for a long time. I have a ton of respect for everyone at that shop and I’ve always loved everyone out there. I looked up to them even before I started tattooing. That’s something that I try to do at any convention I attend or any guest spot that I do at a shop, is to try and have paintings ready as a gift or as a thank you, just to show my respect and appreciation for being able to work around them and learn from them.”
There is a great deal of healthy, mutual respect between all of the artists and the atmosphere at the convention is electrifying, “I think that the world-class feel of bringing the best tattooists here is incredible. This is amazing. There are top-notch artists and workers who just want to do solid, clean tattoos and all of us are able to merge together.”
Excellence recognizes excellence in the world of tattooing. Just an artist’s style can be recognizable to other artists who will immediately know if a particular artist from across the country did a particular tattoo, “That happens a lot. It’s happened once or twice to me and it’s a humbling thing to know that an artist all the way across the country or in another country recognizes your work and tells you about seeing that tattoo you did. It’s not a big world when it comes to tattoo artists.”
Roberts is married to Amber and they have a daughter, Willow, who is about to turn 1- year old, “It’s hard to be away from them for 5 solid days. It’s the longest we’ve been apart.” Roberts says that it wouldn’t possible for him to be successful without the support of his wife, “We spend more time in the tattoo shop than we do with our families. It can be long days and long hours but you have someone at home waiting for you at the end of the day.”