Don Kunto Talks Pre-Tattooing Life, Trading One Lifelong Passion For Another and The Plague of Plagiarism
Patrick Coste: Don, it’s been a while since I saw you at the Ottawa convention… Like, 10 years ago or something like that? WOW, time flies eh?
Don Kunto: OMG yes! This was about 8 to 9 years ago. I was just starting…
PC: Come again? It can’t be!
DK: Yeah yeah… It was my first year and I got a coil machine from you!
PC: Yes, I remember that but I still need a minute to process! Lol...
PC: Alright so, young sir… There’s more to what I know about you, so let’s meet again for the first time!
PC: Hi! So Don, what’s been happening since we last met?
DK: I just opened a shop, it’s called Lorne Street Tattoo. We threw around some dumb names and then I was like, “You think people will know where it is and what we do?” So we just called it Lorne Street.
PC: You’re still in Sudbury right?
DK: Yes, I'm still in Sudbury. It’s my home, and I decided to change shops after a few years. The shop I was at… I owe them a lot, but it was a crowded atmosphere. We had like, 6-7 artists, there were always 15-20 people in the building and I just couldn't concentrate, you know?
The amount of times you almost got a perfect outline on a guy, and then he turns to hear some other conversation and screws up the line and you're like, “God damn it!”...
I think I just needed to get into an environment where it's just me and the client. I have a room here for guest artists when they're passing through Sudbury. Anybody's welcome to come tattoo.
The walls are filled now and we’ve been open for about a year.
PC: That's good. So how long have you been tattooing for?
DK: I guess nine, ten years now?
PC: I usually don't ask this, but how old are you now?
DK: I'm 47.
PC: Ok, for those who are like me and can’t count for s***, you were “older” when you started tattooing. That in itself is a topic for conversation. Big time.
DK: In a sense… I won't say any names, but when I was younger, I tried to get an apprenticeship several times. There were two shops in the city. They were both owned by biker dudes.
At that time they both had that attitude; “If you try to learn somehow, I'll come to see you”… wink, wink… you know.
Sudbury was too small a town and tattooing just wasn't what it is now. I remember when I got my first tattoo, I was like 15 years old with fake I. D. and all my friends thought I'd ruined my life because I got a tattoo on my forearm.
They're like, “What have you done?”, “You'll never get a job.” It was just a different world back then. I remember my grandfather was military, he had some cool tattoos. He had a heart that said Edna on his chest, and even my dad doesn't know who Edna was. So like, my grandpa had a wrong girl's name.
I always thought they were the coolest things I'd ever seen. But yeah, I've always drawn since I was a little kid, like most.
PC: What was the first tattoo that you got?
DK: So, my first tattoo was a tribal armband.
PC: No way! I got one too, from the 90’s?
DK: Yes, lol! I remember being like, “This will never go out of style man…”, and two years later BOOM! Pretty much gone, lol. It's one of the reasons that I gravitated towards doing Traditional. It's already gone through the test of time, right? I know, it’s trendy right now, but who knew then, you know? Getting a panther, an eagle, is like getting a black leather jacket… It's not a matter of whether or not it's going to stay cool, it's like, are you cool enough to pull it off?
PC: I love that very much! What were you doing before? Were you a banker or something? Lol…
DK: No, lol, I’ve always played music and I toured around in bands and worked in recording studios as an engineer and produced music. I still do. I have a gig this weekend with the band. I'm helping a friend with an album right now.
That's the thing, it’s never going to pay the bills fully. You have to be huge in music to really make money out of it. We’ve all heard that before, but it’s true.
PC: So, wow, I didn’t know that! That’s a lifetime of dedication to art in all aspects! I wanna know more about that “change” in career!
DK: Yeah, thank you… Well, way back when, lol, I had a friend who left the shop he was at. He was opening his own and he was like, “You keep bringing me in your own drawings to tattoo on you, and I always like them.” He was like, “Why don't you just tattoo?”
PC: Was this the same guy who warned you about getting into tattooing?
DK: They were completely different guys. Ironically, one of those guys contacted me when I opened my own shop, and he sent me a message. He's like, “Good for you for getting out on your own. I always knew you would. You know, you've come so far. I never understood why you didn't get into this when you were younger.” And I wrote back, “Man! You said you'd break my hand if I started tattooing!”... Lol.
You know when someone's typing and you see the three dots, and they go away, and then you see the three dots again.
DK: Ten minutes later he's like, “I totally forgot about that. Sorry dude.”
PC: That's a good story. Was your apprenticeship a typical one?
DK: It was a proper old apprenticeship, so I was glad I did. But even at the end of all that, when I first started tattooing people I was like, “I'm not very good man, I don't know if I should be doing this.” I feel like I draw well, but man, different tattoos… and I would be surprised to meet anyone who’s said: “my first 10 tattoos were solid and I'm proud of them.”
PC: Now that you've been at it for a little while, you must have some tattoo artist “crushes”? Personally I admire everyone dedicated to the craft, you know? The daily worker who makes bold or crazy B&G shading. Some people don't get why some tattooers make “doctor money” but it's so stressful, you know? Some guys are sweating their asses off while tattooing. Like, truly stressing and not coping well.
DK: Oh yes! Picture those guys who are at A level in the game. I was lucky enough to meet Samuele Briganti a couple of months ago. My girlfriend and I were in Italy and we literally passed Bold Will Hold Tattoo Shop and I was like, “I'm gonna go in and meet the guy.” But Samuele had a guy coming in, I think the guy had flown from the States to get his tattoo done, so we talked for a few minutes. What a nice guy! Really down to earth.
There’s that thing, you know?… That guy flew from wherever in the States, to Florence, to get tattooed by Samuele Briganti and he expects Samuele Briganti, right? There’s that expectation of walking out with the tightest tattoo humanly possible… and that's got to be pressure
PC: That's crazy right? But that's how it works. I know a few tattoo friends who are like that. They decided to live in a certain place and so people come and get tattooed by them. To me that’s amazing! Sure you can be good at something and work remotely, but tattooing ain’t that!
DK: It’s such an honour when someone does that, you know? I had a guy recently, and when he got here told me; “Yah, I drove from the States to get this tattoo today.” I'm like, “Oh my god!” I instantly felt the pressure. You're like, “Oh God, you drove all that way just for a tattoo!” Lol…
PC: This is so great Don. I’m glad you can cope well with pressure...
Speaking of pressure, you must have felt some with this next topic… Not sure if you want to brag about this, but you did a t-shirt with some cool dudes?
DK: Lol, yes I did. @colorcrimes contacted me, that’s Ryan from Sullen, with @unclejeremy. Ryan asked me if I wanted to do a shirt. Lol, I said of course!
PC: Let's admit it, your style is not Traditional in the grand scheme of things!
DK: Actually, I think I bring it to about 1990. The artists that I was trying to emulate when I was learning to draw were like; Frank Kozik hotrods, you know? I was really into the silkscreen poster movement of the nineties and 2000s. Pretty much all of the guys who were doing the posters for the grunge bands and all that. I was sitting in grade nine looking at the start with the Powell-Peralta artists, and that skate art and rock art was everything to me…
I’m definitely always trying to draw something that lives in the Traditional tattoo world. I’m definitely that guy who gets inspired by all those 90s graphic artists who were into these cool genres and sub-genres with their work, you know? The skateboard illustration and all of those were given a bit more artistic freedom.
Those illustrators got to spread their wings for bands. That was my biggest influence drawing as a kid; skateboard art and rock art of the 90s and 2000s
PC: I can totally relate here. Now tell me, I know you’re productive and you use technology to be fast and consistent… Do you enjoy the tech?
DK: I do embrace the ease of it and the practicality. Right now I have 1479 completed flash files on my iPad. I have 318 available and I have 217 in progress.
There are 217 things there, where I'm like, I just can't figure out why it doesn't work but I think it's a good idea.
Oh yeah, I've got the one wall that got done completely with my designs. So I have about 60 designs up over my station and then I did a couple of shirts with Sullen. So as they've been coming out, I get them framed and I have those up because I’m proud of that. Like, those illustrations that were around when I was a kid; like Ratfink and all that genre of art you know?
PC: That’s great news for Sullen, lol! I’ve seen a few people trying to mimic your style over the past few years.
DK: Yes, it comes with all that “good” stuff. There’s a guy who’s actually making a living with my designs right now… He has a t-shirt website and is using my designs! I saw that one day and I was like “That’s not me. That's some guys stealing my stuff!”
PC: So he just takes the designs and prints them on shirts and sells them as his own?
DK: YES! Check this out; I have a folder on my phone called “Grabs” and I have 281 photos on there of t-shirts with my art, or people who took my art and had it tattooed without talking to me first.
It's weird man, you know? In one way, I'm honoured. It's like, that's cool… those people are into the design that they found online, but I personally have never done it man. These are people coming to a shop and asking for someone else’s design to be tattooed on them…
PC: That’s WHACK indeed… Man, we could go on about this for hours eh? What’s next for you Don?
DK: I’m looking forward to getting guest artists coming in at the shop and well, life is good! I’ll keep growing it, but I don’t wanna be a 500-employee type… you know?
PC: Oh yes, I do… So good Don, and so humble! I’d love to thank you for sharing all that great stuff and for showing that anything is possible when you put your mind to it!
See you on the road!