Jason McMillan Talks Tattooing Philosophies, Self-Awareness...and Tattoos Of Course...Part Two
Point to Point takes you behind the needle to share the personal journeys of tattoo artists like you. Drawing inspiration, spreading respect and love… We continue our talk with tattooer, philosopher Jason McMillan.
PC: Welcome back Jason! The conversation was getting so intense we felt we should keep it going...
I’ve been lurking on your social media channels while researching for this interview, and right away I noticed those new amazing backpieces you drew! I totally share the love for those... You know, I’ve been working in the tattoo supply business for many years, and one time when I worked for <BLEEP>, I went to China to visit all the manufacturers over there and stuff. While I was there, I also went to the Beijing Convention and there was one dude, man, he had seven buddies standing side by side like a full portfolio of his work in front of his booth. I was like, OH MY GAWD, that's when I wanted to have a back-piece...
JMc: Thank you, and the first question I have when this scenario happens is; Do you want it to end at your waist or do you want it to end at the back of your knees? You know what I mean?
PC: LOL! Definitely.
JMc: When you say that to someone, you see them just look confused. Then you take a piece of paper and say, “Okay, if I was to do your dragon on your back, that's how big it would be. Now, if I do a really true backpiece down to the back of your knees, this is how it's gonna be, and you see them look at the tattoo and you show that they're both backpieces but one is double the size, you know? I think about that.
If you have something that’s double the size, imagine how much more you can put into it. Imagine how much more dynamic positioning you can apply to it. I've had luck with the majority of backpieces in that they are started. People would go home and think about it and then they send me a message and go, “Hey, I want to get a bigger backpiece...”
PC: Man, that's the first thing I said when I had mine started. I was like “No, man, it has to go all the way to below the butt.” Hah!
JMc: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It adds an infinite amount of detail, and you can do so much more with the composition once you treat it like it's a piece of paper, you know? If you have a square piece of paper versus if you have a more narrow piece of paper. On that more narrow one you can do a lot more and have more of an interesting composition, where if something is more of a squarish shape you're much, much, much more limited. Philip Leu said this, and it should be everyone's mantra, “Simple is the opposite of easy.”
PC: I know what you mean. It’s the same in graphics and marketing, lol. I'm looking at one of the tattoos on your instagram page, the fangs. You did plastic fangs... simple yet your very much nailed it!
JMc: I love the minimal palette, man. I just use a few colors and then just vectorize. Man, I tell you, you don't even need to shade it at times, lol... Pull that red out and have it fade...I’m like NO, just end the red background, just end it! I Have a tattoo on my arm where the guy did that. That was the first time I saw that he did like a dark green next to a yellowish green, and he just ended the shading. Then he put the color right beside it. He didn't fan and order anything and I just sat there looking at my forearm. I'm going, this is fucking brilliant, you know?
PC: Nice man. I'm looking at your gorilla here with a lady on top, really good color packing!
JMc: Oh, yeah. Thank you. My mentality towards just packing color and having things solid, is that it's still difficult. Like, you still have to apply yourself to it, it doesn't just happen you know? You still have to work and think about what you're doing and not overly traumatized the skin, all that stuff.
I always remember what it was like when someone would pull their sleeve up or pull their pants down to show you the tattoo they got from whoever and it was solid on. That motherfucker blasted that in there and it's like, THAT’s what I want my tattoos to be like. I want people to say, “Oh, I got tattooed by Jason” and then they pull their sleeve up and everyone's like “Holy fuck!”
That's what I want. I don't want people to look at and go, “Yeah, this tattoo needs a touch up”, you know, but, hey, that happens sometimes too. It's not the end of the world. It's like you just wanna have that effect when somebody sees your tattoo, they're like, “Man, that guy put it in there like there’s no tomorrow!”
PC: It doesn’t look like you're traumatizing skin too much at all. I know, as having very, very thin skin, I have to tell artists to be gentle, lol. Sometimes I got tattooed and the healing went well, and other times not so much...
JMc: Exactly. It's basically what tattooing apprenticeships are about, you know? You apprentice so you don't have to learn from your mistakes all the time. Every tattoo is and will be different. The skin pigmentation level is different etc.
The big secret too, is that a lot of what you’ll learn and what you’ll do in the future is going to be based on feel. It's not gonna be based on something that you can write down and tell people it's going to be based on. This is how I do it, and it's just how I do it and it's how it works. I've met so many people whose shades of gray look just like a computer generated them and you say, “How do you do that?” and they go, “I don't know. I just do it like this. This is just how I do it.” Like, you could look at it, you can study it, you can try and do it like they do, but they just have a way of doing it.
PC: So basically, you’re saying it comes to you in a certain way because you do it, you take action and then you apply it and THEN you see what's going on... Hmmm interesting!
JMc: The most important thing that I attribute that to, is being in a smaller city. You tattoo a lot of the same people and you see a lot of your tattoos healed. That’s priceless. I’ve worked in tourist parts of cities and never saw those tattoos healed. I never ever learned a thing until I started tattooing people and seeing those healed tattoos...Six weeks later, six months later, two years later, five years later and being like, okay, I was on to something there, or THAT tattoo healed ok.... I would have a field notebook and I’d write in it. I don't know how this is going to heal, so I would write down - okay, I used the nine liner. I used THIS machine. I used THIS golden yellow. I used this, I used that and the client comes back in and I go, “Man, that healed really well or that healed kind of poorly. What did I use on it? It's just a way to reference and not make the same mistakes and also like, be critical, you know? You have all the information.
It's pretty shitty when someone comes in and the tattoo maybe looks like it’s a little bit lacking, and you have no idea why it looks lacking. You don't know what you did. You don't know what you used. You don't know what that person did. You don't know if they’re healthy, if they don't drink enough water, if their tattoo took six months to heal probably because all they do is smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. You need to be forward-thinking. That's the whole part of the obsessive nature of tattooing. If this shit doesn't matter to you enough for you to think that way, you're not going to be doing the best possible tattoos for your career.
PC: I get it. I hear you talking and I can feel the passion.
JMc: Man, I love this shit. All I’ve ever wanted was to be able to make tattoos and be able to have people that want to get them, you know? That's all I’ve wanted for the last ten years, fifteen years, you know what I mean? It’s awesome, like, Dude, I'm opening a fucking shop! I can't even believe I got a fucking lease. Signed. I’ve got a shop, I’ve got a fucking name. I’ve got it all, man.
I was just into a podcast today where the guy was talking about how he was ten years in and he was about to open a shop. It was so profound because he's like, “Dude, I've been tattooing for ten fucking years. I'm opening a shop”, and I thought to myself, how many people don't get to say that because their egos are too fucking huge or whack. They tested me for two years. I'm opening a fucking shop. That attachment for two fucking years. You're opening a shop. What the fuck??
PC: I guess that’s the problem with some people right? You know, some people are like, “Oh, shit. You know, I'm good enough.” Uh, I don't know how they got raised, but they want everything, and right now...
JMc: ...And why am I different? Why are clients are giving me or anybody else money every month? Why am I giving this guy or girl a cut when they work at a shop? Because, you know, that's what you need to do.
I heard it from the fucking beginning where these higher up tattooers were like, “You know what? Until you've been tattooing for five years, you don't know fucking shit.” Then when I’d been tattooing for five years, I heard guys say “Until you've been tattooing for TEN years, you don't know shit....”, and you know what, I couldn't agree more.
I had a chip on my shoulder, you know, because it's like I'm sitting there going, I’ve got an ego. Oh, man, I'm only a five-year tattooer, what the fuck? They don't know. Then you tattoo for ten years, and you're like, man, the last ten years I've done a lot of fucking around. Time to get to work, you know? There's always something you should be focused on.
PC: Yeah, and learning. Everything is about learning. I love to learn anything and I believe you learn things the same way. You would be passionate about anything if you do it, and if you do something, you gotta be in it.
JMc: I can remember listening to a podcast when podcasts were barely even a thing, and I was listening to a tattoo one where they were talking about how to shade. How to get that effect. The guy must have forgotten they were doing a podcast and was just like, ”Oh, yeah, you know, you just run the machine like this, and you put the needle like that and blah, blah, blah....”, and I thought to myself, and this was before the whole stippling thing blew up where everyone does stippling in their own way, like, when there were a few guys that were out there doing it. I remember sitting there, and I got that information, and now I like to think back on that, and HOW I got that information.
Like ten years ago, how many people do you think were tattooing for one or two years, and just figuring it out along the way, you know what I mean? A lot of people were just like, doing the tattoo then that was it. Like, who's going home and listening to podcasts about tattooing to learn stuff?
I like to give, to share, because you know, that's what matters. If I can't do that, then I've missed an opportunity to really help out, you know?
PC: Impressive. I like your take on this stuff. Some people are like chronically: Oh, fuck, I have to do this. I have to do that. Have to have to... you know!?
JMc: I totally do! Have you looked at your schedule and you’re like bombed out and hey, sometimes it happens, you're like, man, I gotta tattoo this again or “Fuck, I’ve got to do this cover up, and I fucking hate to do cover ups”... Over time, everyone should develop a system where you understand how you're gonna feel when you're looking at the schedule or your next tattoo and you're looking down the barrel of the tattoo, you know?
You're not excited? So, like, maybe you don't book those tattoos that day... and that's tough because for some people that's the difference between putting food on the table for their family or not.
If tattooing becomes something where you know it's a drag, then you can find a bunch of other jobs that pay more and don't depend on you being stoked to give people a good experience. You know, go be a fucking pipe fitter... You can’t complain about getting to draw everyday, as hard as it may be, especially when you're blessed with that clear contrast.
If you had a life before tattooing and I don't mean, like, had an entire life but you know, if you washed dishes or if you had to do some kind of physical labor, like me in the past Dude, when I was in high school until I started tattooing, in the first two years of tattooing, I was working at Red Lobster. I was in the back there, working forty hours a week and I was working thirty hours at the shop apprenticing. You know, I'm scrubbing dishes, I was doing all kinds of shit. Dude that fucking sucked.....
PC: I hear you loud and clear man. A younger me would have definitely done soul searching in the matter of employment, lol.
JMc: Getting a tattoo to me is just like you're buying a fucking Gucci belt. When the client treats him or herself to a tattoo, it can be the same feeling you know? I always say to people, “Look, man, if you're really concerned about tipping, like if you think you're tipping too little or whatever, put the money towards your next tattoo. I want to see you again many times!” The shitty thing then, is that tattooer ends up tattooing him again and having this negative idea of that person because they're like, “Oh, they never tipped me last time.” Like I'm not going to give them the full service because they never tipped me last time. Are you fucking kidding me man?
You know what tattooing comes from, and now the industry is filled with these, like, over privileged, snobby folks that don't want to accommodate. They just want to show up and be fucking celebrated. Like, man, you really need to crack open a fucking book or listen to a Lyle Tuttle interview or Ed Hardy or one of these guys and find out what the fuck is up, you know? Oh, yeah, yeah. Go mention it to any of these guys who’ve been tattooing for you know, twenty-five, thirty-five years or something like that. Ask them what it was like then, and ask them if they haven't complained that a guy didn't tip them or whatever. They were lucky to do a fucking tattoo at certain times, you know? Now you've got these people that are acting like they deserve the world.
PC: That’s a very good point. I rarely tip with money, but I sure accommodate with drinks or something else... This is how good times and great relationships happen...
JMc: I hear you and agree. I couldn't imagine any other life, I really couldn't and you know what, maybe there could potentially be something else that I would be just as passionate about. I'm a pretty obsessive guy. Like, anything that I get into, I get into it or I couldn't give much of what can exist or not when I'm in the zone! I don't think there's anything that I could’ve gotten into and worked at, which makes it much more fulfilling in all kinds of different ways, you know?
PC: Definitely. I have a hard time not going 500% on something and it's amazing! I don't know how long or how many hours I’ve talked with passionate people about machines, grips and things. Often I get right onto it, I don't know why. I’ve never asked myself, never looked back...
JMc: Yeah, yeah and I've had conversations about this with other tattooers because, you know, there are some other tattooers that are just as passionate as us and give a shit.
I probably have more machines than most. I've gotten rid of quite a few, but I think I have maybe like, fifty-something. I've had a lot. I've had a lot more, but let me tell you one thing, if you know anyone who's seen the collection of shit I have, I don't know if anyone has a better collection around here. Listen, I have a Rollomatic from Mike Malone that I got a month before he passed away and few other real cool ones.
I have a Scott Sterling liner and shader set from the early nineties. He said that the liner was probably only one of six built. It was built at the China Sea. I have two Aaron Cain carved double-spirals. I have an Aaron Cain “Big & Little G”, the only carved set in existence. I don't have a lot of old stuff like Paul Rogers machines. Those machine go for $5k easy. I don't have that but I have some of the nicer shit out there, I’d say.
PC: WOW man, this is a good hobby and life… I always mix the two. I had a co-worker once that told me, you need to get a hobby Buddy. Lol, I was like, man this is all of it!!
JMc: You’re right. It’s like everything, your work, this is your hobby, right? Like, it's YOU. If you're interested in tattooing you gotta take it all in! In ten years I’ve never been bored, not once, I swear to God man. Once I started really focusing on tattooing, there's no time to be bored, you know? A piece of paper, give me a fucking piece of paper and I'm off to the races man. I'm focused on something.
PC: How can you complain when you make doodles for living?
JMc: Exactly, LOL!
PC: You mentioned that. It’s true and I've seen that happen. There's people well, before this pandemic, who are travellers. A guy I know named El_fibs was just that ...If you know him check him out! Very different from what you do but worth the lurk, but you're gonna be staying close to home eh?
JMc: That's it. I'm done for now. Haha, not so much traveling anytime soon eh, but it’s for a good cause! That brings me to what’s next for me! A bit more of a public announcement too, I been thinking and life got me this opportunity that I’m taking very seriously.... my new shop: Mr. Tattoo
PC: YESSSS is it public now?? This makes me think of all the travel and conventions.... I’ll come see you and get a little banger as soon as we can!!
JMc: Yeah, man, for sure! I think this shop's gonna be awesome man. It's gonna be very like, I'm not half into this at all, it's gonna be the quintessential tattoo shop in the area.
It's gonna be the shop that people know about in the area, you know? It's gonna have the aesthetic. It's gonna have you know that it's gonna be THE tattoo shop. Like, I look around at what people do and you know, a lot of people do a lot of corny shit when it comes to opening a tattoo shop. This place is going to be like proper, you know?
PC: I’ve seen pictures popping up, cant wait man! Congrats - All the best!!!
Follow Jason McMillan on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mcmillantattoo