Line and shade: artist remembers seventy years of work

Don Inman remembers flexing his muscles in his front yard to show off his first tattoo. He was just 4 years old. It was 1937, still in the midst of the Great Depression, during a time when only sailors and strippers had ink.

“My father gave it to me,” he said, pointing to a spot on his forearm: “This little blue dot right here.”

At the time, his father, Ted Inman, was tattooing out of his home. A few years later, Ted opened Ted’s Tattoo Studio at 554 Broad Street. It was the first tattoo studio to receive a business license in Georgia.

Don Inman started tattooing under his father’s tutelage and worked as a shop artist for almost a decade. The parlor moved to 6th Street, then to 700 Broad Street, the current location of the Metro Spirit offices. Finally, Ted settled the studio at 560 Broad Street, where it stayed until Don retired.

For 32 years after his father died, from 1971 to 1993, Don ran the parlor. He survived the peace signs of the ’60s and the pot leaves of the ’70s. He inked Metallica logos in the ’80s and tribal urges during the ’90s. Now he’s in his 70s and waiting for open-heart surgery. But in his 41 years of professional experience, he’s seen more changes in the body modification industry than anyone who’ll attend the Augusta Tattoo Expo this weekend — and more than almost anyone in America.

Giving a tour of the artwork in his neatly kept Lake Olmstead home, surrounded by black and white photos from his father’s studio and his detailed wood-burning work, he still speaks passionately about the art by which he raised a daughter and provided for his wife.

“I did anything if it made $10. Back then it was rough. Tattooing’s changed,” he said. “We had it rough so these boys could do it.”

Those $10 tats were called “pork chops,” said Chris Earl, owner of 1st Amendment Tattoo on 9th Street, because that’s how the artist ate. Anchors, eagles and all manner of military and patriotic symbols could be turned out quickly and cheaply within an hour.

They had to design anything they did on their own. With just four available colors and equipment less sophisticated than today’s tattoo machines, Ted Inman and his own mentor, Tom McClendon, set in stone the style and standards for the industry — long before it could even be considered an industry. In the process, they created some of the first “flash” (pre-designed) art that shops could reproduce.

Earl, who owns three studios in California and one here, doesn’t use much of the flash available.

“Even the flash [ready-made art] we have is not typical flash,” Jeffrey “Fro” Smith said. “There’s not a lot of butterflies and tribal stuff.”

Instead of flash books and posters, their walls are hung with awards for artistry and design, along with paintings and other artwork that they have created in their off time.

Jonathan Pitcher, 32, and Fro, 27, also practice their art at 1st Amendment Tattoo.

Inman said that the three men, Pitcher, Smith and Earl, represent what’s right about the industry these days: a clean shop with sterile equipment and artists with a dedication to their craft. 1st Amendment is a custom shop, which means don’t go in looking for Looney Tunes reprints. They create art.

Fro was already accomplished in drawing and watercolor when he saw the craft up close and thought: “I can do this!” So he apprenticed under Pitcher for two years.

Pitcher has been tattooing for 15 years and apprenticed under Randy Hammond. He was drawn to old-school influences like Guy Atchison, Paul Rogers and artists from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.

“The simplicity was attractive. It didn’t have to take a lot of work, but it could stand the test of time. I liked how solid it was,” he says. Now he likes to blend that old-school feel with a new-school style, a mix sometimes referred to as new-school traditional.

Old school was a parlor like Inman’s father had. Ted’s Tattoo Studio was a hangout for bikers, outlaws, pirates, criminals and sailors, none of whom have more than a haze of rebellious romanticism enveloping them. They may be lovable archetypes, but most people wouldn’t want them working in their kids’ day care class.

“People looked down on us like we were criminals,” Inman said, shaking his head.

Inman grew up in his father’s shop while his mother worked the cotton mills. Mill towns and tattoo parlors had a lot in common in those days: hardscrabble places where you had to fight for your place and your pride. Ted couldn’t — and wouldn’t — turn anyone away.

“When you devote yourself to people and show them that you care, they grow fond of you and spend their money with you,” Inman explained.

Don enlisted in the Navy during the Korean conflict and spent 44 months in the belly of a destroyer with only two guns, made it to petty officer second class and got busted back down for fighting a superior officer before he could even get his stripes sewn on.

When he got out, he said, he embraced life.

“Money never bought me happiness, but it bought a lot of mischief that I liked,” Inman laughed.

But his lifestyle strained his relationship with his mother. So his father put him to work in his studio. It taught him a craft and a business. It put money in his pocket. He labored there for nearly 20 years.

He took his father’s business after he died in 1971 and continued to treat people the same way his father treated them in the same storefront where he’d grown up. But it wasn’t the best time to work downtown.

In the white flight days of Augusta’s mall-driven suburban expansion, Broad Street and the surrounding neighborhoods became a haven for crimes and the people who committed them.

“Back in the ’70s, boy, it was bad in this town. You could walk in one of these joints, say ‘hello’ and get high. I bought many a meal for the working girls whose pimps mistreated them,” Inman nodded, describing the generous meat-and-three plates at Bank’s Cafe, owned by Bruno Ward. “I’ve seen them walk so much in flip-flops they had blisters. People like that — I feel sorry for them. You’re stepping on them.”

He tattooed military police and bikers in gangs for free as a security measure. They kept the soldiers and lone criminals in line when they acted up in his shop. Or worse. Inman still found himself in many a fist fight and, on more than one occasion, pulled his gun to scare folks away.

But with 65,000 soldiers let loose on the city, many old enough to die at war but too young to drink, Inman said business was good.

“Every day is tattoo day to a military man,” he laughed. Adding to that number was the fact that tattoo parlors weren’t allowed in South Carolina, and his shop sat practically on the state line.

He weathered a legal challenge by politicians such as former State Senator Nadine Thomas in the early ’90s, shortly before he closed up shop for good. Former State Senator Jack Connell once told him, “Boy, you got moxy.” Inman shot back, “That ain’t some kind of disease, is it?”

Over the years, he made friends of customers and customers of friends. He dealt with people straight. He never lied.Designs of his are displayed in a tattoo museum in California.

Inman fought a growing number of competitors in various creative ways. He said that even as he competed for market share, the number of shops in the area indicated to him a growing acceptance of the art form he worked for decades to perfect.

While it isn’t yet widely recognized as a fine art form, today the market demographics for tattoo services are skewed away from the fringes of society and towards middle-class suburban women. The American Academy of Dermatology reported in 2006 that 24 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have a tattoo. That’s almost one-in-four U.S. residents.

Tattooing is the sixth-fastest-growing retail business sector, and it’s been a long time since Inman could say he was the only shop on the strip.

In fact, in the short time that Fro has been at his trade, he said that he has seen tattooing wedge its way deeper into the mainstream culture — and that is a trend he anticipates will continue into the future.

“I do my friends’ grandmas more often than you can imagine. I’ve done four generations back to back to back,” Fro said.

Most artists will hesitate to select a piece as their favorite work, but one simple tattoo is very memorable to Fro. “It’s not anything crazy. There’s a poem on my father’s tombstone, and I tattooed that on my younger brother’s arm.”

But unlike Fro’s emotional connection to his craft, some of the shops have turnover so high that Inman suspects the staff haven’t taken the time to learn the craft or perfect their art.

Inman says they’re plying a kind of paint-by-numbers parade in and out of their parlors.

“I wouldn’t go down there and get my cat tattooed,” Inman said.

Yet others, like Chip Vickers at Twilight and Chris French at A Dermographic Production, along with the folks at 1st Amendment, are so good it hurts him that he can’t keep up.

The rise of digital also gave him a hard time. Some of the newer artists have training in graphic arts that allows them to design and modify their designs faster and — with the improved equipment and inks available — better than old-timers like him.

But his name is the first on Earl’s lips when he talks about artists who inspire him, and he doesn’t take the term “artist” lightly. None of the folks at 1st Amendment do. For this reason, Chris Earl at 1st Amendment founded the Augusta Tattoo Expo last year to promote the perception of tattooing as a fine art. And judging by the response that he said came from the art gallery owners in the area who contacted him to thank him, he thinks he’s succeeding.

“There’s no more pure form of artwork than tattooing because there’s no room for mistakes. It’s permanent,” he said. Painters dilute their pigments with thinner to erase mistakes or simply paint over them. Pen-and-ink artists toss out their work — it’s only paper. Tattoos don’t come off.

But if you speak to printmakers about their work, you’ll find they use terms to describe their art that are similar to those of tattoo artists. The foundation of wood-block printing is perfection of color and line, along with the ability to truly visualize the process from beginning to end. The techniques and in many cases the results between the two art forms are comparable.

The foundation of tattoo art might be considered similar to children’s stamp kits: strong perimeter lines and an interior filled with extreme color separation. But the new materials and training for modern tattooing’s true artists comes closer to the expertise of the Japanese Edo Period of printmaking.

And, according to Earl, that’s because their dedication to craft is also comparable: “Most of these guys draw constantly,” he said. That kind of practice is what brought them an award at a California tattoo expo last year for best portrait work.

But they also have better knowledge about how to run the mundane aspects of the business, such as how to keep a sterile environment and how different techniques affect different types of skin. Skin types high in melanin are prone to extreme scarring, for example, and have to be handled with care.

“You have to know what a dentist knows,” Pitcher explained.

And with that knowledge, hope the artists, comes legitimacy. But they’re not there yet.

“Sometimes people see me with my wife and kids and think ‘What is he doing with a kid?’” Pitcher said.

His experiences lead him to believe that Augusta might be a tad more conservative than some other places, such as California, but he says things are slowly getting better, and that he and his colleagues should look at each person as a walking billboard for the industry.

It’s been a long time since Inman flexed his nonexistent muscles in his front yard for his friend, ready to fight because his tattoo made him tough. Much has changed, and is still changing. Whereas he had to fight for every dollar he made, great artists with good reputations can make up to $300 an hour.

A good friend of Inman worked the carnival sideshow route with his wife as “the tattooed lady.” These days, those ladies are more likely to live the good life alongside characters like Kat Von D on television shows like “LA Ink.”

“Now you’re somebody ‘cause I’m Kobe Bryant. I play for the Lakers,” Inman crowed. “See what I’m saying? It’s the same damn tattooing. But now it’s accepted by the millionaires.”

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