Aaron Bell - Slave to the Needle

Published: 25 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 190, September, 2010

After two years as an apprentice at 65th Street Tattoo in Seattle, Aaron Bell was surprisingly left a studio for next to nothing. He renamed it Slave to the Needle and 15 years later it’s still at the same address in a neighbourhood that’s gone from bad to good. 

After a decade of tattooing out of his house in Anaheim, California, Aaron Bell got a chance to tattoo for real, at 65th Street Tattoo in Seattle, Washington, and he took it. In 1993 he moved north to ‘clean up his act’, as he puts it himself. Unfortunately he ended up working in what then was one of the worst neighbourhoods in Seattle.

“When I first got there we were always strapped and it was consistent with the lifestyle I grew up with. Every time a bike drove by, the owner would grab his shot gun and stand in the doorway to see who it was. There were people selling crack outside the bars and we had a couple of drive-bys. Since we also had the AA there, we used to joke about this being the only place where you could get drunk, shoot someone and then turn yourself around. But I put up with it because I got a chance to tattoo.”

Just two years later Aaron took over the shop.

“My boss got transferred to a different chapter of his bike club, so he sold it to me for next to nothing, and I changed the name to Slave to the Needle.”

Today everything’s different. The studio is still in the same spot, but around the same time that Aaron took over the shop, the area was in transition. That transformation is now complete and instead the area is considered trendy.

“The yuppies started moving in, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The clientele used to be really seedy but it was also a lot of fun. I’ve got to admit that. The bars became microbreweries and the shop 65th Street Guns is now an espresso stand. Business couldn’t be better, but again, it’s not quite as fun.”

And in a way, Aaron considers himself lucky to have experienced all this, because in the process he’s learned some valuable lessons.

“The guy who taught me had learned how to tattoo in San Quentin and the way I was exposed to it, I learned some important work ethics a lot of people don’t know about. For instance, you don’t automatically tattoo what people want because they might not know what it means.”

Aaron Bell started tattooing out of his house in Anaheim in 1984, where he grew up in the punk rock scene. For 15 years he played rhythm guitar in bands like Convicted and Blind Hatred and he came close to releasing an album, but after a while tattooing took over.

“We actually recorded an album, but it was never released. Then my wife got pregnant and I bought the shop, so I had to choose my creative outlet.”

In the end, Aaron never got to tour with a band, however, in tattooing he found something he was looking for as a band member.

“I got to go to conventions and there are people who come from far away just to get tattooed by me and see my art, so I get that same appreciation I wanted being in a band.”

Besides tattooing and playing punk rock he also had some loose jobs on the way, and one of them actually brought him to Seattle.

“I did some screen printing out of my garage, so I was designing and printing some t-shirts for the owner of the studio in Seattle.”

When Aaron first started off, his style of tattooing came from the punk rock scene. In other words, he did a lot of skulls. After having moved to Seattle, the bike world came in as an influence. When he bought the shop he was suddenly left on his own to explore his own style.

“I had no teacher anymore and new school was coming out so I jumped on that. I did a lot of atrocious stuff while experimenting, although staying in one place allowed me to follow up my work. Around 2000 I found myself more drawn to the oriental style, and that’s mainly what I do today. I like to work in large scale and I like the fact that it has hundreds of years of history.”

Ten years after having purchased the first shop Aaron got the opportunity to buy a second one in Seattle, and so he did.

“We used to turn people away at the door and refer them to other shops, so I thought why not just refer them to ourselves instead?” 

Suddenly he was a work leader governing two Seattle shops featuring 15 artists:

“When I bought the shop I had only been tattooing for real for a couple of years and coming out of the hardcore scene it was a complex situation. There we solved stuff by fighting, but now we had to work things out. In the beginning I held in a lot. There was a lot of anxiety. But now I know that communication is important.”

Aaron has also learned a screening process when it comes to hiring artists for his studios.

“I used to hire them only based on their work. I wouldn’t check references. There are a lot of prima donnas out there and if they don’t leave the last place with a blessing, there’s a big chance they will recreate their past. Nowadays we have people doing guest spots first to make sure it works for both sides.”


Slave to the Needle

508 W 65th Street


WA 98117


+1 206 789 2618




Skin Deep 190 21 September 2010 190