Philip Holt - The Family Guy

Published: 23 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 195, February, 2011

As with any serious career path, Philip Holt’s path began with hurdles. Some of those hurdles were major and some of those hurdles were minor.

Some obstacles might have been big enough that they would knock you off track for a few years, maybe even set you on another road but that wasn’t the case with Philip Holt. If anything the big hurdles pushed him harder to make his mark on the world.

Phil had set his mind on being a tattooist from an early age. “Tattooing seemed to grab my attention when I was around thirteen and it seemed the obvious career choice,” he says, “Both my parents were actively pushing me towards a career in art, my mother being a career artist, but tattooing just felt right.” 

When Phil was sixteen he met Reid Daughtry, ten years older and “a friend of a friend”. Daughtry was already an established biomech tattooist and all through high school, Phil would spend his time eagerly watching Daughtry tattoo at his Tampa studio.  Eager as the young student was, it was only a year after he had been out of school, that Phil actually began using the information he had received from his teacher and started tattooing. “Reid Daughtry got me started on the path of being a tattooist and then within weeks of me actually making tattoos he passed away and the rest of the path was a solo mission.” A tough break by anyone’s standards but even more so with Daughtry and Phil having become such close friends.

Phil then made the decision to hit the road, travelling between studios, studying other tattooists and ultimately honing his craft. “I got married in 1998, when I was 21, and immediately had a son. At the time my wife and myself were living in Florida and our families were scattered around the US so travelling wasn‘t a problem. I started out working in Ohio during 1998 and then between 1999 and 2001 I was lucky enough to work at Deluxe Tattoo in Chicago with Ben Wah, Dennis Halbritter, Harlan Thompson and Tim Biedron. Then it was off on to San Jose to work with Adrian Lee, Adam Barton, Paco Excel, Ron Erhart and Matt Shamah at New Skool Tattoo.”

Finally, in 2003, after “dragging his wife and son around the globe for the last five years“ Phil decided to open his own studio and he returned to his hometown of Tampa to launch Redletter1. “When my second son was born my wife wanted to move back to Tampa. The plan was for us to move to Tampa and for me to travel back and forth between San Francisco to work with Grime and New York with Troy Denning. That lasted for a good couple of years and then my daughter was born and my travelling dropped off immensely.” 

Having four kids of my own, I veer off course for a few minutes and ask Phil what they think of their Dad being a tattooist. “They don’t even notice I make tattoos… they honestly don’t even care one bit. I could be a banker or work at the mall. They are far more impressed with books and lego, dolls and bouncy balls.”

I can fully understand and appreciate where Phil is coming from on this point. My kids are far more impressed that I can clock Super Mario Galaxy than the fact that I am a writer. But this is not a bad thing in some ways we joke, at least our kids keep us grounded. Carrying on, Phil quick to point out that having kids does make you look at life differently. “It changes my work habits by both making me work a ton, while at the same time forcing me to relax and go to the park. Just have fun and relax.”

With his parents initially trying to steer him more to a career in art than tattooing, I ask Phil what he would do if one of his kids wanted to be a tattooist. “I will encourage my children to do anything they want…so long as it’s an honest path!” I nod in silent agreement, wise words for any parent to follow.

Slowly our conversation heads back to Phil’s studio, Redletter1. “It was simply a private studio at first but it started to grow and then there were multiple tattooists working with me. At the moment it’s Jeff Srsic, Angelo Nales and Nick Stegall.” I interrupt Phil to ask him if he has an apprentice at the studio. “I do not have an apprentice nor will I. It’s too much responsibility. I don’t think others having an apprentice is good or bad, I supposed it all depends on how they handle it and since I’ve never had one I’d be arrogant to say I know exactly how it should be handled.”

I let Phil get back to talking about the studio. “So on top of this, I was also hosting month gallery exhibits and weekly figure drawing workshops. The travelling was quickly becoming less desirable. And I also really love Tampa and I enjoy being here so I started to travel less and less.”

This leads on to another passion of Phil's, painting, and I ask him whether he would rather be known for his art or his tattooing. “I couldn’t chose between tattooing and painting any more than I could say I prefer jujitsu to fishing as hobbies. One is not greater than the other as they serve different needs. Tattooing is more restrictive as the client has ultimate direction of the job. Painting has more freedom which in my opinion makes it far harder as one has to develop ones voice and then the subject matter requires more thought on the ground level. The canvas doesn’t tell you it wants a dragon, you have decide what the canvas needs for yourself.”

Phil’s answer is full of the duality that I see in him, it is as if there is a constant balancing act taking place. You only have to look at his style of tattooing and then his style of painting to see it and I reckon anyone would be hard pressed to say they were created by the same person. What makes Phil so good at what he does, his ability to separate aspects of his life that are inevitably combined.

Getting back on track, I ask Phil if tattooists and painting have always been linked or if this is a new trend developing. “It’s seems to me that it has always been the case. Ed Hardy was a painter, Sailor Jerry painted, Bob Wicks, Akamatsu...it doesn’t seem new to me.”

We move onto how tattooing is quickly making it’s mark on the mainstream arena. “I’ve always been amazed by tattoos and it makes sense to me that now, most people are catching on to the whole scene. The only problem is that, with the art moving into the mainstream, there follows a lot of bad tattooists. But it’s all subjective. I can look at some young scamp and think poorly of his art the same way Aaron Cain can think poorly of my biomech… Aaron is better period but I still have the right to do what I can and try hard don’t I?”

I find it hard to argue the point with Phil because, if I am honest with myself, his views are quite refreshing in an industry that can sometimes be elitist. “If people suck at what they do that only matters to them and their clients... it is not really my business. Plus some of my favourite people, who I find dear and genuine, are horrific tattooists. Sometimes I might tell them they suck but ultimately I’m blessed they do what they do even though they do it poorly. Does that make sense?” I nod a bit unsure so he adds, “If they were great financial analysts versus bad tattooists I wouldn’t even know them and therefore wouldn‘t benefit from their friendship!”

I ask Phil if he has a particular style he enjoys tattooing the most or that he feels he identifies with. “Reid, who got me started in tattooing, was mainly a biomech tattooist. This was back in 1993...he must have died in…oh I don’t know Jan 1997...so in general tattooing was much different in the mid nineties than it is now. But his work was brilliant. He was one of those guys that set the tone that tattooing was always custom. That I needed to draw and paint and for him it was all biomech. A big chunk of that is still there so I spend a lot of time doing biomech. I also enjoy Japanese style a lot, however I do not consider myself a traditional Japanese tattooist at all. Ultimately I try to accomplish whatever the client needs and do it as good as I can.”

This leads us, in a round about way to “bedside manner”. I mention a few tattooists I have been to that stick you down in the chair and get on with the job, all conversation being cut short. This cold, get on with business approach, it’s something I dislike in a tattooist as to me the banter, it is part of the whole experience…and it helps take your mind off the pain of a long sitting. Or as Phil puts it, “Bedside manner is huge, to say it is not, is simply arrogance. Each client is what gives us the opportunity to work and grow, the least we can do is be nice to them.” Phil pauses a second before adding, “Look, I‘m not saying that we need to do cartwheels and please their every wish but we can have fun and be pleasant with out being entertainment slaves.” And what of the ones who will make it difficult no matter how courteous you are, I ask?

“....of course there will always be exceptions as some people are impossible and those people? I let them get tattooed else where.”

Heading towards wrapping up the interview, I ask Phil how he unwinds, how he cuts loose. “How do I get wild? Ha...that is funny.” I am not sure why I have amused the man so much but all is revealed with his answer. “I read theological books and help out at church. I don’t drink anymore, haven’t been to a live band show in years...most of my time is spent tattooing and painting. Seriously! Is that wild enough?” I understand the funny side of it now. Like Joe Public and their preconceived ideas of tattooing and tattooists, I fell into the trap of expecting Phil to say he spends his time ripping up the streets on his custom built Harley or hitting the bars around Tampa with his tribe of inked up friends. What makes it worse, is that I should know better, what with being a father and also part of the tattoo industry. 

Feeling a little embarrassed, I let him continue. “I spend a lot of time with my kids and I do jujitsu when I can find the time. Maybe some fishing or kayaking but honestly, with four kids most of my “free” time is spent doing what a six-year-old wants to do. Jeez that sounds dull!” In the end, I am pleased with his answer, I think it suits Phil’s personae better. It makes him seem more real, less of a caricature.

Throughout the interview with Phil, I get the sense that he is “old soul“. Or maybe a “wise soul” would be a better way of putting it. He is quick to laugh or make a joke but the dedication and love of his craft always shines through. Though he takes his work seriously, he doesn’t take himself or the business too seriously. A good quality that is often lacking in people these days. I think if Reid Daughtry were around to see Phil now, he would be proud of this young kid he befriended all those years ago.

Old Gold

Not only is Philip an accomplished artist and tattooist, he has also entered the world of making colour ink pigments under his own brand - Old Gold.

“Basically I became tired of powder pigment companies switching their colours around. I got so discouraged with it all that I started mixing bulk pigments myself. All of it is handmade by me personally. I mix it exactly the same way that I have for the last eleven years, only now instead of making one gallon - I make a hundred gallons.” 

“So I mix all these pigments in small rock tumblers - dozens and dozens of them at a time, with each colour tumbler usually lasting for nine months.” 

And because Phil uses Old Gold himself, he is able to see first hand what works and what doesn’t work. “Tattooing with them day in and day out, I have come to hone in the exact consistency and flow that I like for my own use. To cook the pigment to the consistency I desire, I do not use isopropyl alcohol which is hard for the body to break down, instead I use Ketel One Vodka which is charcoal distilled and easily digested by the body. Another thing, my personal belief, is that Chinese pigments are cheap and sub par. I prefer to use the best of the best and is exactly what you’ll get in Old Gold.”
 

www.oldgoldsmallbatch.com

 

Terminator

Rising out of the ashes of the eighties, like the T-1000 cyborg in Terminator 2, the biomech style of tattooing was born, gaining popularity as it rode through the early nineties. We were living in a time when computer technology was expanding fast, artificial intelligence was the new buzz word and cyborgs, robots and androids were at the fore front of the media. It was a new future of half man, half machine and we all wanted in.

The biomech style suited this new era with it’s mixture of organic or biological parts with man made parts such as iron, steel or even alien made futuristic metals. Imaginations were sparked and the style caught on quickly.

Biomech had people sporting steel arm bones, seemingly bursting out of their flesh, cogs and wheels instead of joints and alien flesh pulled back to reveal a clockwork mechanism pulsating underneath. The future had been imagined and tattooists brought it to life.

The difference between a biomech tattoo and a brilliant biomech tattoo is in subtlety. Shading and 3-D effects, combined with perfect placement, produce an effect of synthesis - the tattoo doesn’t look like it is an added extra, it looks like it is part of the body.  It is visual trickery at it’s best when done right.

These days biomech is still huge. With cyber punk and graphic novels fuelling the fire, it’s never been bigger or better.

 

RedLetter1

1818 15th Street
Tampa
FL 33605
USA

Tel: 813.241.2435
www.redletter1.com

Credits

Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Philip Holt

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