Against the grain

Published: 01 November, 2007 - Featured in Skin Deep 153, December, 2007

Melbourne. Probably the first thing that comes to mind is Australia, but there is a city on East Florida’s Space Coast that bears the same name. In 1969 the cities of Eau Gallie and Melbourne voted to merge, forming modern day Melbourne. On the corner of Eau Gallie Boulevard and Cypress Avenue sits a little old wooden building, with a front porch. Welcome to Against The Grain Tattoo… Opened in 2002 by Wes Diffie and Lisa Murphy, Against The Grain also has a third artist in Bryant Mickler. Skin Deep caught up with them to hear how ATG came about…



I was first inspired to tattoo when a friend offered me a tattoo. He was apprenticing and needed ‘guinea pigs’. Well, me not knowing what I was in for said ‘Hell yeah!’ There was no turning back from that point on; it was 2 days before my 20th birthday. I think I got a tattoo per week for about 3 months, till he said he wouldn’t work on me for free anymore!

I started tattooing in September “94 in Phoenix Arizona, I had been getting tattooed at another shop but they wouldn’t apprentice me unless I paid them like $10,000, but I lucked out – a tattooist I knew needed a place to stay so I helped him out and got a foot in the door…

Is an apprenticeship is the best way to learn the business?

Absolutely! Apprenticeships are important; it’s not just learning how to tattoo that is important, it’s learning to respect tattooing! Anyway, I stayed there for about six months and then moved to a place called “Stylin’ Tattoos”. I apprenticed there for around 8 months until I got an offer to do a guest spot in New Jersey.

So was that the start of your travels?

Yes, I guested in N.J in Wildwood, on the Boardwalk on 24th St. working a couple of summers there and coming home in between. I worked at another studio in Tempe, Arizona, at a place called Club Tattoo. I had been working for about 5 or 6 years when I got a spot at Deano Cook’s Psycho Tattoo. They had a couple of locations; I worked in one then got the opportunity to work in the one that Bryant was in. We hit it off instantly; it was a riot working with him and I am glad he’s on board with us here.

How did you get the gig at Psycho Tattoo?

I sent out a lot of resumes/portfolios to good shops, I got a list from the APT - I formatted them like I was applying for IBM or something! I was there for about 3 years and I learnt a lot. Then the situation came about where I was in a position to open my own place with Lisa so we headed to Florida. I had worked for Paul Ren in Thinker Tattoo in Melbourne. I talked with him when we were thinking of opening here and he gave me the green light so we opened ATG.

Other places have opened since then, and some without the courtesy of letting us know. I mean, it’s not the old school anymore but a bit of common respect would work wonders…

What was the building before you took it on?

It was a telecommunications place; it’s been a whole lot of things, daycare and so on. It was built in 1928. When we got the keys from the realtor there was a skeleton key that fitted the front door – Lisa and I have it tattooed – guess that’s how I remember the date!

It’s a very distinctive name you chose – how did it come about?

The name was a positive thing from a negative time. I like that it stands out, some people are like ‘Against the Grain – that sounds painful!’ and a lot of times they ask if we are Bad Religion fans (it’s one of their albums)…We didn’t know!

We have to ask, because in world terms it’s only up the road, how have Tattoo reality shows like Miami Ink affected your business?

Oh they have helped; a lot of people are less apprehensive about getting custom work, but I would also say that it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand you have good artists seeing what can be done with needles on skin and may be looking for another medium to work in which is good; with them in the industry, ups the bar on what good tattooing is. On the other hand, you have a lot of lazy people that don’t want to work, seeing folks sitting around just drawing for loot.

How was your first convention?

Inkslingers Ball, 95 in L.A – Gil Montie’s show, it was HUGE! I pretty much kept my head down and eyes and ears opened. Not letting them know I was there. Kinda like a Navy Seal, ya know? And I fried 2 power supplies! I worked shows continuously after that, one every couple of months, but I am cutting back now.

When you opened ATG was there any style that people came to you for?

Not really, as we had been pushing the custom stuff since day one. We do have a rack of flash out front but we deliberately filled it full of fun stuff to do and it’s a great starting point for some. I’m really into Japanese imagery, but like Shige is working it now, trying to pull those images into our realistic world with more depth and light dynamics.

Do you feel that tattoos are becoming more socially acceptable these days?

Most major cities are pretty easy going. It’s when you get off the beaten path that you start to run into the people that give you the glares and rude, dumb comments. Like when I went into a restaurant and the girl behind the counter, after staring at me for a good 3 solid minutes asks me, ‘Do you cover them things up when you have to go to a funeral?’ Argh! I swear stupidity will kill this world.

In the age of pre-made needles and better equipment, how do you feel about kids trying to get into tattooing now?

I sometimes think it’s a fucking joke, that’s why I haven’t had an apprentice here because they don’t want to do half the work it takes for me to even consider them. Some come in asking for a job and I‘m like ‘Do you draw? Are these your best?’

I tell them to go home and draw. And draw and draw… And then come back to me. I haven’t had one kid back yet. People need to quit being so lazy and stop acting like rock stars because there’s two TV shows on it. My advice would be ‘Don’t believe what you see on TV, they only show you the good side of this industry’.

So how does a tattoo artist near a beach in Florida relax?

I try to hang out with my 2 teenagers (I know that doesn’t sound that relaxing!) I do a lot of scuba diving, motorcycle riding, and painting.

Would you like to add anything else?

I’d just like to thank every single person that has allowed me to put any mark on his or her skin. Thank you very much. With out you, I wouldn’t be a tattoo artist; I’d only be a starving artist. I’d also like to thank all of my old bosses for giving me a place to learn my craft. And I have the most supportive girl anyone could have. She has helped me with my life and my art. Thank you Lisa.

When I met Wes I was waitressing at the time and getting ready to go back to art school. I wasn’t really sure about what I wanted to do; I had been tattooed already but didn’t understand the potential of tattooing. After a while I thought, maybe this is something I could do – so I started drawing for it until Wes said he would teach me. He taught me a lot, starting with how to make needles. We traveled a lot but I wanted a shop apprenticeship, I didn’t want to learn at home and tattoo people from my kitchen. So I waited. It took about 3 years.

Wes worked for a few different people during this time, no one would let me apprentice because we were a couple and ‘couples can’t work together’. So I drew a lot and I waitressed a lot. I got a set of flash together and Wes took them to a convention. He ran into Tony Olivias whilst selling the flash – Tony thought I was already apprenticing and tattooing. He asked Wes if I was working with him (Wes was at Psycho at the time) and Wes told him I wasn’t; I wanted to but no one would take me on. Tony put the flash down and said, “Tell her to come and see me”.   

I started with Tony when he was opening a new shop and being the apprentice I helped from the ground up. I did dry wall, laid tiles and did demolition – and my apprentice duties of needle making and sterilizing. It was a great learning experience and when it came to opening my own shop I already knew how to do these things. I really appreciate what he did for me, without him I wouldn’t have been tattooing until I opened my own place – I would have been the apprentice in my own studio! So I consider that I did half my apprenticeship with Wes and half with Tony.

I tattooed at Sacred Heart until we moved to Florida and we opened ATG. In between leaving Atlanta and opening the studio I didn’t tattoo for 4 months and I was so nervous, I felt like I was going to have to relearn everything again! But it worked out good and I always had Wes to fall back on.

How long did it take for ATG to take off?

Until we didn’t need to worry about money every minute! Yeah, the first 2 years were really hard; we were working all the time, balls to the wall. There were no female artists around so that was a help. I hear some women bitching, saying it was hard for them and they aren’t accepted. To me it has always been a benefit, I can lay down a good tattoo and for some people it’s a novelty to be tattooed by a woman. I have gotten a lot of business out of it, so I am certainly not complaining. Yes, the first few years were really hard but I loved every minute because we were doing it for ourselves.

How did you find the building?

It needed a lot of love (and dollars!) put into it! We looked at a lot of other properties and the ones we wanted wouldn’t let us in because we were a tattoo shop and the ones who did want us were in bad locations. So we came back to this place, signed up and it took 3 months of very hard work to get it ready to open. We had a lot of help from our very good friends here who pitched in on their days off – it really was a labor of love!    

It’s a great place; I tell people it’s like coming to your Grandma’s house, except with cool art on the walls instead of wooden spoons
and bad crochet!

Speaking of cool art, do you think people’s perceptions and acceptance of tattoos are changing?

In the U.S. it’s becoming commonplace everywhere. Yeah, we still get stupid questions and disapproving looks from time to time, but that only bothers you if you give a shit what other people think, and I don’t. And when I was in Ireland, I don’t know if I was just so excited to be there or what, but I never felt anyone was being rude or disrespectful. As a matter of fact, I’ve never felt more welcome anywhere else I have gone. I worked there with Janine Ashton of Triskele Tattoos in Enniskillen. It seemed to me that people were just starting to come around to the things we were already doing here. But from what I see in the European magazines, tattooing is truly having a renaissance overseas. The work coming out now is absolutely beautiful and inspiring.

How long were you open before you started taking guest artists?

We had guest artists pretty early on, and it was mostly friends who wanted a vacation. So they understood that because it was early days that it may be a little slow but we worked through it. A lot of our guest artists have returned time and time again, which is great; if we are going to spend time around other artists then it’s great when it’s people whose company we enjoy.

With all the reality shows and the rise in popularity, the tattoo business is really buoyant and mainstream at the minute – do you think that’s here to stay?

Yes I do - it’s going to fluctuate but that’s up to us. We do what we have to do. I’m not gong to turn someone down because they don’t want some big tricked out piece, we are providing a service and in as much as I love to create a custom piece, if someone wants something ‘as is’ that’s their choice. We all have bills to pay after all, its not only an art form, it’s a trade and you have to be a good tradesman. Also, now that we’re so mainstream, everybody wants a piece of it.

Is there anyone you would to acknowledge for their help in your career?

Tony Olivas for giving me a start in this business when no one else would and for teaching me how to get a shop up and running. Wes for having enough faith in me to teach me to tattoo in the first place. Our clients who have handed out cards and talked up a storm about our shop to anyone they could. And the people that work with us who make it so enjoyable to work every day with them. Our artist Bryant, who’s old and crazy but makes me laugh every time I work with him. And our piercer Stephanie, who’s young and crazy, for being so committed to our shop.

I have been tattooing professionally for 14 years, I got into it from some bikers. I was getting tattooed and started off like everyone else, thinking I just wanted one. I had no intentions of being a tattoo artist but I got in with a bunch of guys who saw the resurgence in popularity then and I worked back and forth in Georgia and Florida for some time. I consider myself half apprenticed and half self-taught!

How did you end up here?

I had worked with Wes in Atlanta. I worked at Psycho for about 8 years, but I just grew tired of what the city was becoming for me; I was getting older and slowing down a little! I was born and raised in Florida so I decided to come home. I had no intention of working for Wes; it was a fluke. I was just calling by to see Wes and Lisa and it just so happened at that time their full time artist was moving state. They were just about to start advertising, it was like, “You want to come work by the beach? When can you get here?”

What did you pick up from your time at Psycho?

It was a good environment, I managed the 2nd shop (there are 3 shops) and I got as far as I could. The criteria for hiring were really high – sometimes we would take a year to fill a spot, the Psycho name had notoriety.

You’re not just dropping names then…?!

Sure! Name-droppin is where it’s at!! I mean if you’ve got the stamina to get out there and put your name out and about and then back it up by constantly staying in the limelight it really pays off. I don’t mind saying I coat tailed in and I’ll tell them where I came from and what I had to do to stay there, simply by association. By contrast, I have also worked at some places where you have had to mutter the name under your breath!!

Tattoo-wise, what’s your bag?

I like it all. I’ll do a toe daisy and a back piece all in one day! What’s more important to me is the relationship I have with the client, that’s all that matters when it comes down to it. I am in it for the long haul; being a rock star is out of the question for me now!

Last time – we promise! What’s your take on the reality shows?

I think it’s excellent; it may be something to throw rocks at, but take an objective viewpoint. Hell, it’s like someone in the police force watching an episode of Cops and going “This is bullshit!”…

But it has reached people who normally would have just romanced the idea of getting a tattoo. It’s given them the fervor to go to a studio and go and explore it. I love this business, listening to peoples stories, running into some really entertaining characters – those are the things you keep for the rest of your life, and at the same time make someone happy.

Leave us with a Bryant story then…

I used to work in a college town; I was there for about 3 years and had a great time. Mostly it was young college kids getting their first tattoo – sometimes that can be a traumatic experience, so I kept a Polaroid camera in my workstation. If they passed out I would hunker down and take ‘our’ portrait picture together! I would say nothing and at the end of the tattoo I would say, “Here’s a little something for your scrapbook!”


Interview: Janine Ashton


Skin Deep 153 1 December 2007 153