Doug Billian

Published: 01 March, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 169, February, 2009

Every now and then an artist appears on the scene that makes me sit up straight and gets my pulse racing. The moment I saw Doug’s work he got my full attention as his tattoos just seemed to jump off the skin at me.

Doug and I passed emails to each other and he sent me more work and each time I opened his latest attachment I was more and more impressed with his attention to detail and the slant on his tattoos. He certainly has his own style of work and these days that’s quite refreshing.

Some would say that Doug’s work is in the ‘painterly’ style, giving his tattoos a smooth edge to them and a depth that is hard to find in tattooing. There is a school of tattooists that have pioneered this style and Doug’s work fits perfectly alongside such artists as Mike Devries, Mike Demasi, Roman and Nikko.

In October I was lucky enough to go to the wonderful Paradise Tattoo Gathering in Albany where I got to meet the man personally. Douglas is such an unassuming guy and is very humble about his work. A man passionate about his family and his tattoos and artwork, Doug spent ten years in the US army before realising that his destiny lay in tattooing. Here is a bit more of an insight into the world of Douglas Billian...

What were your first memories of tattoos? Did your family have any ink?
I remember an uncle John having a spider on his hand and thinking ‘That is so rad…what a rebel.’ That really got me interested in the whole world of tattooing and wondering what this stuff was about. I got my first tattoo when I was 15 using a fake ID I had gotten in Detroit. I don’t know if any direct thing inspired me to want to tattoo; I was a collector for years whilst in the military. I spent 8 years in the Army and 3 or so in the Air Force and I used to draw for people looking for tattoos, but nothing too great. My interest in tattooing really came from looking at magazines and tattoo flash. I was really inspired by David Bollt’s artwork - he just had some really cool stuff he was doing. After emailing back and forth with David, he insisted on me doing an apprenticeship with someone to learn the vitals of tattooing, but being a full-time nursing student and raising 2 boys by myself, my parents and I really weren’t convinced this was a good idea.
With a semester left, I decided I could always go back to school and launched out on trying to find someone to teach me. The fact of the matter is everyone in San Antonio said no…so I met a guy named Roy who said if I open the shop he will teach me, so that’s what I did! He gave me the basics and I just ran from there.

So do you think an apprenticeship is the right way to start tattooing?
I think an apprenticeship is vital to know your basics but it is the responsibility of every artist to learn from as many people as he can. I have no formal art training, I just read and study a lot. I probably go through at least a couple of books a week studying theory of the masters. I think all knowledge is applicable, whether it’s formal or informal.

How did you find the actual process of tattooing; was it easy for you to pick up?
I don’t really know if you would say tattooing came easy to me. October 14 2008 was my three-year mark and I feel like I really fought for the knowledge I have. I was never the guy who was afraid to go talk to people or artists and ask questions or even pay for private lessons. I think it is my responsibility to every customer to be the best artist I can be. I hear a lot of people talk shit due to some of my work looking like the people I have learned from, but damn man; if I do a New School pin-up, does that mean I want to be Jime Litwalk? By no means! Everyone uses references and I would be a hack if I grabbed the same tattoo and applied it identical...for me, I look at my tattooing career and want to be able to do everything and not get pigeonholed into a certain grouping of tattooers: “Oh, he only does New School or he is a traditional guy. I want to be the guy who you say, “Yeah he can pretty much do anything, just challenge him.” For me, the sky is not the limit in a universe that has no ceiling.

What is the atmosphere like in your studio?
We have a super solid staff in the shop. People have come and gone but the people we have are the ones who want to learn and grow. They are not the rock-star wannabes looking for the quick dollar, they are the guys searching for the next stage in their development. The environment in the shop is a light-hearted and fun environment and we try to cater to everyone’s needs that come through. We are always trying to grow and go to the next level.

Do you do many conventions?
Man, I have been doing conventions since the first year I was tattooing. Everyone was like, “What the hell are you doing conventions so early? That’s pretty ballsy!” but I was. I am here to learn and get better. Since then I probably have done about 20 to 30 conventions; I’m not really sure and tried to figure it out, but it’s kind of a blur! I was kind of known for having a loose painterly style at what I did but it was embraced for the most part as a young guy coming into his own style. Conventions are the places to learn and pick up a lot of great stuff. At one of my most memorable conventions I shared a booth with Damon Conklin and when he saw me kinda struggling he would say, “Hey Doug, let’s go get a smoke” and he would tell me what he thought I should do with colours and values - it helped me greatly.

Have you worked any shows abroad yet?
Man, I would love to travel overseas and work but I haven’t gotten a lot of interest or emails wondering if I would be wiling to travel. I guess that’s my next dream come true or goal.

What or who gets your artistic juices flowing?
Tattoo-wise I am inspired mostly by the guys who are doing great things and stay humble with what they do. It seems as soon as someone starts getting recognised as talented, he turns into a douchebag. This I don’t get; if you’re doing great things, help your family out by making them being the best person they can be. So on that note, David Bollt, Nikko Hurtado, Jeff Gogue, Gunnar, Anthony Montemayor (he throws the Alamo City Show and is a badass tattooer which was my 1st show and he showed the confidence in me to do it) Greg Votas (works at Tattoo Mania who is a great tattooer) this guy is always looking to evolve. Traditional artists; I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I am a huge fan of Chet Zar, Dali, Silvia Ji, Alphonse Mucha and I love comic book artists and how they draw so dynamically.

Do you think you have a distinct style?
I don’t have a favourite style I guess I just want to keep evolving with what I do and be the best me I can be. I like realism and New School and then a cross’s a lot of fun messing with the values and making thing just pop and feel unreal. What drew me to it was seeing a lot of tattoos being done that were rendered line-wise so cool but looked really flat. It seemed to kinda make me want to try and push the limits with it.

Do you collaborate much with your clients?
When designing something I like to talk to the client and see what they are thinking and kinda get a feel for the energy they are putting out as they talk about their ideas. I usually draw it up and let them decide from there and keep drawing until they are super stoked about the design. I love doing well thought out flowing sleeves where the concept never breaks and the ideal is always flowing. I just enjoy the large space design concepts, which are always fun. I don’t tattoo anything racist, gang related, or upside down crosses, or silly shit like 666. I just feel it’s a waste of time and against my personal beliefs.
I have a couple sleeves out now with really cool religious themes of the battle between good and evil. I love the thought of this constant battle that takes place in our hearts and minds. I have people come in with the verse they want and I just draw what I see in my head from really fun.

What do you do when not tattooing?
When I am not tattooing I am usually hanging with my sons playing basketball or with my wife Erika trying to help with the new addition to the house, Mya Nevaeh. I like to oil paint and draw a lot. It is relaxing for me. It allows me to escape and enter a world that I create, free from a lot of the pressures of this world.

Got anyone you want to thank for helping you over the years?
I would like to thank everyone who pushed me to be the best I could be; whether positive or negative, you gave me the fuel to be my best and I know I have a lot more to go. To my family I thank you for the constant support. Erika, I love you. To my sons Isaic, Thomas, and Ethan you are my best friends and I love you guys dearly. I miss you dearly Ethan, my heart races at the thought of seeing you again. Your brothers miss you too. Mya, my daughter, I am honoured to be your daddy. To all the people who gave me their skin to do what I do I really appreciate you putting your faith in me to mark your bodies eternally. To all my true friends in the industry, thanks for your love and support.

If you have read the article and like the look of Douglas’s work and can’t make it over to America, then you too can have the chance to get a piece of his unique tattoo work. Doug will be attending this year’s Tattoo Jam held at Doncaster Racecourse.
If you can’t get an appointment with Doug for a tattoo, just come along and watch a true tattoo master at work!


Interview: Neil Dalleywater, Photograph: Doug Billian


Skin Deep 169 1 February 2009 169