Lewis Hess of Atlas Tattoo

Published: 25 September, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 150, September, 2007

Skin Deep talks to Lewis Hess who is a home artist at Atlas, a popular, and highly regarded shop in Portland, on the West Coast. A self proclaimed all rounder tattoo artist, with 14 years experience, his knowledge of tattooing is evident in his strong consistent work. Hess’s work is executed with a clean style that shows both his ability both in terms of art and technique, topped with his incredibly approachable and modest demeanour.


How did you hook up with these guys?

I actually tattooed Izumi when she was living in Portland, and I ran into them again at the Detroit convention. 

What was your first impression when you first came here?

I mean it’s a whole other world, its really, really strange. I though it was great, I like how safe everything here is. The first time I came here I was blown away by the fact that nobody stole, and nobody worried about it, I mean it’s so different to the States where you could have stuff in our yard locked up, and people will jump the fence and break the lock and grab it. People don’t even lock their bikes. People walk around the train station at 11 at night, it’s just strange to be in a society so safe. It’s pretty rad.

How about working?

It’s really easy, the most trouble free experience…people tell you exactly what you want, and you draw it. I think in all my trips to Japan, I’ve had to redraw something once. They tell you how much they have to spend ahead of time. It’s as good as it gets really. And people’s skin is great. 

Is there a general pattern in terms of what they want tattooed?

Usually when I come here, people will look at my book and point to a picture and say, I want something like that. In my case it seems like they want something from me, but they aren’t too sure of what they want, so they pick something out of the book. 

How about in the States?

Portland, it tends to be difficult to deal with people, cos they want stuff that doesn’t tattoo that well. People want stuff that won’t necessarily not work, but I can’t do it too well, like colour outline stuff. I don’t have a lot of faith in pulling it off myself, like I see a lot of other guys do it, it looks great but, I’ve just been trying to do simpler tattoos.

I think I end up disappointing a lot of clients by turning down stuff they think is possible, there are tattooist that do it, but I just don’t think it will age well, so….I’ve been turning down a lot of stuff lately. 

So what should people expect you to tattoo?

Oh that’s a tough question. Cos I don’t really feel like I’m any better than something than most people. Relatively rounded, but I don’t think I excel at one thing past anyone else.

I would say that I am the poor man’s version of a lot of tattoo artists. I can do anything that is not Japanese. I’m horrible at Japanese stuff. I’m trying to figure it out, but I’m horrible at it, and it’s such a pain in the ass. The scales, the water and everything, its such a drag to do this hand numbingly like, what’s the word? I’m totally stuck on the word! My fortes are skulls, panthers, flowers…

What do you like to do though?

Silly stuff that I can laugh at while I’m doing it. I like doing anything, as long as I can do it in a way that I think will age well. I feel that I can draw most things so I say that would be my strength, that I can draw pretty well, but I’ve never been able to draw good tattoos, so now I’m trying to figure out how to draw so that they tattoo well. 

Would you agree with the train of thought that being able to draw is the basis of a good tattoo?

No, not at all. I’ve got friends that are horrible artists, as far as like, natural drawing ability or whatever, but they trace good tattoos. And then they grew into the tattoo. They nailed down the visual language of tattooing, you need to be able to draw a skull, a rose, a panther or whatever, you can figure out how to draw those things just by tracing them.

Like, they will make weird mistakes when it comes to anatomy that show that they don’t know what they are drawing so much, but they can fake it, and they can tattoo it well. I think that that is more important, that they can deliver a good tattoo, as opposed to draw something well….I’ve noticed that guys who paint, they tend to get better and faster though. 

What is the most important thing in a tattoo then, for you?

That it can age well. Good tattoos are ones that age well; I think that that is the big thing. If you can still make out what it is 10 years down the road, then that is a good tattoo, I think that that is pretty much it. 

Do you think this interest will keep going?

Oh yeah, yeah yeah….all the people who are getting these koi half sleeves right now, are going to get the rest of the sleeve, and get their other sleeve done, then go to their back. I think most of the people running around with Japanese half sleeves will end up getting at least a full sleeve and a back piece in the next 8 years. 

What are some characteristics of Atlas as a shop?

The last few years we dug ourselves into a hole where we really tried to make the customer happy. We really tried to give them whatever they wanted. We thought if there was any way in the world that we could make it work, we would do it, but a lot of the time it would bite you in the ass, like, “Oh yeah, I want all this stuff done in brown”, “ Oh well, it might not age well, its going to age horribly“, “Yeah I know, I understand that” and you do it, and 5 years later, they are like, “This looks like shit”, and you are like, “Too bad…” We are trying to get away from that.  We have Scott Harrison working for us now; he is really good with educating the customers.  I think there is a lot of misinformation out there now, but at the same time a lot of the stuff that I thought would look like hell by now is holding up and doing fine. Like the Newskool guys are dong stuff that is fucking amazing, I don’t know how they do it, and it looks great, you are seeing it 5-10 years down the road now, and its exactly the same. I would not really want to do work like that though, I like to do work that I can finish in a couple of sittings, and know what its going to look like in ten years. 

How about conventions, which ones stand out for you?

Barcelona is rad, Sid puts on the Rock of Ages show, in Orange County. It wasn’t the busiest one, but the way he took care of the artists was so rad, he took a bag of tacos to make sure everyone was taken care of. Oh and Austin rules. Austin is this liberal enclave in the middle of Texas. The people really care about you. I think that is one of the biggest things with conventions, how people take care of you, and what the artists are going through. When people pack too many tattooists into a convention, it’s going to be hard to make money, and they charge 500-1000 bucks for a booth, then you make that back.

How do you go about improving your skills?

Lately ink has been a problem, so there is the mechanical side of it, where you want to make sure your machines are running well, then there is the artistic side, you have to get both of them together. One of the things I try to do in Japan is try to find more obscure references, everyone has been dipping from the same world, everyone has the Kyosai books now. 

Like, when you look through tattoo artist’s books and they are all the same.

Yeah it’s funny, the first couple of trips I went to the Kyosai museum, I would always end up looking at the same stuff, Noh masks, it’s going to be so hard to find anything unique. I’ve been looking for art books from other countries that you wouldn’t find in the States, postcards, books and stuff, like if you can find a book in Japan, of Eastern block postcards, then you’ll have a whole different set of references.    

You know when I started I was so amazed by all these different artists, and I thought that they had drawn stuff, but they were just lifting it, you know. They were totally copying it, but at that point, it was a totally obscure reference. I mean it’s ok though, ‘cos when you are starting out, your stuff is so bad, and you are trying so hard, and there are these guys that are doing it, and it’s amazing. How do they do it? How do they make it look so authentic, y’know? It was just one of those things, they were stealing from a different spot from what everyone else was stealing from, and it made me realize that you have to steal for a bit, ‘til you figure out how to make it look right. And then there is other stuff, you shouldn’t even try to draw, ‘cos you aren’t going to be able to get it right. 

How did you start, let’s talk about your history..

I had a room mate who got a home tattoo kit through the mail, and he was tattooing people out of the house. When everyone went out drinking, I was broke, so I stayed home and started tattooing myself, really chewed it up and fucked myself up good. This was when I was 18 or 19. Then I got an apprenticeship with a guy, that didn’t turn out well, the guy wasn’t really a good person…I worked for him for a year and a half, then I went to Arizona, worked for a guy called Dale Orman at the Crawling Squid. There are A LOT of good tattooists that are coming out of there, it was a street shop, 35 dollar minimum, there are days you wouldn’t tattoo at all, and then some when you would do 15.

From there I came to Oregon, I got there and the laws were so tough, there were so many hoops to jump through. I almost quit, I was going to work for UPS! I was broke and started to work for a place called Hardline. It was horrible, one guy was a junkie, and the other guy was making his own crack, ‘n they were tittie bar guys. I ended up self-destructing, then I got a job at Atomic tattoo. Then I went to Atlas, that was when things started to look up for me, in terms of working for people who really wanted to make things work and make things better. 

What are some of the difficulties you have had?

When I first started tattooing, everyone became super obsessed with speed, everyone got on this thing, “This tattoo is this big, it should take this long” Like someone might have shitty skin, but you’ll feel weird that it took longer than it should have. You would hear some one going, this guy accomplished this in X amount of hours. At a certain time it was an earmark of technical aptitude, understanding what you were doing, it doesn’t always work out that way. 

At the end of the day what is the best thing about being a tattoo artist?

You make money drawing, it’s a rad job, the most satisfying thing is when you’ve done their tattoo, and you can tell that they are stoked. You can feel it, especially if you like what you did. I mean someone can like what you did, and you can hate it.    

But I mean, at least someone is happy. But if you really stoked on something and everything happened the way you wanted it to, and somebody looks at it, and they are excited, it’s pretty rad, that is the optimum ideal.


Text: Maki Photos: Martin Hladik & Michael Rubenstein


Skin Deep 150 1 September 2007 150