Always & Forever - Holly Azzara

Published: 15 November, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 205, November, 2011

What started out as a regular interview turned into something of an autobiography for Holly. She was on such a roll, we figured we’d simply let her get on with it. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time Holly had pretty much written her own ticket.

I would say I have always been drawn to tattoos. I thought they were the coolest thing as a kid and would draw on myself all the time. Then I moved on to drawing on other kids in school and would get in trouble, but I didn’t care. I even had a teacher lecture me about how I would never get a job with tattoos. It was the summer of 2001 that I kind of stumbled into my first job in a shop. Tattooing had just become legal in Massachusetts and shops started opening up all over the state. I went into a shop with a friend of mine on his 18th birthday so he could get something tattooed from my sketchbook, and by the end of the session, they offered me an apprenticeship. Being 17 and eager to just be around tattooing, I jumped on it.

“A few months later, I met one of my biggest influences in tattooing, ‘Little John’ Bury. He was in town from North Carolina tattooing, and another friend of mine told me to come by after work and watch. I sat there and watched him tattoo until 2am but had to leave. He asked why and I said I had to go to school in a few hours. We kept in touch while I continued to work at the other shop. In May/ June of 2002, John came back to town and I spent most of the week hanging with him in between working my other jobs and graduating high school that week. He tattooed me the morning of graduation and then finished it the following morning. I had been tattooing by this point but with no help or guidance, and I was trying the best I could to figure stuff out.

“A week later, I went out to Martha’s Vineyard to meet up with John and he introduced me to my other biggest influence in tattooing, Stephan Lanphear. For ten years Stephan sued MA to get tattooing legal; it was such an honour to get the opportunity to meet him and thank him. Later that summer, I camped out on the Vineyard for two weeks and tried to become a fly on the wall around Stephan’s shop. I hung out as much as I could and tried not to be in the way!

“Fast forward a few months and I went down to North Carolina for a week to spend time in John’s studio and then returned a few months later for three weeks to help out with his convention and spend more time in the studio. Little did I know that this trip would change my life once again. John had plans – he always had plans! After setting up the convention floor on the Thursday before the convention, we were walking around double-checking things and he asked where my tattoo equipment was. He had told me to bring my equipment with me this trip in case there were any walk-ins I might be able to do at the shop. He pointed over in a corner where his guys were going to be tattooing and he said that was my spot… I was scared to death to tattoo at the convention. This turned out to be my first professional tattooing experience. All his guys probably told him not to let me do this, but John loved putting me into these situations over the years. Sink or swim motherfucker! I was in the corner between Dave Kruseman and Jack Rudy. Not a very comfortable spot for someone that’s been struggling to tattoo for 11 months, but I did it.

I tattooed all weekend, I did the worst tattoos at the show, but I didn’t give up.

“A couple of weeks later, I returned to MA to a message from Stephan. He just moved his shop from Martha’s Vineyard out to Pittsfield, MA, and he needed someone to pick up some of the walk-ins. I figured he had talked to John and I drove out there with my grandmother during a snowstorm and met with Stephan. I then had my first job in tattooing, and I had no fucking clue what I was doing!

“I’m sure he picked up on that pretty quick. My previous ‘apprenticeship’ was far from it. Between John and Stephan, they showed me what I had missed like making needles, tracing flash, etc. They would show me one thing and I would just keep doing it until they forced me to stop. I was so excited to get some kind of direction finally. I struggled in Stephan’s shop and did the best that I could. I knew there was a lot I had missed out on from a proper apprenticeship, but I kept doing the best that I could. Every week I would drive out from Boston to Pittsfield on Wednesday morning, crash on his couch and drive back to Boston Sunday night. That summer, I knew I needed to make a change. I had too much going on in MA. I figured I needed to move out to Pittsfield and cut myself off from the distractions of life. But John and Stephan had other plans apparently. John was coming up to MA in a week and he said if I wanted to come back with him to NC I could.

“So two weeks later I found myself now working for John in NC. I lived in the back of his shop and I spent every moment there. This is what I needed. Once again, he put me in another sink or swim situation. I know his guys were not happy about me being there, but I held my own. John was in town that first week helping me get settled and fixing up my room in the back, then he left. He was on the road for the next three weeks and I was supposed to figure this shit out and find my place in his shop. I never knew how long I was going to be in NC.

“John let me find myself in tattooing and find myself as a person. But he was more to me than just a mentor and boss. He was my friend, the father I never had, and he gave me a life I could never imagine. He gave me an experience that would help me be more than just a tattooist later in life.

“After John died, I knew my time there was coming to an end. I wanted to stay to keep the shop going and help keep his memory alive. We had talked about me moving back to Massachusetts before his death and I knew that it was time. It was one of the hardest choices I have ever made and a few months after his death, I put in a years notice to the shop. With the help of Carol Bury, John’s mom, I made my transition back up to MA to open my own studio. I knew this is what he had been training me to do and I wanted to “prove him right” – as he once said to me in a letter he sent to me back in 2002. In 2009 I moved back to MA and waited for the right place and the right time to create something that would make him proud and become my home. In February 2011, I signed the lease on a location and in May, Always & Forever Tattoo Studio opened its doors to the public. This is the first tattoo studio ever in Watertown, MA and I’m so proud of this studio.

“I’m so grateful for everything John and Stephan have given me in this life of tattooing. I could go on and on about these two men and everything they have done for me and tattooing in general. I believe they are the two men that most people don’t really know or appreciate when it comes to the rest of us being able to do what we do now. I feel a lot of pride when it comes to them.

“As for my style, I would say the main style I enjoy is bold, new school type stuff with some traditional elements. This is usually how I draw so this is the type of stuff I tend to have the most fun doing in most mediums, especially tattooing.

“Professionally I try to be well rounded in many styles. Along with bright colour tattoos, I do a lot of black and grey, but I also try to keep in mind that I’m not the one wearing the tattoo. I work with my clients a lot to make sure they get the best version of their ideas. If someone comes to the shop and really wants to get a piece done by me and I’m not able to do what they want, we both walk away disappointed. I love the process of creating a tattoo and the variety of ideas that walk through the door daily. I hope my portfolio of work shows that.

“As you can tell, I have a lot of pride for my journey so far in tattooing and the two men that have helped and believed in me. One thing I want you to get out of this piece, is that tattooing gave me a life worth fighting for. I have worked so very hard in the last ten years to get to this point and will continue to do so to ‘prove them right’.”


Text: David Marden