Kevin Marr - Godspeed Tattoo, San Mateo California

Published: 05 January, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 207, January, 2012

You ever look at an old cathedral and at first, you are just awed by the sheer size of it, but when you look closer, you see the fine detailing etched in there? Looking at Kevin Marr’s work, you get the same feeling because the man does nothing small or by halves…

His pieces are big, bold and ballsy. The smallest piece of his I’ve come across has been a half arm sleeve – the biggest, a full body suit. His work grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands attention. But even more amazing, is that hidden away in these massive pieces, is some of the most intricate and near perfect lining, colouring and shading around at the moment.

“I decided I wanted to get into tattooing as soon as I got my first tattoo when I was 18. I had been drawing a lot of tattoo art and was at that time in my life where I needed to figure out ‘what I was going to do’. I have no formal art training. I taught myself how to draw, spent a lot of time looking at tattoo magazines, and figured out who was good and why they were good. I think that’s one of the most important things, being able to understand what
looks good, what doesn’t, and why?

“I began to pursue being a tattooer by bringing my portfolio of drawings to tattoo shops and asking about apprenticeships. I knew I wanted to make a career out of this and wanted to do it the right way, despite my friends encouraging me to buy some equipment and start on them; I knew how I needed to go about it. In the beginning, I was continually denied, demoralized and discouraged at every shop. But this just fed me and made me push harder. I was going to do this!”

And with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, Kevin’s path suddenly changed.

“One day, kind of out of nowhere, a new shop opened up in my area – this was the end of 1998. I walked in with my portfolio and met a guy named Turtle, who had just moved out here from New Jersey and opened Godspeed Tattoo in San Mateo, California. He was actually looking for an apprentice, so he told me to come hang out when I had free time. I knew what that actually meant, come in every fucking day and clean my shop! So I did. Turtle got me going and was a really good teacher. I am extremely grateful to him for this. He was tough, but you have to be tough in this business. And I respect him for not making it easy for me.

“I was a carpenter at the time and would work swinging a hammer from 7.00am-4:30pm; Monday to Friday. I was at the tattoo shop from 5:30pm until midnight, on the days I worked, and 12 noon till midnight on a Saturday and Sunday. Needless to say, I gave up everything to learn how to tattoo.

“Turtle eventually got homesick, I don’t think he really liked it here, and after a year or so, he sold me the shop and moved back to New Jersey. He still lives and works as a tattooer, at the Jersey Tattoo Company in Toms River.

“I only worked on my own for a couple months, then hired my first guy, Brian Fokis. We were both just starting out and very eager. It was a great time for the shop, we really grew from and with each other.”

So, one year into an apprenticeship and Kevin suddenly found himself the owner of his own studio. With nobody to teach him the finer details of tattooing, Kevin decided to take a rather unconventional path to learn more.

“I was stoked on one hand because I was tattooing and owned my own shop at the age of 22. Things had finally worked out for me – but on the other hand, I completely missed out on working with other tattooers with whom I could grow from those first few years. I barely knew how to tattoo and I owned a shop. I had to make this work.

“I decided the only way I would be able to expose myself to more experienced tattooers would be to get tattooed by them. So off I went. I had Ed Hardy do two full sleeves on me. Jeff Whitehead did a ton of work on me as well. I would pick their brains as much as I could, while still being respectful, and I learned a lot by getting tattooed by them. I also have a tattoo in progress by Mike Rubendall. These days, I’m really feeling like I missed out on working with other tattooers and I am going to make an effort to get out there a bit in this business. Do some guest spots and conventions.

It’s not just his thirst for knowledge that drives Kevin, it is his approach as well. Not afraid of hard work and long hours, you just know that he’s in it for love and not money or the supposed glamorous lifestyle.

“People think this shit is easy because the only part of it they witness is the guy tattooing them; hanging out, talking shit, having a good time. Nobody sees the artist up at 5am working on drawings until they start tattooing at midday, sometimes even 10am. Then you tattoo non-stop till eight at night and then you’re off back home to draw or paint till midnight. Every fucking day. It aint a quick buck or easy money. I work my ass off. And to top it off, I’m never satisfied! It’s a constant struggle. I’ve done lots of physically demanding laborious work in my younger days and nothing is as hard as tattooing. Physically and mentally, it beats the shit out of you. But that’s what separates people in this business. The more you put in, the more you get out of it and that’s what I love about it. There is always room to grow – if you push yourself.”

But the constant struggle paid off for Kevin, and Godspeed Tattoo. 14 years later and Kevin shares his studio with three other artists.

“Right now the crew is Nick Bergin, Bryn Taylor, and Dustin Richards. Nick was my apprentice, and has been tattooing for nine years; he’s a really good guy, and a solid tattooer. Bryn has been tattooing for 19 years and has worked with me for four; he’s had the opportunity to work with lots of great tattooers in San Francisco during the ’90s and is a solid guy and also a great tattooer. Dustin has been working here for six months and came up from San Diego; he fits in well and does real nice work.

“I’m very particular about who works here, for two reasons. I have high standards, and I have to get along with the person, and they have to get along with everyone else. There is no drama here, we are all good friends and genuinely enjoy being around each other. It’s important. We probably spend more time with each other than we do with our wives.

“So now I have three other artists who work with me at the shop and I am able to stick to the type of stuff I love doing. I stay booked up for a few weeks, work six days a week tattooing, and paint on my days off. If I am not sleeping, I am doing something productive.”

And this can only mean more top quality output from Kevin in the future. So times look good.

“I just hope things continue to go as well in the future, as they have in the past. I would like to start travelling more, and doing guest spots. I really need to get out there and expose myself a bit more, get to know other tattooers, and work in different places. I came to realize that I have spent the past 13 years, only tattooing in my own shop, and I don’t want to spend my entire career in one place. I’d like to take advantage of what this business has to offer in terms of travelling and working with other tattooers who I can grow and learn from.”

Stay tuned ink fans…

Godspeed Tattoo

620 South Norfolk St.
San Mateo,
Ca 94401 USA


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Kevin Marr