Friendly Fire - Jesse Smith interviews Tanane Whitfield

Published: 06 February, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 208, February, 2012

We thought this might be an interesting chain of events – getting Jesse Smith to sit down with friend and protégé, Tanane Whitfield, and put the thumbscrews on him about his work, his art, and a few other things as well. In all its scatterbrained glory, here’s the results of our little experiment.

You’ve only been tattooing three years?! It’s pretty impressive how quick you’ve picked it up.

"Yes. Three very inspiring years! I had four mentors who taught me for two years then you kinda just took me under your wing as a friend/mentor. Thanks for the assist, homie."

What did you do before you became a tattoo artist?

"I had a freelance gig making signs for a local meat market for about a year. $10 per sign, I was ballin’, yo! Then I started masonry work and did that for roughly four-and-a-half years before I landed my apprenticeship."

When did you start your apprenticeship and who was it under?

"I apprenticed under Cliff Evans, Bennet Edwards, Dave Lukeson, Sean Karn and of course, Gabriel Cece."

How do you like working for Gabriel Cece?

"It’s not even like that. I work WITH him. He’s my mentor, co-worker and best friend. We argue a lot about shit that doesn’t even matter. Not because we’re actually mad. Just because it’s how we talk."

So who were your early influences as an artist?

"Art-wise, J. Scott Campbell and Humberto Ramos. I read a lot of comics, but those two always stood out to me. Tattoo-wise, Gabriel Cece was a huge influence on the way I go about tattooing now. Later on, I ended up meeting you and that changed my skillset completely; I could also credit Taylor Cort, Brian Hampton, Timmy B, Kyle Cotterman and Cecil Porter for bits and pieces of my ‘style’ now."

So what do you think you would have done with yourself if you hadn’t found your way into the tattooing world?

"To be honest, I haven’t a clue. Probably still laying block and brick and hating life. It was a real dead end. Tattooing gave me a more meaningful purpose."

What other interests do you pursue in your free time beyond tattooing? I heard you were a ninja, is that true?

"Ninja?! Monk if anything. I was trained in Shaolin kung fu for a few years and train alone now. The ‘ninja’ rumours started spreading when certain people saw a photo of me doing push-ups on my thumbs."

So do you follow any weird diets or eat whatever you want?

"I’m not a picky eater. I try to watch what I eat but I really don’t have a strict diet. I do eat tuna about four or five times a week."

You know that shit’s super high in mercury, right?

"I’m immune to the hazards of ‘mercury’."

I also heard you once threatened to kill someone for ripping off a tattoo. Is that true and would you have used some of your kung fu to follow through with it?

"I didn’t threaten to kill ’em! He stole your shit and it pissed me off. I really don’t get why people feel the need to steal other’s hard work. If you enjoy someone’s work, just tell ’em. Don’t go reproducing custom tattoos that are designed for a client. It’s wrong and the original artist will more than likely always find out. I’ve been tagged to photos on Facebook that I didn’t even do. It fucking drives me up the wall! STOP STEALING OR ME AND JESSE WILL COME AND KILL YOU!"

OK, how many tattoo conventions and/or guest spots do you work each year?

"This past year, I did five US conventions and two UK conventions, plus two guest spots at Thou Art in Sheffield."

Which ones are your favourites?

"Jesse... are you winking at me in front of all these fine people? <smacks wrist> I had an awesome time at the Hampton, VA Convention, and then I did Liverpool. Awesome show in a really cool hotel! Got to booth with my homie, Kyle Cotterman, and I met a ton of awesome people and tattooers. After that, I did Tattoo Jam – the Jam is epic. A huge show with tons of artists! Finally, Tattoo Paradise Gathering. On my first time there I got to meet [street artist and surrealist painter] Greg ‘Craola’ Simkins! He’s always been a major influence for me and I got to draw with him for a couple of hours then got to learn how to paint from his seminar!"

Do you think tattooing has peaked in popularity or do you think we still have a way to go?

"I still think there’s some ways to go. When I go to pick my daughter up from school and her teacher has a full sleeve from Gogue, then it’s hit its peak."

If you had to name three people that you’d love to get tattooed by, who would they be, and why?

"Josh Duffy. I love his work and I’m wanting to get a large torso piece from him one day. Kyle Cotterman, because I want large portraits of my daughters on my left leg and I’ve known him for so long it’s a no-brainer. And Jesse Smith, because I love forcing you to do black and grey. Plus, I feel special because you’ll actually tattoo me knowing colour is out of the equation. Ha!"

You’re gonna have to give me a lighter area next time, your neck is darker then the ink I was using at the time. <laughs>

"That’s racist, Jesse."

Someone told me the other day that you said you wouldn’t tattoo them because they were black, is that true?

"Half true. One: I don’t remember that. Two: sounds like something I’d say due to the fact that I’m openly black and it sounds funny."

How do you normally pick your clients though?

"Usually, I can picture what they want as soon as they tell me their idea. I don’t turn down much, but I am selective these days. If it’s something I don’t feel right for, I help them find someone better suited."

And how long is your waiting list now?

"Before, I was never booked out past two or three weeks. Now, thanks to Skin Deep, I’m booked out for five months. I don’t have a free Saturday ’til June! Thanks homies! [We try! – Ed]"

That has to be a pretty amazing feeling knowing that so many people are trying to get tattooed by you. How do you go about juggling that many clients?

"I just take it as it comes. Our front desk girls handle the bulk of my bookings, but I handle the convention clients personally."

How do you manage your time?

"I manage absolutely nothing! I wing the majority of things I have to get done. At work, I usually do two appointments per day. Every once in a while, I have certain clients book all-day appointments."

How many days a week do you tattoo? How many hours do you tattoo in each of those days?

"I currently work four and a half days: Wednesday-Saturday, 11am-10pm; then Monday, 11am-3:30pm. I take breaks almost every hour to have a smoke or eat, but I’m tattooing the bulk of my shifts."

And is it difficult for you to focus on one project knowing that you have a ton waiting to be worked on?

"I just look at it as a reunion. I’ll start a piece and revisit it again in a month. I’d prefer to give it three weeks, but you have to allow time for healing."

Finally, how does it feel to be the best black tattoo artist in the world?

"Am I? I’m feeling a bit hungry, actually. I’m off to the pancake house..."

Vital Statistics

Name: Tanane Whitfield.
Age: 28
Tattooing since: 2008
Studio: Studio Evolve Tattoo
Location: 512 S. Independence Blvd. Virginia Beach, VA. 23452
Married: Yep!
Children: Amara (7) Leannah (6) Aubrey (3)
Religion: ‘My god has a hammer’

Art and the artists

It’s not all needles this, conventions that. Our boys also touched on art away from the tattoo studio...

If you could afford to buy a painting from any three artists who would they be and why?

"All three would be commissioned pieces from Craola. So if you wanna get me an early Christmas gift..."

Greg is definitely an amazing artist/person, but there’s got to be at least two other artists out there that you’d like a piece of work by!

"Fine, do a collaboration with Greg and I’ll frame it and keep it."

Whose artwork graces the walls of your house/studio?

"A dragon skull by Jeff Gogue, a portrait of my wife by Ian Mckown, several of your prints, Craola’s red cardinal print, a portrait of Amy Winehouse by Sean Karn, a Baboon Speaker by Brian Hampton, a sketch by Taylor Cort, a custom machine by Jake Schroeder, a skull from Marcus Maquire and another skull from Taylor again. Where are my Jesse Smith originals you might ask? Good question, homie! Why don’t I have an original yet? We go way back like car seats!"

You’ve never asked me for one! Now, do you consider yourself an artist who does tattoos or a tattooist who does art?

"Well, I was creating art well before tattooing so I gotta go with an artist doing tattoos. Tattooing has definitely expanded my utility belt though: I’m primarily a colour pencil kinda fellow but since that Craola seminar at the Paradise Gathering, I’m really enjoying acrylic painting. I’ve recently picked up Bic pen art as well!"

I heard you have a solo show coming up in the next six months... <winks at Tanane>

"Oh yeah! I’m doing this nifty art show at Jesse Smith’s Loose Screw Tattoo. <winks back at Jesse> It’s in Richmond Virginia. There will be pieces I’ve been working on that I haven’t and won’t digitally post. The body of work will consist of fully rendered colour pencil work, acrylic paintings and Bic pen art. I won’t be straying from the norm. Expect absurd creatures that haunt the inner workings of my brain."

Do you feel as though art created with certain mediums commands a higher price tag because of its difficulty to apply, archival value, and the overall look it achieves?

"Not at all. If the work is good, it’s all the same in my eyes. If you decided to paint in poop, I’d buy it."

Traumatic Tattoos

At one point, talk turns to memorable tattoo moments. Tanane has had a few, including tattooing ‘Tanane’ on his sister’s wrist (“wasn’t for me though, my nephew has my name”), but one stands out a few more than others...

“I tattooed an older woman on her hip. Or, at least that’s what the paperwork said when I grabbed it. She swiftly switched that location to right above her [insert suitable polite word for intimate female body part here]! I had to shave all that silver hair and when I was done she says, ‘Thank you! I haven’t had a man between my legs in ten years!’ Why me? Why me!”

The First Tattoo

Tanane got his first tattoo at 18. “There was no real reason why I waited that long. I happened to come across a dude who’d trade for a few drawings, and I got a ‘Life/Death’ ambigram on my left forearm à la Method Man. I was a huge Wu Tang Clan fan. Don’t judge me!”

Studio Evolve Tattoo

512 S. Independence Blvd.
Virginia Beach,
VA. 23452