Another Loose Screw - Jason Stephan

Published: 05 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 209, March, 2012

For some tattooists, the call of the ink comes later in life; maybe after getting their first tattoo, going to a convention, or even stumbling across the medium through chance. But to others it is imprinted in their minds from a very early age. One such tattooist is Jason Stephan, who just about wraps up our plundering of the crew at Loose Screw…

Jason has spent his life chasing the buzz of the tattoo machine; moving around the country, picking up skills, and generally becoming a world class tattoo artist along the way. Now settled at Loose Screw, Jason took the time to talk to us about how it all came about.  

“I always knew I wanted to get tattooed. As long as I can remember I loved the way tattoos looked. I knew when I was old enough, that was the way I wanted to look. The day I turned 18, I got my first tattoo – I got a little dragon. At that time I didn’t know how much they cost or all the different things I could get. The people I saw growing up that had tattoos all had traditional Asian imagery so I guess I thought, that’s what I should get.

“I first got the idea that I may be able to get into tattooing from my friends. I was the guy in my group of friends that could draw and they would get my drawings tattooed on them. That was crazy to me because I was just getting flash. I didn’t think my stuff was very cool compared to the things I saw on the walls of the tattoo shops I’d been in. The tattooers doing the designs complimented my drawings because I’m sure it just broke up the monotony of doing the same flash over and over. That’s when I first began to think I could do this for a living.”

It must have been a strange thing to see a custom tattooist of Jason’s calibre, walking into a flash shop with his amazing custom designs and see him looking up at the rows of flash thinking, I’m not as good as this. But, thankfully, Jason knew what he wanted to do and had the drive and passion to get what he wanted…the all-important apprenticeship.
“It was really hard and it took a couple years, but all of my begging and pleading finally paid off. An artist in Orlando, Florida, named Sailor Frank Dickerson, decided to give me a chance and began teaching me the beginnings of what would be my apprenticeship. Unfortunately we had a bit of a disagreement and he didn’t trust my word enough to continue my apprenticeship.

“I had moved to Orlando because there were no legal tattoo shops in Florida, the county I grew up in. But by 1995, tattooing had been legalized so I moved back, talked to some of my friends, and they recommended that I go talk to an artist named Bobby D. I said anything I had to, to get in there. I agreed to redo my apprenticeship and he took me up on it. He made me start back at the groundfloor, but I still felt extremely fortunate. I’m sure it’s still hard, but it seemed way harder to me to get an apprenticeship back then because there were so few shops.

“I won’t go into any crazy detail, but I had an old school apprenticeship. It sucked. I was there at least 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I was totally immersed in the learning process. After a year or so he let me start tattooing my friends and customers that he picked for me. I worked there for another year and after that I felt I had to move on. I know some people may think that I’m an asshole for learning how to tattoo and then not sticking around, but if you were me you would have left too. I don’t regret anything that happened back then; I actually appreciate that I had such a tough time. It makes me appreciate what I do so much more. But I do feel like you have to have a certain type of ego to put permanent art on people, and I could see that the put downs and poor treatment were never going to end. So, like I said, I had to move on.”

With some training and a lot of hard graft under his belt, Jason went in search for another studio, somewhere else where he could learn more of his craft in an environment that would push him further.

“I heard that J.D. Crowe needed a new tattooer at his shop, Ancient Art, in Yorktown. I took a bus up there, got the job, and headed back to Florida to collect my stuff and move. I ended up working for him for six or seven years. I had a great time! That was definitely a different time in tattooing. I worked 10-5, five days a week. We were busy as we could be. It is a military area, so we were doing one tattoo after the next. I didn’t do much custom stuff back then; it didn’t seem like anyone wanted it so I never really pushed it. I guess I was just happy making money putting tattoos on people.”

Looking back, working at Ancient Art was going to prove a turning point in Jason’s career. Not only did it give him a chance to practice and perfect his tattooing, it was also where he was to meet two of the most influential people in his life.

“I met some great people at Ancient Art, and two people who would end up being two of the most important people in my life – my wife and mother of my children, Amanda Stephan, and my artistic partner, Jesse Smith. Towards the last year of me being at Ancient Art, I was going through a lot of changes. I was feeling like I was invisible as far as tattooing went; I worked in a shop with ten other artists and it was hard to stand out. I’m not sure many of the customers cared.

“Even though it was early in his career as well, I noticed Jesse really trying to push custom tattoos. I had always felt that I could put in a quality tattoo, but there was no real reason to get tattooed by me. I was just doing the same flash designs everyone else was doing. Then I got it in my mind that I wanted to show what I could do and let people see the art that was in my head. I was always inspired by heavy metal album covers and skateboard art, but as a tattoo artist, I was inspired more by Gunnar, Grime, Jime Litwalk and Tony Ciavarro. I loved that illustrative style of tattooing. It just felt like what I wanted to and was trying to do. I think that’s another reason why Jesse and I became such close friends. We seemed to have similar influences in art.”

But it was still going to take a few moves around Florida, a couple of stints at some shops, and strangely enough the end of a space travel era, before Jason finally found the place he would call home.

“I started to push my art more and started to get some results, but I knew that I would need to move to a new location to really change my life. My wife and I decided to move back to my hometown, Rockledge, Florida, and open up Electric Eye Tattoo Studio. It was tough. My small hometown was not ready or into the type of artwork that I wanted to do, but over a couple years I was able to convince them to start seeing it my way. Electric Eye was never exactly what I wanted it to be and I hated being in charge of the business part; I couldn’t separate the art and business. I ended up closing my shop and going to work at King Street Body Gallery, one city over in Cocoa, Florida. I loved it. By that time I had enough custom clientele to keep myself busy and I didn’t have to worry about the business side that I didn’t like. The guys there were great. Definitely some of my most fun times tattooing.

“Eventually I knew it would come to an end. I lived and worked in Brevard County, where the space shuttle goes up. When they started talking about no more space shuttle launches, I knew I would end up leaving. The economy had really all revolved around that shuttle and tons of people were losing their jobs. Practically every house on my street was for sale. Jesse had always tried to get me to move up to Richmond, Virginia. We had been doing conventions together over the years and always discussed art and tattooing; he and I have always been on the same page. That helped me at times when I felt I didn’t fit in with what other people were doing. And my wife’s family is also in Virginia, so it just seemed like the right fit.”

Finally all the pieces fell into place. It was the right time and the right place and now all Jason needed to do was to show the tattoo world what he was capable of.

“When I first moved to Richmond, I worked with Jesse Smith and Thea Duskin at Ghostprint Gallery. It’s a cool place but very private, and since I just moved to the area it was sort of difficult for me to get new clientele. Eventually Jesse decided to open up Loose Screw Tattoo. I miss working with Thea; she’s a great artist, but I needed to work in a shop that was more open to the public. Loose Screw Tattoo has been open for about eight or nine months now and I couldn’t be happier. I feel like I am in an extremely creative environment. Everyone who works here is full custom and we’re all staying pretty busy. The biggest reason for me moving here was to become the best artist I could be.”

And it was definitely the right decision. Along with Loose Screw and Jesse, Jason’s work has sky rocketed. The combination of a friend who thinks the same as he does, a shop that allows him to express his custom style to the full, and a heart and passion that gets put into everything he does, Jason is rocking the tattoo world to the max.

“I feel like I’m doing the best and most creative artwork of my entire life. For me, that’s really great. I’ve been tattooing now for about 15 years and I think a lot of artists at this point get to feeling very content with how things are going and with what they are doing. I’m happy that I still see improvement in what I’m doing. I still feel excited about starting a new project; I want to keep moving forward for however long I am able to tattoo. I guess that’s it. This is my life, my career, but I do feel like there’s so much more.”

And we eagerly look forward to the, ‘so much more’, that Jason has in store for us in the future. If it is anything as good as his past output, we are onto another winner here.

Loose Screw Tattoo Studio

3313A W. Cary Street
VA 23221



Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Jason Stephan