Celebrity Skin: Jessica Gahring of NY Ink

Published: 25 June, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 213, June, 2012

We may have reached a logical conclusion with the cast of NY INK, but there’s still plenty left to talk about. This issue, Jessica Gahring picks up the gauntlet.

The first thing Jessica notices when we begin our conversation over Skype is the art that I have hanging on the wall behind me. Unsurprisingly, art is her primary passion, and working as a tattoo artist she makes it her duty to be at the tattoo shop first thing in the morning, ready to take early customers. Fortunately for her, she also has the flexibility to take time out to spend with her daughter. At the end of NY Ink season two, Jessica received a call from her friend Lydia who works as a tattoo artist in Lake George, New York, offering her a job in the tattoo shop she works in. Jessica worked with Lydia briefly a few years back, but the need for health insurance called her back to ‘normal employment’ (banking), but she always knew she’d return to tattooing. Currently, Jessica works in a studio closer to her home and is planning to open her own tattoo studio in the near future.

“It was different than most studios at Wooster Street Social Club, it felt more like a tourist spot. There was a much larger global presence, and more customers that were simply there because it was the tattoo shop that had been featured on NY Ink.” Jessica was quick to dispel a lot of the opinions people had drawn about her based on what they’d seen on TV. “A lot of people felt I’d just come straight from banking and had just randonly decided to tattoo. It wasn’t like that though. The show was edited in a certain way that made it appear that I didn’t have a background in tattooing, but to be honest, I started appearing in tattoo magazines back in 2007. I used to work with Chip Beam – a great tattoo artist and friend of mine – in Vestal, New York. When I was working at university I’d go to his studio, set him up and break him down. And from him I learnt the fundamental health and safety aspect which I still hold today. I was really drawn to Chip’s black and grey style too. We used to go to a lot of conventions together where I was able to watch first-hand the likes of Guy Aitchison and Mike DeVries. I remember being blown away by the size of Mike’s colour ink palette!”

Jessica has an eight-year-old daughter, Jordyn, who she suppoprted with the steady paycheck and health insurance afforded from working in banking, but she always wanted to pursue a career in tattoo. Production knew all this about her and she feels they purposefully introduced difficulties to her path to see just how badly she wanted it, or at the very least, to cause drama in the process. “That’s my speculation of the situation anyway. I believe certain things were overlooked about my tattooing past or blatantly left out, but I don’t blame the show for that. It’s not like it’s this big secret thing, it’s all on my facebook fan page. The information is all there, it was never some kind of conspiracy. I didn’t just pick up a machine and go at it; I’ve worked to get where I am today. I was literally in shops for years before I even had the guts to pick up a tattoo machine! Maybe I didn’t pay my dues in one studio over a three-year period, but I’ve worked in a few studios and I still very much respect each and everyone I’ve worked with, and they feel the same about me. I’ve learned from many different people and styles, and I’m still very much learning.”

For the people that knew Jessica in her teenage years, they would know tattooing was something she always wanted to do. Just before the show started, she had an email from a woman she’d gone to undergraduate school with. “She was in New York City and told me that Ami James was opening a tattoo studio in SoHo and was looking for managers, artists, apprentices, the whole nine.” Jessica’s friend told her that she couldn’t think of a better opportunity for her, and Jessica agreed. “I went home that day, typed up my resume, got my portfolio together, and sent it in. I told them I wasn’t tattooing at the time, but would be happy with taking a management role in the shop just to get my foot in the door. Two hours later I received a phone call and was invited for an interview. We did a casting video, and between TLC and Ami they decided to take me on.”

I was keen to understand why Jessica had chosen banking as an intermittent career choice. First it was higher education administration, then tattooing, then banking, then tattooing. “Regarding my brief stint in banking, I wanted to learn about business banking and its financials. I know that eventually I’m going to open my own studio; that has always been in the back of my mind. I went into banking because I had a plan. It was about working through each part of the plan, and banking was part of that, the first stage. Now I’m tattooing and the idea of starting up my own business isn’t too far away now. I probably could do it now, but you don’t want to rush these things. Also, there are many artists in my area that I love and respect, and I wouldn’t want to set up shop in their backyard, so to speak.”

In terms of her actual tattooing style, Jessica still feels there are certain kinds of tattooing she isn’t so confident with. “If I don’t have the confidence to do a certain tattoo, I let my customer know where they can go to get it done. There’s this great guy who called me asking if I could do a memorial portrait of his mother. I was flattered, but I was honest with him and explained it wasn’t something at this point I felt I could give justice to. I said that perhaps in the future he could give me a call, but he was very keen to get tattooed by me. He asked if we could just do something traditional instead, and that’s what we did. He’s coming back again soon to see me – he hadn’t been tattooed since 1986! This gentleman has become one of many regular clients of mine, and I attribute this to my sincere honesty with my own abilities.”

Jessica grew up in a very conservative family, so tattooing was always considered something of a taboo. “Your body was a temple, that sort of thing.” But a lot of things about the church bothered Jessica when she was growing up. She wasn’t allowed to wear trousers on a Sunday; she had to wear a dress instead. But Jessica always felt that if the Lord was such a respectful person, then why would he care what one was wearing, and even further, why would he care if one had tattoos. Even as a child, Jessica was drawn to art. Her father was a painter and she remembers being amazed at how he’d put someone’s face on the paper so accurately with either pencil or pain. There were many things that didn’t make sense to her about the Church’s opinion of things, and it was those things that Jessica found herself particularly drawn to. “I thought it was amazing that you could create art on the skin.”

By the time she was in university Jessica had a lot of friends who were heavily tattooed and/or pierced; she wanted to be surrounded by people like that. “So it wasn’t entirely a shock to my family when I started getting tattooed.” Later in her career, while working in higher education, a caricature artist asked her, ‘If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?’ She responded by saying, ‘a tattoo artist!’ so he drew her as a tattoo artist, and she still has the picture to this day. “It was when my hair was naturally blonde and before I was getting heavily tattooed. You’d never look at me and think I was going to be this person that went on to work in tattooing and body modification.”

For Jessica, working in higher education and dealing with bureaucracy begun to have a stifling effect on her. “I’m a passion chaser, I like being happy. At the end of the day I would rather tattoo than deal with that side of things. I don’t have my neck, chest, or my hands tattooed though, so when I was in banking I was able to get away with being heavily tattooed.” Jessica’s philosophy is that she can walk in both realms of society, and that is very important to her. “I think that when you understand the stereotypes, and those lines, people will open themselves up more to you, simply because you’re respecting both sides of it. We’re trying to change the perspective of tattooing. Unfortunately those stereotypes still exist amongst conservative minds, but because of the way I approach it, it’s going to open a lot more eyes.”

Looking at Jessica’s role in NY Ink, I wanted to find out what her favourite style of tattooing was, as that was something which never got entirely uncovered on the show. “I would say my favourite style is black and grey photorealism – I love doing that smooth shading. It takes a lot of patience. Usually I don’t have much of an attention span, but for whatever reason, I’ve found that I do when I’m tattooing. But I want to be versatile, to be able to do everything. I’m comfortable with saying if it’s not my speciality then I can send you to somebody whose speciality it is. I think because of my pin-up style I’m attracting a lot of people who are particularly into that traditional style of tattooing, so I’m actually tattooing more of that than I thought I would be, but I’m really enjoying it. I’ll probably take on a little of that traditional style, but it’s definitely that black and grey that I really love, and infusing it with maybe a little bit of colour.”

Black and grey tattoos are a style that was featured heavily on NY Ink, particularly the work of Tim Hendricks and Tommy Montoya. “I didn’t know of Tommy prior to the show, but I knew of Tim. My heart beat so fast before I met him. I felt so unbelievably blessed to be working with him because he’s such a phenomenal and talented person who is also very humble. Tommy is the same way. He was my number one supporter and I think that the show finally showed that in the end. They didn’t show how awesome he was to me all the time, but he was really my buddy; we’d do push-ups at the shop every day and he’d make me laugh more than anyone else there. I respect the two of them so much because black and grey is one of the hardest things to do; to get a very smooth transition between your shadows and your highlights. When you’re working with something as delicate as a portrait, you have to be on it. You have to have an attention to detail that is astute; it has to be strong. Megan is a phenomenal colour artist; she has a style that is very whimsical. So I watched her a lot because it wasn’t naturally how I would work. I also have never really been drawn to the Japanese style, but it was great to be exposed to that too through Ami and Billy. There wasn’t a style not on display at Wooster, because there were also a lot of people behind the scenes too; it’s a huge shop, and if you haven’t scoped it out then you definitely should.”

Jessica’s pin-up style goes a lot further than just the look. “It goes back to my idea of childhood and family. My parents got divorced when I was in high school, and even though I went through a period where I was like ‘screw family’ and ‘screw marriage’, I’ve developed a strong bond with the idea of it. Marriage to me was something that really interested me when I was in undergraduate school studying sociology. I remember being drawn to the era of the ’50s. Even if it appeared to be somewhat fake or staged, there was this idea that you stand by your family no matter what. So even though I hated that because I didn’t have it, I felt there was something beautiful in the idea of it. Okay, so the woman stays at home, and god, I could never stay at home! But I think it would be great if I could. You don’t bail on each other either; you don’t cancel or give up unless the situation is clearly unhealthy for the children and one’s mental health. And the music of that era just has so much passion. Nothing sounds like it did then, and  nothing is made the same way it was then either. I have products from the ’50s that still work and run perfectly, but everything now comes apart almost immediately. The clothes were sexy then and their lines were cut perfectly. You didn’t feel you had to starve yourself to get on a runway. You could be curvy and you could be a woman, and my mum had always said women were supposed to be curvy. You’re supposed to shake when you walk. You take all of those things and you put them altogether, and it’s just natural that I’d be crazily in love with the pin-up image. I really want to do my own line of pin-up professional clothing. The more and more I became involved in tattooing, the more I started embracing the things that I love, and started dressing that way.”

Jessica’s early upbringing might also have something to do with her deep fascination with family and tradition, and we closed our conversation with Jessica exploring her childhood. “I lived out in the country. I could ride dirt bikes on a daily basis. My dad would walk out of the front door and go hunting. Mum still lives in the same house I grew up in, and I love that feeling when I go home because it feels like I’m really going home, y’know? I can fish and fillet a fish like nobody’s business – give me a blade and a fish and I’ll work magic! I can skin a deer and field dress a deer. I love that, I love that I grew up like that. I love camping; I grew up doing that kind of thing all the time. And I was always very close to my mother, and still am. She’s a phenomenal woman that puts everything into her family, which is a great example to set.

I credit my mother for the strong woman that I am today and for my inability to give up. Cheers to my mum!”


Text: Tom Abbott; Photography: Celeste Giuliano