Frank La Natra - If You Go Down to The Woods Today...

Published: 15 October, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 217, October, 2012

It’s only after sitting with Frank La Natra for the best part of a couple of hours that it dawns on me that we should have gone for a walk. Where would have been better to talk about the opening of Into The Woods, than in the biggest forest on the face of the planet. Then again, maybe it’s just as well… it’s a jungle out there.

Straightening what will surely become a trademark cap on his head, Frank La Natra is excited to be talking about the future. “I started my apprenticeship about 15 years ago, but I don’t think I genuinely became a tattoo artist until, maybe, four years ago,” he says in his East Coast drawl.

We’re sitting in a quiet space at the Paradise Tattoo Gathering. On the other side of the wall you can’t hear yourself think, yet to sit here and look through the window at what must be hundreds of thousands of trees, we could be the only people in the state. Yesterday, Frank took the Best of Day award at the show. That means something. Also at the show are Jeff Gogue, Nikko Hurtado, Stefano Alcantara, Bob Tyrell, and his friend Jesse Smith… like I say, it means something. Starting his career banging in flash in what he calls “ghetto shops”, it’s been a long road for Frank to find himself amongst all of his talent. “I’ve been going to school for the last four years, and when I decided that I wanted to be a tattoo artist, and what I wanted to do as that artist – because I’d been doing portraits for a while – I realised that’s not who I am, so I really had to focus on doing this.’

‘Doing this’ amounts to something that’s happening more and more right now. Deciding what you want the public to see, dictates only showing them the style you wish to work in. Sounds ideal, right? But the truth is, how much confidence do you have that your career won’t crumple like a cheap suit when you take away your entire back catalogue to be left with only what you think is the cream? “I just made that very jump within the last two months man. I just graduated, decided to move forward with my tattooing career, and I immediately realised that I had to stop doing portraits. I took them all out of my portfolio, so the only thing I’m going to advertise myself as doing is my own artwork. So yeah, I just made that leap – it takes a lot out of the equation, but I’m slowly building up and I’m surprised by how quickly people have come to recognise me by my own artwork.

“It was actually really hard for me to do. I was taking them out little by little, but it wasn’t until Jesse (Smith) – who is a good friend and he’s always been a guiding light for me – convinced me to go all out that I went for it. I was making the portraits less and less in the portfolio and then he would tease me that there were still a few left. I thought I was completely justified in leaving a few in there because it was good work and I wanted people to see what I was capable of, but as soon as they were all out of there and I made that move, it felt right, it felt comfortable, and it felt like me.”

And he’s right. It’s been a long time since I even recall seeing a Jesse Smith portrait – maybe I’d have to go shake him into digging one up out of his secret archives, but it would look wrong – and that’s exactly the same boat that Frank finds himself in. Let’s face it, a good portrait is a good portrait, but when you’re putting ink into skin with no fuel but your own imagination behind it, it’s a completely different ball game.

“I read a lot of fantasy. I’m a huge R.A. Salvatore fan. I love a lot of fantasy and horror novels, some sci-fi – who doesn’t love Star Wars – and basically anything that inspires my imagination with characters. Reading so much used to affect how I worked – literally off the page – because I was doing such a lot of fantasy-style illustration and that was what I always wanted to do. I was really into dragons and knights, but – and I don’t know how this happened – it doesn’t affect my art work anymore. Now, I find I’m far more influenced by the guys at Pixar and Disney. Having said that, I still take some of the morbid aspects from fantasy and add them to the kid-like qualities of my work.

Somebody’s always getting hurt or dying, even in the more innocent-looking pieces. Something vicious is always happening in there somewhere!”

Frank came into the world in 1976, which is great news for me; it’s always handy when you can touch the same stones of pop culture references. No matter which way you shake it, we all grew up being exposed to this stuff and not tattoos, largely – this is the stuff that shapes us in the long term. We find a common ground with MAD magazine (now sadly not even a Vashta Narada shaped shadow of its former self) and revel in the old strips that shaped our sense of humour probably until the day we die: “I can see that you know – but only now that you mention it. I collected MAD for years and Cracked magazine too. You remember that? It was like some cheap spin-off that wasn’t quite as good. They definitely inspired my drawings as a kid, and now that I come to think about it, there was always that morbid sense and darkness about what they did, and in turn, what I did because of it.”

For those of you that remember the magazine, on the back cover, they used to have this great piece of art every single month with some text above and below it. All you had to do was fold along the dotted lines and it would collapse into a far more bizarre image and ‘rework’ the text to become some biting diatribe on the state of America. Can it be done with tattoo? That remains to be seen. But if anybody can figure out a way to make it happen, it has to be Frank. From the three relatively short days that I’ve been with him here, one gets the impression that Frank is more than ready to set the world on fire.

“I’m very cordial about this transition though. They’re coming to me now because they’re familiar with the quality of my work and what I do now. Sometimes people will come and ask me for black and grey based on the quality of my work, but that’s not for me, I’m a full colour artist. But rather than make them feel stupid or turn them away, I’ll help them find somebody that they can work with, because at one time, they would have been clients of mine, y’know? It’s about being respectful in all aspects of the business, so I still try and make that effort, but when it comes to what I’ll tattoo on you, it’s my way or the highway! There’s too much to do to be doing things that I’ve consciously moved away from.”

At some point in the next few weeks – and as is the nature of magazine publishing, it will have happened by the time you read this – Frank will have opened his new studio. Is he good to go? Well, I can see the wheels spinning behind his eyeballs…

“We’ll do all kinds of work there, it’s not just ‘Frank’. I’ll be the lynchpin there, but like I said before, those black and grey works that need fulfilling, we have guys that can do that for you… but I’m really doing what I want to do. I’m not so much a tattoo artist as an illustrator. Hell, I am an illustrator, and whether that’s on canvas or people, digital or drawings, it doesn’t matter because it’s all going to be Frank La Natra’s artwork. Right here is where it starts.

“Tattooing will always be right up front though no matter what I do, because nothing else gives that kind of satisfaction – that one-on-one relationship you get with the client is priceless. I spend months, years even, with a piece because they’re so huge and are worked on over such a long period of time – I’ll never develop that kind of relationship with anybody who walks into a gallery and picks up of my paintings. I don’t ever want to lose that process of hugs and pride that you get when a tattoo is finished.”

The price paid for this kind of commitment is high though, as it is with all tattooing. You can spend months working on a piece, and bar a few photographs, it’s probably the last you’ll ever see of it. Frank seems to have this figured out though: “It’s always sad to see them walking away, but most of my clients – unless they’re collectors who are doing the rounds of all the great artists that are out there – are repeat offenders.”

I think that from the outside, it may seem that Frank has turned up out of nowhere and invited himself to the big boy’s table, but that’s not the case at all. His time recently spent in school, and his friendship with Jesse Smith have all gone to making a solid foundation of truth for Frank. It’s a way of working that, here in the UK, we don’t take enough notice of. Guilt by association when you’re living in a popular culture environment, goes a long way for others to figure out where you belong.

“Jesse gave me a lot of guidance. I think I got here a lot faster because he’s been through it… there’s so many artists that have helped guide me because they’ve been on the scene for so long. You’d be a fool to ignore that kind of help if it was available; I take and I try to use. A lot of people will listen and go through the motions of ‘yeah, yeah…’, but I try to take every little scrap that is relevant to me and put it into action. I think that’s what helped me move along so far and so fast.

“The new studio will hopefully embrace all of these things that I’ve learned and push it outwards now that we’ve brought it in. The studio/ gallery is called Into The Woods, which is based on the fairytales, Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White – how they all went into the woods on a quest to grow and learn, and that’s the premise of the shop. When people enter Into The Woods on their own quest, they’re going to be educated and walk out different people. I’m not simply a tattoo artist… I’m an artist and tattooing is my choice of media. It would be wonderful for people to understand that and the differences between them. I can get a Frank La Natra piece of art onto somebody’s skin a lot faster than I can get it onto canvas, but you are still the owner of that piece – there’s no separation there anymore. There’s a lot of education to be done out there in the world.

“Y’know, I simply want to be known as an artist. I want to be able to do all my huge animated paintings and have them in a gallery. All my original paintings and drawings – none of them are not a tattoo; none of them are designed just to be a piece of artwork to go on a wall. They are all designed to be a tattoo first, but the tattoo then becomes a piece of fine art for me. Never the other way around. Rendering and colour studies are all done in advance as part of that process so then I can go ahead an do the tattoo without wasting time.

“The first consultation will be a half-hour to an hour – that’s just us talking and getting to know the bones of the piece. Then, it will be a few months before I even get to draw the piece because I’m always backed up on drawings, so over the first few months we stay in contact and continue to discuss ideas, because over that period of time, things pop into your head, both theirs and mine. The story needs time to develop, so by the time we come to actually draw it, we know exactly what we’re doing because that thing is now huge in my head and ready to roll. People pay good money for this; if you’re willing to invest in me, then I’m willing to invest in you.”

Further conversation down this road eventually prompts an interesting question: where is all the art? It would be interesting to have some kind of idea as to where pieces by Nikko Hurtado and Jeff Gogue find themselves living, would it not? Who’s buying, and are they fans of the artist or of fine art? Is it out doing its job in the bigger world, or is it still nesting in this niche?

“I think the minute you mention in the fine art world that you tattoo, you are all of a sudden put in a box. There’s still a negative connotation and that’s sad,” Frank muses. “So you have to find other ways to prove you’re an artist. Is it going to take a Nikko Hurtado piece of art to appear in the Metropolitan before it changes? That might turn it around, but the chances of that happening are probably pretty slim.

“I think people like Jeff and Nikko – and others – are definitely going to move into the fine art world. Because you know what? All those fine artists right now that are struggling and doing things that people are fawning over because they drew a dot on a canvas – it doesn’t cut it. I think people will come back to us and see this whole other movement and that we’re doing something so, so different.

“Realistically, you can’t tattoo forever, and we have to go somewhere. That somewhere is with our art. That’s the thing that will enable us to eat every day, but we have to break down that barrier. The great thing right now is that a tattoo artist will never be a starving artist. It let’s us pay the bills and hone the craft, but overall, I’m hoping I can be one of the first with Into The Woods to start taking the bricks out of the wall.”

As an insider/ outsider on this, I pose the scenario of how great it would be if this ethos started crossing continents. Is it possible for a hungry studio in the UK, to take on Frank’s model and work with him at some trans-Atlantic education? “That would really be something – and something I would love to be involved in. Helping each other do it across the world would be great, coming together to break down that wall would be so incredible. We can do this – all you need is to bring it to the table and people will be willing to join in. Take this show that we’re at. Great art is the whole point of the show. It’s artists who want to be better artists, and isn’t that what we all want?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the trail of breadcrumbs laid for you to follow. Whatever it is you want to do.

R.A. Salvatore

R. A. Salvatore, is best known for The DemonWars Saga, his Forgotten Realms novels, in which he created the popular character Drizzt Do’Urden, and Vector Prime – the first novel in the Star Wars: The New Jedi Order series. He has sold more than 15 million copies of his books in the USA alone and 22 of his titles have been New York Times best-sellers. Like… holy cow.

In addition to his novels, Salvatore wrote the story for the PS2, Xbox and PC video game Forgotten Realms: Demon Stone (2004), working with the design team at Stormfront Studios. The game was published by Atari and was nominated for awards by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and BAFTA. CDS books commissioned him to edit a four book series based on the interactive online Everquest game. He also wrote the bot chat lines for the Quake III bots. Not bad for a fantasy nerd.

Frank Goes To School

“I just got my Bachelors in Illustration. I went from animation, which obviously inspires my artwork a lot, to illustration. I went in a little cocky, thinking I was 30 and all these other students were just kids – and I got humbled very quickly when I realised how much… well, let’s just say that what I did in five years at school, I couldn’t have done in 20 years on my own. The love from the teachers who took so much time to hone in on what I was good at and the time they took to help shape me – I couldn’t have found that outside. They pushed me to limits that I never knew I had. I am still so inspired by it that I’m going to have these professors do classes at the new studio. I want to give other artists and tattoo artists the opportunity that I got because those five years are not something that everybody has available to give up. People don’t realise how much you can get out of a structure such as this.”

“School is just a building. It’s the people that go into make a learning experience what it is. It was almost Dead Poets Society in the way that they were able to inspire us all to being greater than we ever thought we could be. I walked out of that school with a 4.0 – I busted my ass for five years and it was worth every penny and every minute, and I don’t regret a single second of it. I have to stay ahead of the game now. I’m new to this industry. This is my first convention out – a pretty big one – and I’m just about to start getting out there.

That schooling was a big part of getting me here.”

See. School’s not for fools. Sometimes, school is cool too.

Into the Woods Art Gallery 

138 North Federal Highway,
Dania Beach,
Florida 33004


Text: Sion Smith: Photography: Frank La Natra