Sean Herman - Pilgrim's Progress: Part 1

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

One day a few years ago, a young Sean Herman walked up to a group of guys in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. He started a conversation and offered them some homemade sandwiches, as it had recently become a habit for him to head into the city to try and help those less fortunate than himself. One of the group took exception to his charity and confronted him, shouting in his face. And then he stabbed him.

I felt a warm pressure in my side and he ran,” confirms Herman. “He had stabbed me, with a shank. It wasn’t deep, it wasn’t horrible, but it did bleed, and at that moment everything changed.”

Unlikely as it seems now, looking at the incredible work Sean creates at Royal Street Tattoo in Mobile, Alabama, up until this point the idea of tattooing for a living had never crossed his mind. Instead, this tattooed young punk was on the road to becoming a pastor until that fateful confrontation on the street led to a far greater one with the man upstairs – and a radical change of path.

In the beginning

Although the idea of being an artist hadn’t taken root, tattooing was already a big part of Sean’s life. It had been that way since the age of 12 when he developed a love of skateboarding and punk rock. “Punk was an outlet, something that told me I wasn’t alone; that other people felt the way I did.”

Exposure to punk culture also meant exposure to plenty of people covered in ink, and the idea of tattoos as skin autobiographies wormed its way into his mind and stuck there. “The idea started to intrigue me, of markings of progression through life,” he says, “a way to visually account for where you’ve been, and where you’re going.”

It wasn’t a piece of ink glimpsed from the heaving heat of a mosh pit that really inspired him in the end, though. It was a piece on Samoan tattooing legend, Paulo Sulu’ape. “Seeing that forever changed my life; I fell down the rabbit hole of the magic of tattoo. I identified with him, the magical, spiritual connection in tattooing,” he explains. “The way he spoke about a connection to the person receiving the tattoo, and the power that it gave, it was amazing, very inspiring. I knew tattooing would forever be an obsession to me, something I could never get out of my head.”

Finding faith

In the meantime though, it would have to take a backseat to his main career plan… becoming a man of God. “I loved tattooing, but I also loved the idea of trying to help change people’s lives in what I thought was a positive way.”

Looking back on it now, Sean believes the problem with this idea was his approach. “I didn’t understand at the time that I wasn’t going about it in the greatest way,” he says, and it quickly turned out that organised religion was just… well, too organised. “Dogma, doctrine, logistics; it all stopped adding up. After a few years of delivering sermons throughout the state, I stepped away from the church.”

At that point he did what anyone with faith might do; asked for help. “I asked the heavens what I should be doing,” he recalls. “I started making bags of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and going downtown to hand them out to whoever wanted them.” This tactic worked for a while, as it involved lots of talking but no preaching, all the human connection without the divine intervention. “I didn’t talk to anyone about an idea of God. I just ate sandwiches with people and walked around.” And we’re back to where we came in.

Losing my religion

Freshly wounded, Sean returned to his college room and had it out with his faith. Loudly. “I screamed and yelled. In hindsight, it’s kinda of funny to think that I had this drag out fight with a concept I had created.” When he awoke the next morning it was all done. “I went to the Southern Baptist board and told them I was no longer a Christian. Because of that I lost all of my scholarships and ended up having to leave the college.”

By any standards it was a pretty hefty change of direction that could have led anywhere, but fortunately for Sean he found solace in his tattoos, and finally in tattooing itself. “Tattooing became my focus and passion. I was getting heavily tattooed at the time, so I would always ask the guys who were tattooing me what I needed to do to be lucky enough to get into an apprenticeship.”

We all know this story: all of the doors were closed, for quite a while. Then the phone rang. “I got a call from my friend, Kele Idol, who had been tattooing me for a couple years, and he offered me an apprenticeship.”

He took up the machine under the tutelage of Idol and Justin Kontzen at Kontzen’s shop, Aerochild Tattoo, and a new path opened up ahead of him. “I’m eternally grateful. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.”

The artist as a young man

Opportunity is all well and good, but it won’t come to much without some ability to match. Luckily art had actually always been there, starting with comics.

“I loved comic books growing up. My dad would bring home these huge rolls of butcher paper for me to draw on. I started binding the pages and creating my own comics, my own story lines, my own worlds.”

For Sean it was all about the graphic eloquence of comic book art. He loved its ability to tell complicated stories and embrace abstract themes while still working with simple images, and cites Mike Allred (creator of Madman) as a major influence, an artist whose throwback style references ’50s and ’60s pop art. “To me he’s the greatest example of the older, simple, graphic style; like Jack Kirby, but done with a crazy new twist. To this day his work is one of my greatest inspirations.”

Despite this, he doesn’t consider himself an ‘artist’, preferring ‘tattooist’ to the ‘tattoo artist’ tag we like to use here at Skin Deep. “I never went through formal art training, I don’t paint really, or do many of those other things that artists do.” It’s all about the tattooing for him. “It’s hard for me to paint; every time I try I just think ‘man, I could be tattooing right now!’ That’s why I call myself a tattooist, because I think tattooing is something different all together.”

The Herman philosophy of tattooing embraces art, naturally, but he also sees shamanism and ritual in the process. “For me, tattooing has always been this amazing, magical thing that’s really hard to put into words.”

Home is where the art is

These days he practises this ritual at Royal Street Tattoo in Mobile, Alabama, the shop opened by his long-time buddy, CW Neese, and where he’s plied his trade for four years. “It’s been the hardest four years of my life, because of varying circumstances, but I’m very thankful to have had these friends and experiences to help get me to where I am today. I’ve learned more than I could ever have imagined.”

When we get into how his art has developed in that time, the first thing that comes up is a Bruce Lee maxim about style, taught to him by Kele Idol – ‘Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’

Does kung-fu philosophy fit into tattooing? It’s all about change, not being obsessed with form and adapting to suit the moment.

“Unconsciously, I never put much thought into style, I just thought about the next tattoo I was doing,” he says of his early work. “Because of that my style always changed, and is still always changing. Change is the only constant.”

Magic marker

And what about this idea of a tattooist as shaman? Before anyone else throws the word ‘hippy’ out there, he’s quick to get in first.
“It sounds hippy dippy, but I’m a huge believer in energy, negative and positive. As tattooers we’re working with people in a very intimate way. We’re literally opening their skin, and it’s painful; and when we’re opening these people up, their energy is coming out, good or bad. For some people it’s a release. We’ve all heard it before; people saying they get tattooed as a release for things going on in their lives. We all know that’s real.”

The tattooing process is one of energy exchange, he goes on, where the client releases energy as their skin is punctured but the artist also puts it back via the tattoo. Which could be uncomfortable if the artist isn’t in a great mood, right? “We’ve all heard the stories. People have a tattoo they hate because of the experience they had; it can be a great tattoo, but the experience ruined everything.”

Which means there’s a line to be walked between creating the right image and the right experience, according to Sean. “Not only does the piece being put on the client matter, but the creation of the experience matters just as much, if not more so for some people. That’s where the idea of the shaman in tattooing comes from; we’re responsible for helping guide them through this.”

He’s quick to acknowledge two things beyond this idea. One, people are in control of how they react to any experience, tattooing included, and in the end, the most a reputable artist can do is guide clients towards having a good time. And two, “it doesn’t always have to sound that serious!”

To give a real world example that isn’t “mumbo-jumbo sounding” he relates a tale about Philadelphia Eddie, told to him by the equally snazzily-named, Krooked Ken. “Ken stopped by Eddie’s shop and this couple came in. They didn’t want to get tattooed, it was the novelty: ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we went in there?’ Eddie was like, ‘we’ll put a beautiful tattoo on you. You’re already a beautiful women, probably the most beautiful woman that’s ever been in this shop, but this really would top it off.’” Sure enough, the lady in question got tattooed.

“That’s an example of guidance through tattooing,” he explains. “It wasn’t always some yogi sounding stuff, it’s also what was done by the old schoolers.” In this case, the old-time sales brogue created the conditions where the client wanted to get tattooed, to add a page to their skin autobiography in that time and place. And that’s really what it comes down to, he says. “It’s creating an experience for the person receiving the tattoo. As tattooers, our responsibility is to truly do everything we can to give them these ‘marks of progression’.”

Behind the ink

“I did this piece (above) on a regular client of mine. He had been going through a lot of life changes, some that had been very difficult on him. He had a small piece open on the back of his calf and told me to ‘just do whatever I wanted’. That freedom can be great, and horrifying, because of the amount of options.

“My mind kept going back to the Bruce Lee ‘water’ quote [see main article]. I tossed the idea to him about a piece based on this quote, as a way of helping to deal with the situation he was going through; emptying our minds and becoming like water, adapting to our situations, and owning them. I added the mind’s eye projection to show this idea of truly looking within ourselves, finding out who we are, and then becoming like water, flowing with the current and not against it.

“We talked about everything going into, and throughout, the tattoo. It made me happy, because when I showed him the drawing, he understood it and loved it. Then, when we finished the tattoo, it was something even more to him. I was very lucky to get that tattoo on him.”

Next time

We talk tattoo technique, planning pieces and the joy of repeat clients...

28850 US Hwy 98,
Suite 107
AL 36526


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Sean Herman