Sean Herman - Pilgrim's Progress: Part 2

Published: 07 November, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 218, November, 2012

Now, where were we? Sean Herman’s journey towards becoming a tattooer (he prefers the term to ‘tattoo artist’) has featured skateboarding, punk rock, shuttling around the American South, doing battle with gods in various guises, a stab at being a priest, and an actual stab at him courtesy of a street hood in Birmingham, Alabama.

It’s been an uneven road that’s finally led him to Royal Street Tattoo. This is his church. This is where he heals his – and others’ – hurts, which quickly becomes apparent when we delve deeper into his life as a working tattoo artist.

But before that, a little scene setting is in order. Royal Street is the tattoo temple founded by CW Neese, himself a character of some repute. “He was the guy that everyone had heard of,” says Sean, recalling his early encounters with CW. “He lived one of those lives everyone talks about when he was young – quit school by the time he was 15 and was hopping trains across the country.”

Nowadays, CW presides over the studio that’s very much his heart in a building, according to Sean. “He wanted to create an environment where the people he loved could work and grow. Every person who gets involved with the shop goes through CW first. Then he approaches the four of us who have been here since early on, and we all discuss if we want that person to be involved.”

The studio operates much like a collective: each member of the Royal family (sorry) takes responsibility for a different aspect of the day-to-day running of the shop, from bills to maintenance. “CW treats everyone as if they are family and does whatever he can for them,” says Sean. “Not many shops have that, and I’m truly lucky to be involved.”

Down to Business

Stage duly set, it’s time to discuss tattooing. Sean has talked at length about the idea of the energy transfer that takes place during the tattoo process [see last issue] and the importance of creating a positive experience, which begs the question: what’s that process like for the artist? It must be challenging to channel ‘positive energy’ every day, be that in the form of mystical intent or simply the act of not becoming a surly brute after six hours behind the needle.

“It’s definitely not easy,” he admits. “You have to go into the situation knowing that you can only give so much, because you only have so much to give.” The Herman canon involves morning meditation to help him focus his mind on the here and now, without getting overwhelmed with plans for the coming day. “That helps a ton, because then I can give my client the time that they deserve, and the time
that I want to be able to give them.”

It all feeds into creating a good tattoo and also a good tattooing experience, as keeping his attention in the present avoids cluttering his head with distracting thoughts and helps each tattoo design (and the act of creating it) stay fresh. “All that matters is the tattoo, and the experience created. There are definitely days, many of them, when I am completely drained from it all,” he says. “I’m at a point now where I’m trying to work on keeping my energy up, not let myself get so drained. It’s all a process, a continual learning process.”

Good times, bad times

He certainly finds the tattoo process liberating, despite the occasional weariness, because of the tranquil state of mind it can produce. “I am in complete freedom because nothing else is happening,” he says, “my mind is completely focused.”

Of course, he’s had his share of bad experiences, like every artist, working in shops where his first interaction with the client has been when they arrive for their appointment. “Those are the situations that I think start off as difficult because the client already feels disconnected, which is the last thing that you want to have happen.”

However he says it’s been ‘years’ since he had to deal with a negative session, which he attributes in part to taking control of his schedule, making sure to build in a little time to get to know the people he works on. “Connection and communication are key to a good tattoo experience. I want the client to know what’s going on in the situation. They’ve been counting down the days to this appointment, I want them to know that I have too.”

Perhaps the other secret to his success is a loyal congregation; he’s basically been tattooing the same 20 people for several years now, with a new client only settling into the chair every now and then. The result is an engaging rapport with clients and a relationship “based on respect”, which inevitably leads to inking sessions having a positive feeling and a high level of energy.

This sustained relationship with his clientèle suits Sean’s personal approach and helps those who come to see him. “If the client comes in with an emotional problem going on, say the loss of a loved one, that already established relationship is usually then strengthened because of the trust that we have developed. We can discuss the situation or not talk about it at all, whatever they need.”

Skin schisms

Of course, tattooing is a broad church and there will be many collectors and artists out there for whom Sean’s take on the process – energy exchange, emotional empathy et al – will prove hard to swallow. “Fair enough,” he says. “If someone feels tattooing is a certain thing to them, then that’s what it is and they’re entitled to that.

“If those people are being honest with how they feel, and being truthful, then I commend them and they’re completely right,” he continues. After all, tattooing isn’t one thing at any one time; it depends on your point of view. The tattoo experience might differ for the client, the artist, the people viewing the finished piece, or even those (friends or family, say) affected by an artist’s devotion to their craft. “For all those people, it may be an entire range of different things, different things that they feel tattooing is, or should be.”

He’s passionate about his work and tattooing as a whole, but perhaps a lesson learned the hard way, he feels no pressure to evangelise. “If someone hates tattooing, that’s fine. It’s not our place to tell people what to think.” He points out the irony of the counter-culture disciple who complains about having religion shoved down their throats, but expects the world at large to pay attention to their own causes. “If we expect to find common ground, the only way is through mutual respect. Tell me about your god, I’ll tell you how I think, and we may both be surprised by how similar we are.”

It all comes down to vocabulary, he argues. “I think that if we sat down and talked with those tattooers who say tattooing isn’t magical, took out silly vocabulary words, we would find how much we really have in common.”

The faithful few

It’s perhaps unusual for an artist to stick with a small group of regular clients, but it makes sense that once Sean has found that common ground with a client – and vice versa – he’ll stick with them. “I think it happens because of the relationship that forms between the two of us. We end up spending hour upon hour together once a month for quite a while. As a tattoo artist, I tend to engage quite a bit with the client.”

Gradually, one piece leads on to another, a personal retrospective of Sean’s art on each client. Does it bother him to see old pieces? “No, I love working on the same people, because you get to see your work age. I enjoy looking at all the pieces from over the years, and having people tell me stories about what that tattoo now means to them, or about interactions that they have had with people involving it.”

There’s also the learning curve. “I tend to do things differently all the time, so it’s also really interesting to look back on older work and see how things look now, as opposed to how they looked then.”

Designs for life

Royal Street is far from a closed church though, despite Sean’s fixed band of regulars. Getting a tattoo from him starts with a conversation, usually by email, about the sort of piece a client has in mind. “If it’s something that I can imagine anyone else doing, I will always recommend that they do it. I want the client to get the best tattoo they can get, not something that is me trying to be someone else.”

Then there’s a consultation where possible, discussing their ideas or – if they just want a Herman original – the elements of his work they particularly enjoy. “Then I’ll ask what things they’re into in general. In the end, they’re the ones wearing the piece, so I want to make sure it reflects them, more than anything.” And with that, the design takes shape.

But ultimately, this is a story about change, whether that’s in the form of faith-shaking encounters on the street or career-altering apprenticeships, so all those steps are just part of the journey towards the final piece. For Sean, change is the only constant – and consequently, it doesn’t matter how much planning goes into a tattoo, something will always come up to alter things. “I will usually do a few drawings and figure out which one reflects what we talked about best,” he says. “Then change everything last minute!” And so the journey continues.

Behind the ink

"This piece was on another regular of mine who I have been tattooing for years. We’d talked about a few things to finish up one of his sleeves, but nothing was concrete. Right before he came down from Atlanta, he emailed me and told me that his dog had passed away; this dog was incredibly close to both him and his lady, it was family to them and had lived a long life. Anyone with a pet knows how heartbreaking that is, and I really sympathised with them.

“After I read the email I started doodling and working on sketches that were in my head – I wanted to do a piece on him that represented the growth that comes from death, and the death of a loved one. The piece eventually got too large to fit in the small spot to finish out his sleeve, but I figured he wouldn’t mind if we had to put it somewhere else.

“When they came in I brought the piece out and explained where I was going with it to them. I usually tattoo a face to represent the person getting the piece; then the multiple eyes are for a collective consciousness that we live in, that we are united in. So I’m conveying how ‘we’ feel in the piece. The keyhole is set in the mind’s eye to show that consciousness is something we can unlock, if we choose. The skull is set back in the keyhole to show the depth of mortality that we are living with; one day we will die. The silhouette of the birds flying upwards represents the freedom that will be found in death.

“So all in all, the piece represents a freedom and understanding that is found for us all in death. After my long ramble, Dave just looked over at me and said, ‘I love it, it’s perfect’. The words all tattoo artists want to hear!

“It’s a pleasure to get to tattoo my clients, especially Dave and his lady Shana, and that day was no exception. We got to talk a lot about what they had been going through, and about fun, silly stuff like horror films and punk rock. When all was said and done, Dave looked in the mirror and again said those magical words, ‘it’s perfect’, I was a happy guy.”

28850 US Hwy 98
Suite 107
AL 36526


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Sean Herman