Adam Hays - Can You Feel The Force?

Published: 08 November, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 218, November, 2012

Adam Hays’ thing is Star Wars. To the extent that he’s done T-shirt designs for Lucasfilm and ended up in a coffee table book featuring Star Wars tattoos. But there are many layers to this Texan former saddle maker turned New York tattoo studio owner.

Whenever Adam Hays goes to a tattoo convention nowadays, the majority of what he tattoos features something from Star Wars. It all started when he worked in his first shop in College Station, Texas, and got bored one day…  

“I was doing 14-15 tattoos per day. Tiny ones, all about the size of a quarter,” he explains. “Sorority girls that wanted little crosses and stuff like that. Man, I hated it. When I was bored I used to try to come up with my own flash sets, and in 2004 I did my first Star Wars flash set.

“I try to do Star Wars tattoos that look old school rather than just screenshots that I’ve seen so many other people doing. These characters are so cool. You can do so much more with them and draw your own interpretation.

“At the time there wasn’t much of this going on, so now wherever I travel I end up doing Star Wars tattoos. I think I probably hold the Guinness world record for doing the most Star Wars tattoos.”

His reputation eventually gave him the opportunity to work with George Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm. It happened after he was featured in The Force in the Flesh, a coffee table book on tattoos from the movies published by the Canadian writer and Star Wars aficionado, Shane Turgeon, in 2007.

“I think I have the largest spread in there, and eventually I got to do a T-shirt design for Lucasfilm. They did a line of Star Wars tattoo T-shirts and I got to do the first one. It’s pretty cool to see your name on the back of official Lucasfilm merchandise. In 2010 they asked me to come and tattoo at Celebration V, the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back. I couldn’t go, but I will do Celebration VI this year, which is the 30th anniversary of Return of the Jedi.”

Strangely, every tattoo that he does at the celebration will be an officially licensed Lucasfilm piece of art. “I will have to pay royalties to them, which is kind of interesting, it will be a fun thing to do though. I really hope I get to tattoo somebody in full Stormtrooper armour. That would be great. I don’t want to take myself too seriously. I think there are a lot of people in this industry who try to act like bad-asses, but if you break it down, you’re just a working artist colouring for a living. How bad-ass of a dude can you actually be?”

It’s not all science fiction, though. He does other stuff as well.

“I was looking for a niche. Something different that would make people at conventions remember me, but I think I’ve pigeon-holed myself now!” he says with a laugh. “Everywhere I go, people want Star Wars characters and I’m like: ‘Hey, I can do other stuff as well. I think I do good animals. How about a panther?’ But it’s always fun, because I know wherever I travel I will have a cool piece to do.”

And most of what he does is freehand…

“Most of the times I think you get a cooler, more original piece that way. People will be happier in the long-run. A lot of people get annoyed when they don’t get to see the design ahead of time, but it seems like most of my clients nowadays understand. When it comes to anything organic, like Japanese, it’s always better just drawing it on. I think that was one of the biggest steps in my career, when I went from drawing all on paper to drawing primarily on skin. I never liked stencils. I always felt limited putting stuff on paper and then being stuck with this set design. It’s hard to adapt and I can’t really change the flow once it’s on there. This way it makes it more of an art project than a working project, and it’s especially good for cover-ups.”

And how about New York? Planning on staying now?

“New York grows on you like a fungus, man. I thought I was going to be here three, four years, and now I own a tattoo studio and I’m looking into buying a house. I’m going to be here for a while – but I have a lot of guns. As they say, ‘you can take the boy out of Texas, but not Texas out of the boy’. I can’t have them here in New York though. I have them at my Dad’s place.”

To whom he apparently is a let-down, Adam explains with a smirk.

“I grew up really blue collar. My Dad is a ditch digger and I would have been a third generation ditch digger, so I’m probably a huge disappointment. I’m thinking of my Dad, 65 years old, breaking his back and I’m sitting in an air-conditioned room colouring on a pretty girl’s butt. That’s not work, that’s fun. It’s luxury, not a necessity.”

“I worked in a saddle shop and that’s where I got my sense for details. You can’t undo anything there. There are no erasers, and I still do portfolios and motorcycle seats every now and then.”

Red Rocket Tattoo

78 West 36th Street 3rd floor
New York
New York, 10018
(212) 736 3001


Text: Simon Lundh; Photography: Adam Hays