CVLT Nation Interviews – Tattoo Artist Jeremy Sutton
Photos by Nathaniel Shannon
Brooklyn based Tattoo Artist Jeremy Sutton isn’t hard to miss in a crowd, standing at a towering 6’6″ and covered from head to toe in tattoos. In fact, if one was casting a movie that called for an “intimidating as shit, tough looking Tattoo Artist,” you’d be hard pressed to find someone other than Jeremy to fill this role. But behind his take no shit appearance, Sutton is what some would call a Southern gentleman. And while he has been featured in such magazines as Skin and Ink, Flash and numerous others, Jeremy has humbly been leaving his mark on willing clients across the world. Previously based out of Three Kings Tattoo, Jeremy and his business partner and fellow artist Josh Egnew have opted to strike out on their own and open up their first shop together, Electric Anvil Tattoo. You’ve gotta respect any independent business owner these days. It’s tough out there. But when venturing out from the protective umbrella of an established shop, with only his skill and growing reputation in tow, one really has to pause and take note of you are witnessing. Jeremy was kind enough to sit down with me over a few drinks and discuss his personal feelings on his newly opened shop, plans for the future and what drives him. What followed for me was the realization that I wasn’t just talking to another Tattoo Artist, but a man who has an absolute love and personal understanding of this ancient art form. A man that not only has the deepest respect for his profession, but a driving intensity that is masked behind a laid back attitude and personal approach towards his clients.
Being able to actually break into this business, let alone establish your very own shop, is a pretty daunting task. What led you develop and nurture the idea of having your own place?
Jeremy: I’ve been in the business for eighteen years, give or take. You realize at a certain point that you want to do things your way. I’ve learned a lot of things over the years. Good and bad, from a lot of different people. The idea of having your own baby, something that is yours, that has your ethics, beliefs and what you want to do. I have a partner, Josh, and I couldn’t think of a better person to do this with or a better city to do it in. We saw the opportunity and had to jump on it.
How long had you two been formulating the idea of opening up Electric Anvil Tattoo?
Jeremy: We had been talking about it for a year. The last six months or so is when we really started pursuing it. Where we wanted to be, what the right neighborhood in New York would be. Because you know Williamsburg and Greenpoint are so saturated with tattoo shops.
What was it about the Crown Heights neighborhood that fit your idea so well?
Jeremy: I think it was a neighborhood that needed it. I had a lot of clientele that were coming from that area. It’s still changing, it’s still affordable. People had to travel pretty far from that place to get anywhere. Not to mention the food is really good down there, which was a plus in my book.
I’m sure opening up your own shop has been a dream for a long time. But to achieve it I would imagine is no small feat. In terms of sacrifice and self-discipline, how hard was this for you?
Jeremy: Definitely still is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Being an adult sucks. From not going out and partying in Brooklyn to not seeing friends or family. But I know that they all understand and respect that it’s so rewarding to have this chance.
Was there anything that shocked you and Josh upon opening the shop?
Jeremy: Shocked? Absolutely. I came from Three Kings Tattoo, who have such great artists over there and do such an incredible job. I was surrounded by family at Three Kings. I could walk to work, my hours were simple. Going from working four days a week at Three Kings to six at my own shop was pretty crazy. Another huge shock was what you pay for rent in New York. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still unbelievable. From deposits to planning on rent increases over the next couple of years. It’s a lot of money.
Now that all is said and done, where do you hope to see yourself in a year? Five years? Do you see yourself staying in New York now that you’ve accomplished this endeavor?
Jeremy: In a year? Honestly – in the same place. The business is now growing. Word of mouth is getting out there. Hopefully we’ll have some more tattoo artists that will work with us. That’s definitely a big part of owning a shop, having a crew that want to work and do something with us. People that either have an established presence or ones that show a huge amount of potential to grow alongside us and do something special. Five years from now? Hopefully I can split time between here in New York City and somewhere a little slower. I’m from the south, so I miss that slower pace. I don’t know. I love New York City. Whenever I travel and come back here, it feels like home to me.
Have you guys talked about hiring more artists now that you’ve opened the doors and business is starting to come in?
Jeremy: Josh and I still depend on walk-ins. When we bring someone else in, that’s something we want them to take over. Or if they’re more established, we’ll have a chair ready for them. More than just the art, you have to live with this person. You’re spending a ton of hours alongside with them. To have personalities mesh is so important. At Three Kings, you were sometimes working with twelve or thirteen different artists. But it was a family, which is important with running a shop. Sure, you might step on someone’s toes. It does happen. You don’t think about music being an issue. They’ll take an album or band that you love and just run it into the ground. Which makes you want to strangle them. They’ll take an album you love and destroy it. So yeah, the chemistry has to be there with a person before they can come on board.
Can you describe what the initial feeling was like the moment you opened up the doors for business? In addition to that, how rewarding was it to have your first client step in, sit down and get the very first piece done in this new shop?
Jeremy: Really exciting and terrifying. Pulling the paper off the windows and having people walk into your business, it was incredible. Being able to turn the key on the lock everyday and open the doors is something I can’t really describe. The hard work you put it into it, the ideas of where you want to put everything, the colors of the shop. We took very cautious steps with everything. We were very aware that this was how we were presenting ourselves. The first walk was so exciting. You know how you always see a business with their first dollar bill framed and hung up? I can appreciate that now. When they walked in, they just were looking around and taking everything in, commenting on how nice everything looked and appreciating the level we were trying to go for. From her filling out the paperwork to sitting down in the chair and finally finishing the piece, all these things I’ve done a million times over the last eighteen years. But knowing that it was done in my shop, my own business was really exciting and something else. Being able to see that she was super pleased with the piece and grabbing a card on her way out, saying that she was going to tell her friends. That’s how it all starts.
Forgive me for saying this, but you look like one hell of an intimidating dude. However, you’ve built a reputation as being an easy going, open to any idea kinda of guy in terms of working with your clients. This attitude seems to be inherent in you and perhaps even cultivated and nurtured by experience and time. People always have stories about working with asshole tattoo artists and those that won’t meet eye to eye. As far as this goes, how important is it to you to be relatable and meet the clients expectations, while also being able to put your trademark on a piece?
Jeremy: It can be very difficult, because at the end of the day, it’s a job. You have responsibilities, people that depend on you and bills that have to be paid. But you also have to make people realize what’s going to be a good tattoo. I come from a time in tattooing where if you can’t do it, you don’t have a job. Now these days, a lot of younger artists will say, “I won’t do that, it’s not my style. That’s not how I tattoo.” You really wouldn’t have a job in the 90’s and early 2000’s with that attitude. Granted, people are making a living now with their own style, but my thing is being diverse. That shows you not being just a Tattoo Artist, but a craftsman. You can pull off what anyone wants. You’re an artist. You have to be diverse in my eyes. Black and grey, color, portraits. A lot of people get pigeonholed into doing a very specific style. I could never do that. Day to day, I wake up feeling different about tattooing and that’s why I love it.
Here in New York City, people seek me out. They’ve done their research so it’s a little easier to convince them and say, “Hey, let’s go in this direction.” A lot of times, people walk into your shop with no understanding of what goes into this. They’ll want something they saw on someone else or on a website. It’s definitely hard to convince them to veer away from that away and create something that would be their own. It can be difficult. This day and age though, people tend to seek you out based on what they’ve seen you do somewhere else.
Have you ever shot down a client or just flat out said no?
Jeremy: Oh, all the time. Usually they want too much of something. Now these days, people feel that tattoos have to be so meaningful. I understand that it’s permanent. It’s a justification for getting it and they want every aspect of their lives in it. Which I think is a huge mistake. To do that, it ends up looking like a mashed up, mess of an image. People want a phoenix, but with all their kids’ astrological symbols hidden throughout it, ya know? You just have to try and steer them towards the right ideas and what’s going to make a pretty tattoo. Some people want your input and to point them in the right direction. When I go get services done, say picking out cloths for a wedding, I need someones advice from the store. That’s what they do and know. With tattooing, people who come in sometimes are really fixed on something and you’re not going to see eye to eye with them, so you have to let them down as easy as possible. As a tattooist, you not only have to be a good artist, you also need to know how to talk to people.
If you could pick and choose, say from a line up, what would your ideal client be?
Jeremy: Someone who has a good idea and has done their research before coming in. Who’s willing to listen to what your input is. Wait, no. If they want skulls and snakes somewhere on them. That’s actually my ideal client.
On top of being able to relate and work with just about anyone, you’ve also shown an aptitude for working in a number of different styles and concepts. Is there one particular style that you really enjoy doing? And on the flip-side of that, is there one that you really dislike or dread doing?
Jeremy: Style-wise, I like classic imagery. What tattoos have always been. Dragons and skulls. A lot of Japanese imagery is built to be tattooed and I love doing that stuff. I love American Traditional work as well, but I also like it when it’s updated. When people show a certain flare and get creative with it. When you can do something old, but with a twist. If you can change it and still abide by the rules of the style.
A certain style that I don’t like? Man I don’t know. I enjoy all of them for certain reasons. The only tattoo I refuse to do is Saint Michael. I’ve done it so many times, it’s tired. People that get it don’t really understand what that image means, and half the time the person would actually be the demon in it, ya know?
If you’re able to recall, what was the first moment you fell in love with the art of tattoos? Was there a member of your family or even someone you saw that really just drew you into this profession and lifestyle?
Jeremy: My uncle got a Sailor Jerry design on his arm. I remember coming up to his house one summer and seeing his tattoo and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. After that, I recall going to a shop called Monkey Mans in Atlanta. My aunt owned the building. I saw the Indian head that Anthony Kiedis has on his arm. I pointed at and said, “I want that.” My mother grabbed me and said I’d never get a tattoo. It was everything about that place. Just the environment of the shop. It was terrifying and exciting. A smoky room with all these scary guys doing a taboo thing. There was just something about it that drew me into it.
What was your first tattoo that you got and also, what was the first tattoo that you ever actually did?
Jeremy: My first tattoo was Black Flag’s “Rise Above” across my shoulder blades. First tattoo that I ever did? A little red devil on my own ankle. My first actual tattoo for a client was a dream-catcher with a spear going through it. The owner of the shop just grabbed me and said, “There you go.” The dude had no clue that this was my first time actually tattooing someone. It was absolutely nerve-wracking.
Over the last decade, the art of tattoos has started to really break through into mainstream culture and become more accepted – thanks in part to high profile pop culture figures and reality TV. As an artist that’s been at this for almost two decades, how to feel about this? Do you feel it’s a good thing that it’s become more high profile?
Jeremy: Mixed feelings definitely. On a personal level, I think those shows are a huge disservice. They sparked a growth in people wanting to get tattoos, maybe for the wrong reasons. It’s like back in the 90’s when everybody wanted to build and ride choppers, ya know? Society is sort of like a kid who gets his hand on a new toy. They play with it till it breaks and then they throw it away. I feel like tattooing will go back to being a subculture someday and still have some of its dignity left. If you shine a light on something, you tend to destroy it. But at the same time, I kinda of sound like the asshole who starts hating their favorite band because they got famous.
Finally, care to give any advice to those that are looking to break into the Tattoo business or even apprenticing right now?
Jeremy: Just do it the right way. Seek out good people. It’s going to be a hard road, there’s no question about that. Most people are going to tell you no. Don’t just go in and ask about being an apprentice. If you’re persistent and show up with good drawings, paintings, ideas and look professional, it’ll happen. Look like you would be going to a freelance job or an internship. It’s gonna be a lot of hard work. You’ve gotta respect the fact that you’re taking money out of someone’s pocket. I’m teaching you how to take money out of my pocket for free. So you’re gonna have to pay to learn that. It is a skill. You can’t just pick up a machine and learn it right there. There’s so much to this craft. How much damage you can do to the skin, the healing process. Most kids in this town don’t even know how to treat the skin after getting a tattoo. They just assume they can do whatever to do it. I’ve seen twenty-two year old kids who have tattoos that look like they were done a hundred years ago. You’ve have to realize that you can scar and damage somebody for life. It’s a serious thing.
Advice wise, honestly, like I said: just do it the right way.
Electric Anvil Tattoo is located at 721 Franklin Avenue in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Interested in booking a consultation with Josh or Jeremy? Feel free to walk in any day of the week between the hours of 12 and 8 or call them at 718.636.6360.