In times of great wealth, such as the height of the Roman Empire or during the Renaissance, patrons would commission works of art from great artists. After much discussion, the artist would create a work based on their patron’s desires — with their own artistic flourishes.
Today’s tattooing is based on similar concepts, and tattooing is just as integrated into our lives as the Renaissance’s visual arts.
“Tattooing is sitting on main street,” Skeleton Crew Tattoo co-owner and tattoo artist David Newman-Stump said. “It’s sitting on television. It’s become so embedded in our culture, hopefully it never goes away.”
Brought into the fold by his brother, shop co-owner Tyler Newman-Stump, David Newman-Stump has been tattooing for almost 15 years.
“Tattooing isn’t as much a career as it is a lifestyle,” he said. “If you really want to be successful at it, you have to live it, you have to eat and breathe it. So I set myself to do that.”
Since then, Newman-Stump, who spends most of his days tattooing in his studio on Washington Street, has tattooed around the world. And each of the tattoos he inks begin with a conversation.
“A conversation only happens once, really,” Newman-Stump said. “And so does a tattoo. A tattoo, a proper one, only happens once. It’s a straight collaboration between two people.”
Q: What drew you to tattooing?
I was going to Ball State University for art. They were pushing me toward teaching or commercial art. Since I was 6 years old, I wanted to be a painter. When you’re growing up, you’re told you can be anything you want to be. When I got to college, I still believed I could be a painter, but the art department said, “Well, you can’t really be a painter. Painters starve. You need to go into graphic designer or teaching.” I felt like I’d been lied to, so I went with the first lie, which is that I can be anything I want to be.
My brother was really interested in tattooing at
the time. I was looking through some of his tattoo magazines. Tattooing as an art form
had never really crossed my mind because I thought it had such limitations as a medium. But I thought it was because of the limitations of the medium, not because of the limitations of the artist. I saw two pieces in this whole magazine that spoke of the renaissance that was about to happen. I said, wait a minute, this is actually possible in this medium. I thought, if this is what’s possible and the rest of this is just industry standard, then there’s room for me in this industry.
Q: And then what happened?
I dropped out of Ball State in 1999 and moved to Tennessee to pursue tattooing. I had no particular mentor picked out.
I did a grueling apprenticeship under Bill Roberts. I also trained under Jimmy the Saint.
Q: What are the biggest difficulties in transitioning from painting on paper to painting on the skin?
The application of tattooing is probably the most difficult art form I’ve ever tried. It doesn’t work the way you think it would. It’s within the surface rather than on the surface. Whenever you’re working in two-dimensional arts that are on the canvas or on paper, you’re working on the surface. When you’re tattooing, you’re dealing with depth, pressure. Tattooing is all about consistency: consistency with your angle; consistency with your depth; consistency with your skin stretch, and the consistency of the speed of your hand versus the speed of your machine.
Also, the variety of skin types is a challenge in tattooing. You have to build this big catalog in your head of all different skin types and the proper technique for each. There are so many variables. You get your results through consistency, but you’re trying to get consistency through all these shifting variables. It’s really hard to wrap your head around that.
Q: What’s your typical process like?
I will set up a potential client with a consultation. Everybody has to be happy, or it’s no deal. And so, after that, we set up an appointment. Most of my work, currently, is large work. It’s done over multiple sessions, sometimes taking me two years to complete. On my largest tattoo, I have 97 hours in.
Q: Why is tattooing something that has captured your attention?
One, because looking at those pieces years ago, I could sense there was a renaissance coming on. Tattooing is so versatile. You can recreate almost any art form in tattooing.
Tattooing is not two-dimensional art. It’s actually almost like relief sculpture. You’re doing two dimensions on a three-dimensional form. You’re using the body’s three-dimensional form to enhance your imagery. You can get much more three-dimensional effects on the skin than what you could on a flat canvas.