Chris Garver Invisible NYC
In this week’s Artist Spotlight we caught up with Chris Garver of Invisible New York City. Chris Garver does not need an introduction and is considered one of the most respected tattoo artists in the industry. He has tattooed clients all over the world, has had books published and has been apart of different projects including a clothing line – Ruthless & Toothless. We caught up with Chris for a phone interview to discuss tattoos and what the future has in store for him.
You have been tattooing since the late 80’s, early 90’s and have seen the whole tattoo culture change; what are your thoughts on it?
Well in the beginning, there was random derelicts, people with blue collar jobs. They wanted to get tattoos. You were either going to get a cartoon character like a taz (tasmanian devil) or something off the wall. If you were a lady you would get a rose or a butterfly and guys would get eagles, skulls, grim reapers and stuff of that nature.
Basically off a traditional flash sheet styles?
Yeah, we were doing some custom work but it was definitely tattoo imagery. Nowadays people are getting everything from movie posters, computer generated designs and realistic pictures. It is awesome that people now have all this to choose from when selecting what they want to get tattooed.
Do you think that Miami Ink helped take tattoos mainstream?
I think so, but I don’t want to give television too much credit (laughing). I do think for some people who had a negative opinion of tattooing; these are the people that were never going to get tattooed anyways had their views changed or at least their minds opened some. Some of the viewers saw it as, hey they (tattooers and collectors) are normal people. They have kids, have morals and are not bad people just because they have tattoos. It made it more legitimate is society’s eyes. It did show celebrities getting tattoos like Angelina Jolie, etc.. I think everything started happening at the same time, from Ed Hardy showing tattoos as art and tattooing on TV. This got more people with an art background looking at tattooing as a form of art. It definitely moved it from being an underground craft to something legitimate artists did.
Sure more people started taking art classes than they did. I think social media has helped more to spread the art of tattooing. I have customers that come into the shop and want an obscure japanese character. Which is great to me as it’s more than just koi or a hannya mask. When I started to tattoo, I did not have a computer. If the client wanted something I did not know, you had to research it by going to a reference book or a library.
The internet sure makes researching easier for both the artist and the client.
I have a whole storage locker full of reference books from the 80s and 90s and I don’t need any of them anymore. Google has them all (laughing). Customers can reference any tattooer or style they want now, not like how it was back in the day. I am glad it is easier now. I am enjoying the popularity of tattooing and where it has gone.
The popularity of tattooing sure makes it being a tattooer or collector easier.
Sure, you take your kids to school and someone asks what you do, and now they don’t run from you like you were on drugs. Oh that kid is probably bad. I welcome the change to some degree, I feel bad for the ones who feel that the magic is gone from tattooing. It’s not as obscure that it once was, and some feel that the secretness is gone and lost that allure to it. I don’t feel that way personally, thank god. To me it would a really horrible feeling especially it is my passion to do tattooing.
How did you get into the Japanese tattooing style?
I got into the style for many different reasons. One reason that is interesting, my uncle Joe taught english in Taiwan and bought a Japanese oni mask back from that region and gave it to my family. As an artist, my mom made a paper mache mold of the mask, painted it red and put a burlap bag on me. I had to be about 8 years old and was running around in a “devil” mask (laughing). My parents were also into watching foreign films and would take me to see a lot of movies with samurais and trips to museums tended me towards the Asian sections.
Around 1992 I got back into it because they were bigger. There was an artist who during the winter would be busier. He would do the outlines in the summer and would do the shading and or coloring in the winter. They used to call it the outline club (laughing). So he pretty much guaranteed work all year round. I figured that was a good idea. The more I started to learn about it and buying reference books and living in Japan it was just something I was really interested in. The more I studied it the more I realized I did not know. It is a very sophisticated style of tattooing.
You lived in Japan, how long where you there for?
Living and traveling to Japan, did you get any odd or weird looks due to all your tattoos?
Tattooing is still unacceptable in Japan, the first time I went to Japan I did not feel weird wearing a shortsleeve shirt but when I lived there it was a bit different. My landlord could not know I had tattoos or he would have kicked me out. The tattoo shop was in a young area and were more open to tattoos and you could show them off more, but if you traveled into more conservative areas you needed to cover them up. They would not want you to come into their restaurants or bath houses. I went to join a gym and was told I had to wear a long sleeve shirt. There are hotels that won’t allow the tattooed in them too.
So I try to plan my trips over to Japan for the fall or winter so I will be comfortable in long sleeves. The summers are just too hot there for long sleeves (laughing)
That is amazing to hear on how different it is in Japan.
There are just not the same rights over there that we have here in the US. I remember in 2001, right after 9/11 a Muslim family living down the street from the shop was thrown out by their landlord because of what happened here in the states. He basically threw them out on to the streets with all their belonging and there was nothing they could do. The landlord has all the rights. Its just the way it is over there. Its a different culture than ours.
After living there I understand how some of my Japanese friends love living here in the states. They can be more individual and expressive without paying the price for it. I am not knocking Japan, its a great country but they are not a society based on individualism and if you are going to do something like getting tattooed then you are telling society you are not going to be a part of it. Its a big deal and not to be made lightly.
You have been tattooing dragons and kois for a while now; any worries about coming up with a new design?
There are a million different ways to lay it out I guess. I get the direction from the customer after I meet them for their consultation. Listening to what they want or vision helps lay out the design. I am not afraid or worried about doing the same one twice either. They all will all look different somehow or someway.
Now you worked with Ami James at Fun City Tattoo; how was that experience?
Yeah, he did not work there for very long. It was a small shop with a lot of artists and they offered him to work 12-6am in the morning. He was like forget that. I later saw him around town and we became friends. When I started to tattoo in Miami during the NY winters he was living down in Florida and we would hang out a lot. We both worked for Tattoos by Lou in Miami.
How did you like working down in Florida?
It was great, it was fun. Miami is a small town and there was a lot younger people. They were into skateboarding and punk rock. So it was a breath of fresh air for me, plus it was easy living compared to NY. NY can be and is hard, especially when you’re young. It costs a lot of money which can be brutal.
When did you realize that tattooing is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
I think pretty much as soon as I started tattooing, I knew it is what I wanted to do. I had no plan b, and I still dont. Tattooing I think chose me, everything has led me up to this. From all the art I was into, the friends I hung around with and the music I listened too. Skateboarding, biker stuff I was hooked.
I started tattooing all these guys in bands that were my idols since I was 14 years old. I was tattooing like Mike Ness and was thinking this is the best. I get to sleep in and party all night, tattoo people that I looked up to as a kid. It was like a dream come true, my dream life and it still is. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
I met Troy in the early 90s at a convention I think in San Diego, CA and we hit it off pretty good. We started hanging out and partying. I would see him at conventions and would hang out. When he moved to NY I was working at NY Adorned and he was hoping to get a job there. I put in the word for him with Lori Leven and she hired him right away. We got pretty tight from that.
Invisible Tattoo has a great reputation.
I think Troy opened the shop about 9 years ago. So its been around for awhile. The guys who work there are super inspiring like Kiku, Regino Gonzales, and Damien Rodriguez – they are just killing it every day.
Do they do a lot of Japanese tattoos as well.
Well everyone has there own style here, even if we would all tattoo the same tattoo they all would look different. You can tell right away which one of us did which piece. Its like a unique signature.
With all these tattoo tv shows, do you ever sit back and think your show started it?
Yeah, I guess it did. I was pretty nervous to do it to be honest with you. I was already successfully in tattooing, I had my own shop when the show started. I was staying very busy. I had gotten a call from Ami to come down to Miami to shoot the pilot show. He said this cable channel which I never heard of before was willing to pay for my air fare and hotel stay. So I figured why not – at least it was a free trip to see some friends. I had not have seen him in like 2 yrs.
Well 6 months latter, Ami called and said they picked up the show – I was like oh shit! I thought they would tape like 6 episodes and I was trying to think if I should do it or not. I figured I would do it, I did not want to think back and say I wished I had done it. Slowly I realized how big Miami Ink was going to be. TLC spent millions on advertising like billboards in Times Squares, buses, park benches. Everyone I knew was calling me as they all saw me on the posters. It was fun to do, we all were friends before the show started – we were not casted to be on the show like the others you see on TV.
Are you going to publish or release anymore books?
I think I am going to do a few more books. I have been devoting a lot of time to my kid right now. I am definitely not making publishing a high priority right now, but when she starts pre-school I will have some extra time. I watch her everyday until 3 o’clock and then go to tattoo after that. That takes up most of my time. So my day are pretty full at this time.
Any ideas for a book floating around your mind?
I like to do at least one with all my paintings, kind of like the Mick Book – that was just an awesome book. Mick from Zurich released a book about his paintings and back pieces over 20 years worth.
Do you basically just work on larger pieces now?
Yeah, I do a lot of them but I do get lucky and do a one sitting piece every once in a while. I do miss them. It helps to break it up some. I just don’t do Japanese all the time, I like to switch it up. I think whatever you put out is what you get. If you always post dragons on Instagram you will always get people in the shop to get a dragon. “What ever you put on the menu, is what people are going to order.”
Do you get to do some walkins tattoos?
We don’t get many walkins at our shop, the shop does not have a sign and the front window is all blacked out. It’s basically a private studio, as you walk past its one of those places you try to figure out what is inside there. Some people could be nervous walking into the studio. I like tattooing in a low key setting, I could not image tattooing in a window front in Time Square.
Do you still attend tattoo conventions or shows?
Traveling is hard at this point due to my family and work obligations, I am hoping with the next year or 2 I will get more time to do some traveling. I did go to the London convention, it was a bit hectic. Once you have been on TV the break comes when you are tattooing. Everyone wants to get a picture or autograph which is great, I appreciate it, but it can be a little intense at times. You would think that with the show being off the air for what 8 or so years people wouldn’t remember you (laughing).
What does the future hold for you?
I would like traveling more again, keep myself free, but for now I am going to develop my art, do some more painting and stay healthy. I just want to keep enjoying tattooing. I don’t ever want to think of it as a job. I got like that once before, it felt I was working in a sandwich shop, “Do you want mayo on that?” I never want to feel or think that way again. I think that happens when you work yourself too much and it take the fun right out of it. I want to keep that at bay. If you enjoy what you do and surround yourself with people you enjoy you will have a happy life.
~ ☠ AnoTat2 ∴