All artists that work together tend to harbor a sense of camaraderie that can never be overlooked, but no relationship is more pivotal than that between mentor and apprentice. During the most formative years of a young artist’s career — the ones that mold them from a tattoo hopeful into a tattoo artist — the bond between mentor and apprentice is as essential, if not more so, than artistic skill.
You probably know Justin Weatherholtz as the amazingly versatile artist from King’s Avenue Tattoo in Manhattan that does all of those incredible reaper pieces, and the co-founder of Pagoda City Tattoo Fest. But every great artist has to start somewhere, and Weatherholtz's origin story begins with Joe Johns. Owner of Wizard’s World of Tattoos in Reading, Pennsylvania, Johns is the man that took a chance on an eager 17 year old. After two decades of friendship and nearly four years running a hugely successful convention together, they say that their lives and artistic approach would be completely different had it not been for their imperative time together.
Tattoodo: How did you guys first meet? Did Justin walk into the shop one day asking about an apprenticeship, or had you two met somewhere else?
Justin: I came in with my parents when I was 17 through the recommendation of my mom’s friend. Joe and Wizard’s World has quite the reputation as being one of the best in the area. I then was informed I had to wait til I was 18, but I really felt comfortable there and knew it'd be worth it.
Joe: When he did finally turn 18, I tattooed him and he basically never left. He quickly started asking lots of questions, and bringing me his drawings to look at. His enthusiasm to learn everything there was to know about tattooing was very apparent early on.
What made you both decide that this mentor/apprentice relationship would be a good fit?
Justin: After I had gotten a few tattoos from Joe, I had made up my mind that I wanted to learn how to tattoo and knew that was the direction I wanted to go. Joe was a bit resistant at first to take me on, but I persisted and he let me slip my foot in the door.
Joe: We didn't know for certain, but our shared passion for the art helped us overcome all obstacles.
Justin, how do you think Joe's guidance and personal style has influenced your work?
Justin: Greatly, and in many ways over the years. Early on his guidance in teaching me a solid foundation on tattooing is why I can alloy tattoos technically well, but pushing me to do every tattoo that comes in made me be diverse. I was doing a lot of new school then, but had to know many things and especially — Joe’s specialty — black and grey, which is now what I primarily do. Watching Joe execute such great work early on, and being able to watch his process has been priceless for me — even today.
Joe, how do you think Justin has progressed as an artist since he initially became your apprentice? How do you think his style has developed overtime?
Joe: Justin progressed rapidly. It was apparent from day one that he was a natural, and his complete dedication and focus has landed him where he is today. It's been interesting to watch his more crude, distorted/out of proportion drawings transform into the refined ones they are today. He has learned the rules of proportion/anatomy, and can now break them to create and nurture his own style to date — a style which has led him to stand apart from the many great artists in the industry today.
What do you think are some of the major similarities and differences between your work?
Justin: Black and grey, at this point, is definitely a common thread as well as fantasy inspired work.
Joe: Since Justin's departure from me, he has worked with many great artists, especially the Kings Avenue crew, which has led him to develop his style especially in black and grey. Black and grey has always been my area of interest, and I think now there would be more similarities than ever before, since his departure from the colorful, old-school, twisted neo-traditional style he was developing when he was with me. He has truly become a master of all styles.
Do you think your personal style would be different if you two had never worked alongside each other? How so?
Justin: Joe helped me learn to apply my style of drawing to tattooing, and shaped me in the early, formative years, which essentially means part of his process, ethics, and style is ingrained in all of my tattoos.
Joe: I'm sure both Justin and I would have become very different people had we never met or worked with each other, both as tattooers and as human beings. It's refreshing in this business to have a relationship with someone that can grow from pupil, to friend, to inspiration, to business partner. The magic of tattooing is alive and well.
The relationship between mentor and apprentice is career defining, it’s what sets the goods apart from the greats. Joe Johns and Justin Weatherholtz might have wrapped up the apprenticeship long ago, but their artistic influences over each other can still be felt to this day.