The paths that people take in their careers continuously surprise us. Artist Richard Smith, has had a tumultuous relationship with tattooing, continually falling in and out of practice, making a few bizarre pit stops along the way, until ultimately rekindling the flame. Learning to tattoo in more than a few unsavory spots, Smith’s story is steeped in the nitty gritty, the underbelly of the industry that might very well surprise you.
A middle school dropout, Smith’s background is a rags to riches story if we’ve ever heard one. At just 16 years old, he was hired on as an apprentice for the first time, an experience that was unsavory at best. “I went to a few tattoo shops around St. Petersburg, Florida, and asked if they needed help and one of them hired me as an apprentice,” Smith says.“They didn't even ask how old I was, so I started making needles all day. In the end, that apprenticeship didn't really work out, and it would be 9 or 10 years until I got back into it.”
After moving to New York in the summer of 2010, Smith found a steady job as a tattoo artist in possibly the weirdest location we’ve ever heard of — a bong shop off 6th Avenue working 8pm - 5pm, six days a week. “I had just moved to NYC with a shit portfolio that I made from tattoos done in my kitchen,” he recalls. “It was the best and worst year and a half ever.”
With two very strange introductions to professional tattooing under his belt, Smith continued to develop his style throughout the years. Instead of landing on a particular one, he turned his focus on three varied yet related styles — traditional, neo-traditional, and black and grey. Subjectively speaking, he tends to favor more flora and fauna rather than human subjects, but the real stars of his work are the roses.
Smith creates a specific type of rose, one that can only be described as a late summer bloom, one that’s so plump and full it’s nearly begging to be cut from the bush and kept as a memento of sorts. One would think that such perfect flowers would be planned out, but the majority of his creative process happens while Smith is actually tattooing. “So much happens right on the skin with me,” he explains.“I draw up a simple traditional rose that I'm gonna knock out in 30 minutes, and before you know it, I'm setting up three line weights, and putting drop shadows under every fold and tattooing for two hours. It doesn't always land, but when it does I feel like I'm moving forward.”
Now working out of Three Kings in Manhattan’s East Village, Smith has gained quite the following in the six and a half years he’s credited himself as a “professional tattoo artist.” To be fair, we know quite a few talented artists who have spent the better portion of their career tattooing out of their homes, so who’s to say what defines “professional” anyhow? Bong shop, underage apprentice, or one of the best tattoo shops in New York — Smith is, was, and always has been the real deal, he’s just taken the slightly less conventional route.