Not too far from the flocks of tourists enjoying the famed beaches of Waikiki, you can find a quaint little tattoo shop called Queen Street Tattoo.
The bright red building draped in a large eagle stands out against a lackluster factory-scape. The words “Aloha Daily” are unmistakably hand-painted on a small glass door. From outside you can spot the bold flash-lined walls, floor to ceiling. Though compact in proportion, Queen Street packs a mean punch on Oahu. There are a few heavy-hitters that call this studio their home, but today we’re here to film SESSIONS with Keir McEwan.
The shirts came off. The machines came out. And it was down to business...
A simplified description of McEwan’s style would easily be coined as traditional — but by definition, his work is a mix of who he is and where he comes from. With clean black outlines and bold color choices, his tattoos carry the torch for the timeless iconography that has been associated with Hawaii for over the last half century.
Who are you, where you been, where you going?
Keir McEwan. Scottish, but from Hawaii, born and raised. I’ve been here my whole life. Where am I going? Hopefully to heaven…? I would love to travel and tattoo more but really happy at Queen Street… it’s my favorite little corner in the entire universe.
What is the best part about living in Hawaii?
The best part about living in Hawaii is… living in Hawaii. Here we have that tattoo energy from back in the day. Mike Malone, Ed Hardy, Bob Roberts, Zeke Owen, Sailor Jerry… everyone was out here at one point or another.
Do you remember the first time tattooing intervened in your life?
I do. I was watching Tattoo Highway when I was 15. I think it was on A&E with Thomas Morgan and Thomas Pendelton, and Thomas Morgan was tattooing on this bus. He tattooed this guy’s front and I waited a week to record it, and took pictures of the TV of this dude’s front. I eventually ended up meeting that person. When I saw that tattoo that’s when I knew, I was like holy shit. and it kind of came full circle in my head that I knew this was what I wanted to do. I just waited too long to start.
Did you have a previous background in art?
I would draw all the time in school. I got into graffiti around age 15. I don’t do it anymore though… Graffiti is illegal (laughs). I got my two strikes here in Hawaii… one more you’re in a lot of trouble so… I’m over it.
So from graffiti onto a formal apprenticeship?
Yup. I was given a formal apprenticeship by Steve VonRiepen. He’s like my dad… in more than just a tattooing sense. He’s kinda helped me get my whole life on track — from doing taxes, to having a place to rent, and a car, he’s just an all around good dude, good role model. He’s helped me out more than I could ever pay him back for.
You’ve only been tattooing for 2 years… How were you able to progress so quickly?
I learned to tattoo by painting flash. That was the most important thing for me. I loved painting and looking at all the different designs. Sailor Jerry flash especially. Ed Hardy flash, Owen Jensen, looking at his eagles, it just blew my mind. All I wanted to do was trace their stuff and repaint it. Then I learned to shade and color through painting. Once I got my hands on a machine I just had to get the application down, and from there I already kinda knew what I was doing thanks to Steve’s guidance.
You’ve mentioned Sailor Jerry twice now. It seems like his work has really influenced you as an artist.
Absolutely. I feel like living in Hawaii and tattooing a lot of sailors, armed servicemen… I could kind of feel what he went through in a way. Just by tattooing lots of those dudes. You get this real great sense of how hard those guys work. I know Jerry was a militant worker, he loved to be in the shop and paint. I’ve talked to Jerry’s son a bunch, and I feel this strong connection with him.
When I first started tattooing I got real nervous, and I’d go outside sometimes and I’d look at the sky, and I’d be like… “C’mon Jerry. Help me out.” I wouldn’t know how to put it so it doesn’t sound super weird but… they’re tattoo gods. Jerry, and Mike Malone. There are tattoo gods out there and they’re smiling down upon us at Queen Street I’d like to think. I hope.
Do you think they had any idea how influential they would come to be on this industry as a whole?
I don’t think so at all. I remember hearing something about Mike (Malone) painting so much, and saying, “I wonder what’s gonna happen to all this junk later.” I think by the end Jerry might have known.
He was a cocky fucker wasn’t he?
I don’t know. He had a reason to be.
What is the tattoo scene like here in Hawaii?
Small. I like to think everyone here really has a lot of respect for each other. Queen Street, we just do traditional. Shops like Soul Signature, they do amazing Polynesian work, and then there’s shops like 808 Tattoo that can do a little bit of everything. We have a lot of really talented artists in Hawaii, so it’s cool to be a part of the community here.