Gracefully going from Neo-Traditional Blackwork to the iconic touches of Chicano aesthetics, Rick Schenk has a style that merges many diverse inspirations.. However, the unique perspective is always evident in the quality of design and technique. Growing up on the West Coast endowed him with a reverence for Teen Angels magazine, but his love for the poetic painted Realism by the likes of Sargent and Mark Maggiorri, creates a visual method authentic only to Rick.
In this interview, Rick Schenk speaks on his experience as a tattooers, the unique background that supports the artist he is today, and the numberless amounts of creators that feed the fire of his determination, inspiration, and evolution as a creator himself.
How did you get into tattooing and why was it something you were drawn to?
I grew up on a hood alley in Santa Ana, California in the late 80’s/early 90’s. We were the only white family on a Mexican block. I was always running around with the neighborhood kids and in and out of their houses and apartments (sorry Mom & Dad). The parents and siblings of these kids were sometimes gangsters and I even saw kitchen wizards blasting tatts in these environments. I just always thought it was so cool. I still do. I’m the only tattooer I know that knew I wanted to do this when I was six years old. I didn’t know it was a job then of course, but I knew it was going to be part of my life. My biggest regret in life is turning down a tattoo in this project apartment when i was ten. This environment also is the origin of a lifelong fetishization of hoop earrings, lip liner, wife beaters, and Nike Cortez.
But we were poor AF so we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where the tattoo scene was way more American Traditional than the Chicano B&G that i fell in love with. I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday (waiting for that took possibly more restraint than I’ve shown before or since) which was the day after 9/11, and i got a NYC heart and banner in color. Now this is not what i was planning on getting and he just put color on my arm without asking! I was planning on getting this ace of spades with a horse head I’d been carrying in my wallet for years. But once i had that color tattoo, i was like, “this is my life now” and i wound up getting an apprenticeship there that lasted over four years. I never learned how to tattoo there, but i did learn how to tile a bathroom. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything though. I learned the most important lesson there. What makes a good tattoo? For a tough guy traditional shop, we had a lot of philosophical conversation about tattoo art. Eventually i got tired of being used for free labor and went and bartended night clubs in New York for seven years before eventually just tattooing out of my crib. That was 8 years ago.
Can you talk about your inspirations, and how your style has evolved over the Years?
I started tattooing during the heyday of Neo-Traditional, and I fell into that for a few years in the beginning, until I moved back to Southern California and remembered why I fell in love with this whole thing in the first place. When I started tattooing, taking into account what I learned in my apprenticeship, the best thing you could be as a tattooer was versatile. I don’t know if this is true in 2020. In fact I know it’s not.
I can do a good job of anything that walks in the door, and I may be the most versatile artist in my shop right now, but I couldn’t do anyone else’s signature style as well as they will, nor can I do a Japanese style or watercolor tattoo as well as I will do what I’m authentically passionate about. All I want ever is to make the client stoked. My ego can come through in my paintings. Part of giving the best tattoo possible is recognizing my limitations and saying no. That’s the single biggest evolution to my work over the years, is acknowledging I’m not always the right tool for the job.
Who are the tattooers, or fine artists/movements, that have inspired you over the years?
I live for American art. The high end and the lowbrow. I’ve tried to spend as much time as possible in the Riviera Maya looking at ancient Mexican art, and tracing all of that to the forties and “joint style” and Teen Angels Magazine in the 90’s in LA. I love the art of Indigenous Americans and also the western art movement of the 20th century. I can get lost in a John Singer Sargent painting for hours. My favorite modern painter is Mark Maggiori. Growing up Catholic, religious iconography is also eternally inspirational to me, and the black and grey artist in me will always respond to the contrast on display in Classical Greek and Roman sculpture. My absolute favorite tattooers right now are all working in Black and Grey and are way too numerous to mention but include Freddy Negrete, Jason Mcafee, Juan Teyer, Adam Vu, Pawel Indulski, Carlos Truan, Angel Reynosa, Tiger Ramos, Steve Wimmer, Eric Marcinizyn, Mario Aguilar. Oh my god the talent that comes through my feed every single day is mind blowing.
Many artists have a philosophy or motivation behind their work...what would you say is yours? How do you define success?
My main through line as a Christian is “Love God by loving people”. As a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous, my main mission is to be of service to others. I believe in this one precious life and specifically this career, the best we can do is provide our clients with an exceptional product and experience. Some of the most amazing and expensive tattoo artists I know never even take their headphones out during a session. To me, that’s not as special of a tattoo as one where there’s a real collaborative energy.
All the best tattoos lean more heavily on the artist’s side, of course, we are artists, after all, but if your client isn’t feeling cooler or sexier on their way out the door because we denied their role in the process, they will never love that tattoo as much as we do, and they’ll have it long after we’ve forgotten it and gotten better. Money is a byproduct of being a good dude and doing good work. My measure of success, what I’m always chasing is the client saying, “This looks better than I even imagined. Thank you” and a hug never hurts either.
How do you feel about Tattoodo as a platform? What are the aspects you like about it and are there any things in particular that you use it for?
Tattoodo is so good. It’s fun to use and it just plain looks cool. Plus there’s interviews with tight tattooers. It’s like the magazines my mom begrudgingly bought me back in the day. I have personally made way more money off of Tattoodo than any other online marketing in the last year.
What does Tattoodo do best? What can we do better on?
The “people looking to get tattooed” feature is so smart, I really can’t begin to describe how helpful that’s been starting over in a new market. It’s exactly like this busy street shop I used to work on in San Diego. If you’re not the right fit for the tattoo, just take the next one!
What advice do you have for artists looking to get more clients?
I ask myself ,”would I get tattooed by me? Are my lines crispy? Are my whips spicy? Are my compositions legible? But also, am I a good dude? Do I communicate well? Do I lock positive vibes into the tattoo as I’m doing it? Would I pay my rates?” The best clients are word of mouth clients. So you have to bring good energy to every interaction. Instagram was helpful for a long time, but greed has made it harder to get eyes on you. I see almost no interaction on there anymore, at a time when my work is stronger than ever. Tattoodo is tight because it’s so singularly focused.
How do you feel about the future of the tattoo industry?
I feel like the talent and tattooing is stronger than ever before. But this rush of great work is kicking up a dust storm of greed. I see individual tattooers who are killing it, break loyalty with their shops to open up a six man operation. Where do you find five great, loyal tattooers at one time? You either poach them or attempt to make them. Stop taking on apprentices because you don’t like sweeping. I haven’t yet worked in a tattoo shop that hasn’t had an “apprentice”. And I would say 90% of them have no business in the business. If there’s anything this world has got too many of already, well, it’s drag queens, but tattoo apprentices are a close second.
Beyond tattooing, what are you passionate about? How do you spend your free time, and what do you do on your vacations?
I’m a devoted member of several 12 step programs, and Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. I put an emphasis on fitness and oil painting. I’m a museum junkie. I try to contribute to Native American charities as I can. When I vacation, my very favorite thing to do is find Catholic Churches on Sundays performing baptisms. There’s something so hopeful and beautiful about this. I look forward to riding horses more. I suck at it, but I love it.
Any future plans you’d like to share?
After living and tattooing in New York, Maui, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, I’m so happy to feel so at home and settled in Dallas. I’m in process on a lot of oil paintings and a deck of tarot cards for exhibition and sale. Mostly I just want to have a positive impact on my coworkers at Third Eye Gallery, clients, friends, strangers, and the environment every single day.