Georgetown studio strips off tattoo stereotypes

GEORGETOWN - Vines creep across his lower calf, blurred squiggles tracing the uncertain patterns of his veins. He just went for it.

"I kind of fell into tattooing backwards. It sort of landed in my lap. Back when I was partying a lot, when I was a lot younger, my friend had a homemade machine, and I stumbled across it one night and decided to tattoo myself," said Georgetown tattoo artist Joby Dorr about his impetuous first stab at the ancient art form, and as he etched in his skin the branch-like patterns on his leg he found a different line to follow. "Something just clicked where you just know that's what you want to do."

Now, years after that night, Dorr spoke about working at Georgetown's ArtCore Studios with fellow tattooists and what the artistry of tattooing really means.


"I was always kind of artsy but never really had a direction for it and never thought it would amount to much more than a provisionary hobby, but the fact that it did because of that night... It's not the recommended way to start tattooing," Dorr said seriously, and at the same time laughing to himself, "but that's the way it happened for me."

And now Dorr says he'll be happy as long as he's tattooing, but he'd be even happier if he spent the rest of his life tattooing at Artcore Studios.

And that's probably because ArtCore distinguishes itself from other tattoo shops with their style and attitude, both readily apparent the moment you walk in their door.

From the hi-tech tattoo stations to the relaxed guys tattooing, the shop tends to defy common stereotypes.

After 13 years of tattooing in other parlors, Atom Messmer opened the shop five and a half years ago with co-owner Christopher Gay.

"I'd worked in enough shops that I'd figured out how I wanted a shop to run and what kind of shop environment I wanted to be a part of, and the easiest way to do that was to open my own," said Gay, who has been tattooing for 11 years.

At the core of that environment is the creativity of an artform that Gay says has more technical aspects than any other medium.

"There aren't any pictures on the wall you pick from. It's basically like commissioning a work of art that's unique and one of a kind," said Messmer, who added that at ArtCore the artists don't tattoo for instant gratification. "It's like buying an original painting to hang on your skin, instead of on your wall."

While the relaxed and hi-tech environment Gay and Messmer created sets the shop apart, the heart of the shop is a desire to keep creating custom works of art.

"The main message we'd like to get out about our shop is that we do sit down, one-on-one [consultations] with people and design with them instead of them getting a cookie cutter tattoo," said Gay. "It's important to us as artists because it allows us to be creative, but it's more important to the client because it allows us to give them something as unique as they are."

Additionally, ArtCore also features an art gallery, which supports local artists and creates an inspiring atmosphere in the shop.

"We're a bit more mellow. We're more laid back, and we're also big dorks, big Star Wars nerds, we listen to goofy music," said Dorr. "It's definitely not your average 'rockstar' experience."


"Ten years ago the tattoo industry wasn't like what it is now," said Messmer. "It was more like biker shops, and everybody carried guns."

At least, that's what it was like when Messmer started, who said he had lots of stories that probably aren't fit for print. Because these perceptions of tattoo artists and tattoo shops have become attached to what the industry used to be, Messmer noted that it's only been recently that views of tattooing have started to change.

"It's taken a long time for tattooing to actually get into the mainstream. It's just finally in the last five years where you can watch a tattoo show and parents don't make their kids shut it off," Messmer said.

Although the Georgetown artists say reality television shows, such as Inked on A&E, don't truly portray how tattoo shops really function, the good they've done is expose that "people with tattoos are just regular people."

Messmer, Gay and Dorr also recently attended the fifth Seattle Tattoo Convention from Aug. 10-12 at Seattle Center where artists from around the country, and world, swap stories, give tips and support each other.

"In a way, I can't think of another occupation that shares that sort of sense of family with people that you don't necessarily have to know very well just because you're all tattoo artists," Dorr said.

This strong sense of community and family Dorr appreciates came through at the convention, which helped the shop raise thousands of dollars to help ArtCore tattooist Christy Brooker who will be in the hospital for months after a recent motorcycle accident.

"Tattoo people are just people. People need to set aside preconceptions. This industry tends to produce kind of hard, rugged people, but I think that if they realize we're just people, they can talk to us like people," said Messmer. "Some people get really freaked out, which is so stupid, like we're some crazy, pain loving freaks. But that's another reason we wanted to create a shop like this. It's very comfortable to be in. It's not a threatening place, it's just mellow."


Even though their shop may be more relaxed, the Artcore crew still emphasizes that a tattoo shop isn't a place where the client always get what they want.

"The customer is not always right," Dorr stressed. "A tattoo shop does not exist to cater to your every whim and desire. Be prepared to hear things you don't like and deal with it and be adult about it."

As Dorr noted, if a client had a kidney infection and a doctor told the patient to take their medicine, they would do it.

"Why are you going to fight with me when I'm telling you, in my professional capacity, that it's not the greatest idea," Dorr said about the seriousness of his consultation sessions. "I don't want to put a lot of time and effort into something that's going to look like crap. That's my work. It's representing me, and my concern is that other tattoo artists seeing it and going 'why the f*** did he do that?'"

On the other hand, sometimes the bad ideas, or at least the ones not well thought out, can't really be avoided.

"There was this one guy who had Chinese written all over his body, like the word in English Chinese, and he wanted his entire body blacked out. We couldn't talk him out of it," laughed Messmer.

But even though they won't tattoo impossible designs or messages that they don't support, the artists at ArtCore will typically tattoo someone's design as long as it's not horrible.

"As long as they're tattooable," said Joby. "I'm not their father. I can't tell them what to do. Some people walk out of here with tattoos, and I'm like, 'Well, they're probably going to regret that,' but the way I rationalize it is I've played my part in their learning curve so 15 years from now when they're like, 'oh that was kind of dumb,' at least they've realized it and next time they'll listen to their tattoo artists."

With business doubling every year, the Artcore crew isn't concerned about whether or not they'll be able to keep their business thriving, but they do encourage people to take off their "ignorant goggles" and get to know tattoo artists so they can appreciate and understand what they do.

Oh, and one more crucial piece of advice about tattooing: beware of putting personal names in your skin.

"Getting wives, husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends tattooed on you, that's sort of when you're running into the kiss of death," stressed Dorr. "It's sort of this mythology that it's a curse you put on your relationship, and it plays out, nine times out of 10."

Jessica Van Gilder may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]