The Discerning Brute Arts & Culture contributor, Brad Silk returns with an extensive interview with one of New York City's most talented tattoo artists - Mr. Brad Stevens.--------
Summer is here, which means tank tops, short shorts, fragrant punks, and a lot of tattoo gazing. If you have them, you know the perils of walking around with them exposed--especially if, like mine, yours are not PG. Everyone and their grandma stops to talk to you about them. Though, it can get tedious or throw off schedules, I actually love talking about my sleeve. It is a gorgeous, unfortunately unfinished, piece, by Orrin Hurley, but more than a beautiful thing to look at, it is a snarky biography of my queer-vegan identity: Bacchus sits on my upper arm, enjoying himself, while food spills from the cornucopia he holds. The healthy bouquet of fruits and veggies spilling onto the outside of my arm shift into decadent piles of ice cream, cheesecake, and candies on the inside arm.
Some people have a lot of hang-ups with identity based tattoos. You might know someone with a vegan tattoo who broke vegan or a person with a straight-edge tattoo who you met in a bar... over beers. No T. No shade--It is just a fact: ink can be more permanent than ideals. Yet, there is another issue in getting a vegan tattoo--one pointed out by Jen Carlson at Gothamist. Not all tattoo ink is vegetarian. Google it. You will receive a dizzying array of information and misinformation...
Luckily, I knew about this issue enough and found a vegan artist. At the time he was working at Daredevil, the sister shop of Fun City, mentioned in the Gothamist article. During the 18+hours getting work done, I connected with a few of the other artists as well; one being the vegan heartthrob, Brad Stevens, who was kind enough to talk tattoos with me:
Brad Silk: First, how long have you been vegan and what drove you to make the choice?
Brad Stevens: I've been vegan for over ten years now. I stopped eating meat when I was 16, I remember just thinking one day that it was wrong and I shouldn't be doing it. Veganism was a natural step for me when I learned more about it soon after. It was that simple. For me it was part of growing up, you reach a certain age and you make your own decisions.
Silk: How did you know about veganism--was there a big sis/brother or pamphlet?
Stevens: When I started going to hardcore shows there were a lot of like-minded people. Back then people would do tables with info on veganism. When I read up on it, I realized how half-assed being vegetarian is.
Silk: We met through my position at Lula's Sweet Apothecary, so I know you have a sweet tooth. Did you always love ice cream and baked goods or did your nostalgia for the dairy based products lead you to this passion?
Stevens: At the time I was living on 7th street and Lulas was a block away. I'm sure you remember seeing me a couple of times a day around then, haha. I'm not huge on cake or sweets, specifically, but for some reason I can eat ice cream every day. I wouldn't say its dairy nostalgia that led me there, I actually don't really remember the difference between dairy and the vegan stuff. Even ten years ago, living in the small town of Fulton, NY--where I grew up--I could always find some ice cream alternative. But it is way easier being vegan now than it has ever been, even outside the city.
Silk: When not eating treats, do you have a favorite meal?
Stevens: I don't have a favorite meal exactly, I'm pretty big on anything with seitan right now. I'd have to say my favorite spot in the city to eat would have to be Blossom, with an honorable mention to Candle, Angelica and even Vinnies Pizza.
Anyway, I know the Discerning Brute is a blog about ethical fashion and all kinds of culture, but I just want to touch on a topic addressing the whole lifestyle. Where did the rumor start that all the hippy, bike riding, heavily tattooed hipsters in Williamsburg are vegan? I see more of these types lined up outside fancy meat joints than at Angelica Kitchen. I don't like being compared to all the trend followers when I'm doing something that takes a lot of commitment, and am doing it for my health and the sustainability of the planet we all live on. So how did that rumor start? We're still punk, right?
Silk: People tend to conjure up two identities for vegans--the grass-eating Buddhist and the angry tattooed anarchist. While both do exist, not all vegans fit these stereotypes and not all people who fit these stereotypes are vegan.
Silk: You work in a pretty traditional style. Is there an artist who inspired you to pursue tattoos? Is their style reflected in your work?
Stevens: The first tattoos that I saw that really stood out to me was the stuff Grez, Ron Perry, and Claire Vuillemot were doing in Syracuse, NY in the late 90s early 2000's. I tried to copy their style exactly when I first started tattooing. When you're that heavily influenced it takes a while to develop your own identity in tattooing, and it wasn't until I got away from that when people started noticing what I was doing. I still owe those guys the world just for doing good clean tattoos and exposing people in the 'burbs to something way above average for that time and place. The tattoos I was influenced by at the time were a more contemporary take on traditional Americana tattooing. When I explored tattooing further I developed a taste for more and more raw looking traditional tattoos. I was finding the more modern that I made my tattoos look, the more I dated them. So now when I draw I just think about making classic motifs that will look cool forever, not just in 2012.
Silk: And you went to art school, were you already vegan apprenticing or interested in tattoos at that time? What did your work look like?
Stevens: I didn't get an apprenticeship until a couple of years after college, but I was interested in tattooing since high school. When I started focusing on tattoo artwork the paintings I was doing were really just a rip-off of what my tat-heros were doing. Nothing original at all.
Silk: Okay, enough filling out your OkCupid: About section... Real talk: getting the word vegan as a tattoo--committed or committable?
Stevens: I think its cool. It's a commitment for sure, which makes it a good mark of shame for all the quitters. It's a weird kind of cowardly thing to go from vegan back to omnivore. When someone knows all the facts about where their food comes from and still chooses to support that industry, it just says something about their character.
Silk: If a vegan person has shown interest in getting a tattoo, they have probably researched enough or got flack about a lot of the industry using animal products. Certainly anyone reading this could simply Google 'vegan tattoo', but lets make it easy: Can you outline what makes standard tattoos not vegan?
Stevens: Some tattoo ink is vegan, some isn't, it's that simple. The black that's kind of the industry standard has shellac in it, which comes from some kind of beetle. Some color inks use glycerine as a carrier, but a lot of great brands are made with vegetable glycerine or just no glycerine.
Silk: Are all black inks non-vegan?
Stevens: Not all blacks are non-vegan, there are plenty of alternatives, but the most popular black happens to have shellac.
Silk: Are vegan products better for tattoos? Is there a down side to using vegan products?
Stevens: They arent better or worse, there's really no difference. Interviews always ask this, and honestly it kind of annoys me. Granted I'm putting myself into a position to be interviewed and asked about vegan tattoos. I feel like people are looking for me to say its healthier or something, but lets face it, we aren't meant to be tattooing our bodies. If there are health risks concerning tattooing, they are going to exist with or without vegan ink. It's a tattoo, it's supposed to be dangerous.
Silk: Do you find most shops able and willing to accommodate vegans--will shops buy vegan products on request? What role can the vegan-patron take to ensure their tattoo is vegan?
Stevens: If I wanted to make sure a tattoo was going to be vegan, I would make sure the artist is vegan AND they know you want the tattoo to be vegan. Some vegan tattooers don't really mind the shellac in the black they're using. It's like vegans that choose to eat honey, or squish bugs, ya know. The only other thing I can think of is aftercare. Aquaphor and A+D ointments usually have lanolin, but really as long as you keep a tattoo really clean it doesn't hurt to skip the ointment and go straight to a good unscented lotion.
Silk: Sure, veganism is ultimately a choice; it is up to the individual to define how strict they will be and make sure that is relayed properly to the artist. In case there are any vegans reading this that want to break into tattooing, is there anything behind the scenes we should know about? Is any of the equipment nonvegan?
Stevens: I'm glad that I have the option to live and work without the burden of killing animals on my conscience. Any vegan tattooer should know what brands are vegan and they should know how to make their own ink--but I would say don't break into tattooing. There are too many people doing it who don't care about it and it's really hurting the industry. The people who are half-assing it are watering down the integrity of the craft. People think it'll be an easy, fun job. It's a lot of hard work if you want to make really nice tattoos. Tattooing is such a hard thing to get into, that honestly, the last thing to worry about should be whether the apprenticeship is vegan friendly.
I usually hate doing interviews like this, but I really like what the Discerning Brute is doing, and I'm sure it's readers are a class I can identify with. Usually when I talk to some vegan blogger about tattoos, it's their flavor of the month issue--because tattooing is part of pop culture now and their one small tattoo is as edgy as they get. From that exposure I'll get a slew of people wanting paw prints and tiny tattoos done in vegan ink. But I have to stress to your readers that if you're going to get a tattoo from a certain artist, do it because you love their work and trust them to come up with the best design for you. Show everyone that you don't have to be a hippy to be vegan, you can have bold traditional tattoos and eat an animal-free meal.
Silk: It is art and you should choose the artist who best fits your needs and wants for the piece. Thank you, Brad, for enlightening us on vegan tattoos!